Bodies Matter: a footwashing protest

For Holy Thursday a bunch of gathered at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Cary, North Carolina, and held a footwashing worship service–we told them we wanted to wash the feet of the people detained inside. If you haven’t heard about these ICE detention centers, that means the federal government is good at what it does: Obama is turning out to be just as good as Bush in keeping secrets from U.S. citizens. ICE sets up field offices in unmarked buildings, tucked away in business parks throughout suburbia. Once citizens find out about a particular site, ICE closes up shop and moves to another unmarked building, tucked away in one of the other many business parks in a different suburb. The detention center in Cary we visited is next door to the offices of Oxford University Press, the publisher of many of the books on my shelves. (For more information on ICE detention centers, read this article from The Nation: America’s Secret ICE Castles).

Here’s some local media coverage of our worship service and protest: “Protesters hold demonstration,” and “Taking the Cross to the streets.”

And here’s an excerpt from the short sermon I preached at the detention center as a Cary police officer kept telling me to stop preaching and leave the premises:

This chair here will remain empty as a sign of all the bodies that the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have hidden from us, the bodies that law enforcement agents have torn from our communities and our families in the middle of the night, the bodies that they have ripped away from our churches. By refusing to let us wash the feet of the people hidden in their detention centers, the federal government has dismembered the body of Christ, they have torn apart the church, they have pierced and severed the body of Jesus.

For the rest of the sermon, follow this link to my church website: “Bodies Matter, part 1

Comments (5)

  1. TimN

    Isaac, thanks for sharing about this powerful witness and your meditation.

    I skimmed the Nation article and was blown away by the first line in particular:

    “If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear.” – James Pendergraph, then executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE)

    I’ve heard horror stories about ICE for years, from the school bus full of mothers snatched in California to the parents sent away from their children in Goshen, Indiana. But this blatant use of terminology from Latin America’s dirty ward is horrifying.

    I didn’t know about sub-offices that hold detainees in un-disclosed, unmarked locations. I imagine there are quite a few of them in Chicago.

    Your sermon speaks to the power and intimacy of foot washing as I experienced it during our foot washing service on Thursday night. As you say, foot washing reminds us that love is an embodied emotion, not some flighty, abstract thing. And it grounds us in our own bodies.

    Blessings in your embodied resistance to the dis-embodying work of ICE.

  2. Tim B

    While I wholeheartedly agree with you I’m really concerned about: “By refusing to let us wash the feet of the people hidden in their detention centers, the federal government has dismembered the body of Christ, they have torn apart the church, they have pierced and severed the body of Jesus.” This bothers me deeply that we would use the mission of Christ, the sacrifice of Christ, to embolden our own ideologies.

    There’s no doubt that the government and their secret police are up to no good (They’ve been up to no good for, like, 2 centuries) but the wording here is troubling.

  3. isaac

    Tim N, thanks for your comment. Footwashing has been one of the most formative practices for me since joining the Mennonite church seven years ago. Every year I look forward to our Holy Thursday footwashing service. If we want to talk about Mennonite sacraments, footwashing has been the most meaningful for me–to feel our way into the intimacy of God’s love through the care of being washed and washing.

    Tim B, thank you for your comment as well. I am glad that you are also concerned about this issue. And I also appreciate that you care so much about the purity of Christ’s mission–that we not get the gospel entangled in our own pet projects. I am not sure what you mean by the ideologies that were at work in my attempt to do the work of Christ through footwashing. Lots of forces tear apart the assembly of the body of Christ. As you note, for centuries the church has had to deal with worldly policies that divide the body of Christ. If we believe that the church is the body of Christ, and that we re-present the presence of Jesus to one another through our bodies, then it is a very serious issue for governments to take people away from our churches. Our country has honored the church’s need to be present with one another in the way they allow us to visit people in prison. Ministers are allowed to visit members of their congregation who have been incarcerated, and offer communion, etc. But, for some strange reason, the federal government will not let ministers care for members of the church once they are taken into ICE detention centers. That seems very wrong to me–an infringement of our freedom of religion, because we are commanded to visit prisoners. When bodies are taken from the body of the church and made to disappear from us, the body of Christ is severed. And if we do not try to be the church for those people who have been stolen from our body, then I think we are chastised by the apostle Paul, when he says: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (I Cor. 11:29).

    Our footwashing worship service was a theological argument–an conviction about the nature of God in Christ, made present in the church through the power of the Holy Spirit, that was spoken through our Christian bodies.

  4. Tim B

    It would have been a powerful witness to wash the feet of those who work at ICE detention center.

    I think the wording bothers me because it seems to say that the government alone has been the culprit in the death of Christ, when we all have. The words were antagonistic and provactive, but not healing. Your attempt was to bring to light the situation but I fear all it may have done was rub salt in the word, not put a bandage on it.

    We need to move beyond accusation, and trump oppression with radical signs of humility.

    (I must be in one of my “liberal” moods today…)

  5. GrahamS

    Isaac, I really appreciated this sermon and your witness. Thank you.

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