To many of us older adults, there’s something magical and exciting about getting a new pair of shoes.
The clean look, the smell, even the feel. Much of the time, you want to wear them right out of the store.
There’s also something dynamic and emotionally enduring about someone washing someone else’s feet (especially a stranger and specifically the "least of these"). Jesus doing that to his disciples was considered one of the greatest examples of servanthood.
Sunday, 300 individuals and 250 of University of Central Arkansas athletes, representing all sports, got to see, feel and experience what that is like.
Three hundred people from the Conway community received new pairs of shoes, some getting a new pair for the first time. The 250 UCA athletes saw what life is like beyond the spotlight, outside the scoreboard, below the sole and in the soul.
UCA’s athletes, coaches and staff, led by the university’s Student-Athlete Advisory board (which adopted the project), had participated in various fundraisers the past two years for Samaritan’s Feet, an international program that provides shoes for the needy around the world.
The UCA group wanted to focus its efforts on the Conway community and Sunday, the vision met the reality.
"Today is about serving," said Graham Gibbs of Samaritan’s Feet, who helped coordinate the project among UCA athletes and leaders of a local church. "Serving is about servant leadership. This is an opportunity to serve others they don’t forget."
"It was awesome to watch," said Natalie Shock, UCA’s assistant athletic director who helped coordinate the project. "There was laughter, then sometimes you had to wipe away the tears."
This was more than pour, wipe, tie and good luck.
An athlete who served as a runner would meet the assigned person at registration, where he received a wristband that corresponded to his or her shoe size. The runner would escort the recipient to a chair in front of an athlete. After conversation, the athletes would wash the feet of the person, then put on the socks and new pair of shoes.
"And there was conversation and interaction," said Shock. "They talked to each other. I didn’t see anyone after getting the shoes, get up and say, ‘OK, that’s it. Let’s go.’
"Certainly, the people were excited to get new shoes. But I really thought our athletes may have gotten as much or more out of the experience than the folks getting the shoes."
This was stuff — giving stuff, relationship stuff, reality-check stuff — that won’t show up on the stat sheet. And it didn’t matter whether the giver was a star or a substitute. The service was the same.
The UCA project is part of a larger program within the NCAA, where several coaches, like some UCA coaches, have coached a game barefoot to focus on the need. Professional athletes will wash feet and give shoes in the New York City community this year as part of Super Bowl festivities, and college athletes will do the same thing in the Indianapolis area at the Final Four.
"Our athletes came away trying to think up ways they could do more," Shock said. "Our basketball players met and talked about meeting at midcourt before a game, removing their shoes and walking barefoot off the court to call attention to the project. That was their idea. No one asked them to plan that."
Sunday is considered a day off for all UCA athletes. Attending the shoe-washing event wasn’t required. They showed up on their own. They had invested in the project. It was their baby from the floor up.
Shock added, "I saw one little girl, when she was having her feet washed, she said, ‘That tickles — but keep doing it.’"
That probably mirrors what the experience was doing to the washers’ hearts.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)