Surprising Lessons from Praying Barefoot in the Neighborhood
“Take off your shoes, for the place that you are standing is holy ground.” Those weren’t the words that I heard that day over twenty-five years ago. What I “heard”, or more accurately more sensed, was “take off your shoes and wander the grounds. Listen to me through your feet.” I was at a pastors’ retreat in Arizona that was being held at a Franciscan retreat center. It was the final day, and I decided to head out to wander the grounds one last time. Sauntering along trails, over grassy sections, and across scorching hot pavement led me to a new way of praying, of listening, of conversing with God.
Praying barefoot has become one of my favorite ways to pray. Most often I pray barefoot in the garden, or in a park, or along a sandy beach. These are pretty easy ways to begin. But over the past month I’ve been sensing the need to walk barefoot through the business area of my community. It took me a while to actually do it. It sounded like a great concept, but “what would the neighbors think”?
I don’t normally care about such things, but as I ventured onto the sidewalk with naked feet I really felt out of place. I was the only one walking around without protection. My first impulse was to dash back to security and put on shoes like everyone else. But I told myself I was going to do this. For some reason I needed to do this. So I ventured on.
Walking in sandals or shoes on sidewalks shields our feet from a sensory extravaganza. There’s a buffer between me and the nitty gritty of my neighborhood. Removing my shoes I begin to notice every crack, every pebble, every contour and temperature change. To be honest, I felt more self-conscious than prayerful at the start. And as I thought about that and asked God how to overcome that so I could enter into the moment, I realized how many wander the streets feeling out of place, naked and exposed. For some it’s because they live on the streets and know that their presence isn’t welcome. For others it might be social phobia or anxiety. For many just venturing out into public is a frightening experience.
Lord, who are the people I’ve walked by without noticing? Who are the people I’ve noticed and judged? What are their stories, their struggles and hurts? How can we create a neighborhood where all feel loved and accepted?
Wandering around a corner I noticed a friend hopping out of his car. Do I greet him? Seems like a silly question, but he hadn’t noticed me, and I was doing something weird. I called out his name and waved. He crossed the street toward me. “Have you quit wearing shoes?” he asked. I told him what I was up to, and we ended up in a conversation about faith, spirituality, and belonging. It was a choice. I prefer to pray alone, but God interrupted my prayer with a friend. This friend entered into my prayer in the form of a conversation, and together we met with God.
Lord, help me to remain open to those around me. Help me to recognize opportunities to join with others in the celebration of life even when it may, at first, seem like an interruption to my plans or my way of doing things. Thank you for the gift of holy interruptions.
Continuing my journey, I reflected on how walking barefoot through the community forced me to slow down and notice. You have to be careful where you step, and you can’t be in a hurry when your tender feet are exposed. “Hot! Hot! Hot!…” Ironic that while reflecting on this a metal utility cover appeared out of nowhere! Spying a patch of weeds growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk, I rushed to the coolness of these unwanted plants.
Lord, where are the oases in my community? Are there places of comfort and rest that are overlooked, or worse, thought of as intrusions on a well-maintained neighborhood? How can I be a place of comfort for those burned or neglected? How might I receive hospitality from those I would normally turn away from?
Settling into the walk I began to really feel the community. It wasn’t just the sights, sounds, and smells but also the touch. The smooth sidewalk surface was frequently disrupted by concrete squares with a pebbled texture. The cracks slanting through older parts of the sidewalk reminded me of how cracks can be a crumbling nuisance or a mark of character earned by living life fully.
Crackling beneath my foot a fall leaf disintegrates. Yeah, fall is fast approaching, the seasons are changing. I can see the seasons changing in the business community too. There are established businesses that have been here since before the 60s, when I arrived on the scene. There are brand new businesses that have just opened up. For such a small area there’s also a surprising diversity of cultures. This is my home.
Lord, the world around us seems to be constantly changing. Help us to embrace the change that builds community and confront change that divides, alienates, or seeks to put a shiny facade on a serious issue. Give us wisdom to see the neighborhood through your eyes and to pray with my mouth and with my actions, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Returning to where I began I sit down to reflect. I started my barefoot prayer through the neighborhood feeling out of place, self-conscious, and not too prayerful. But as I walked and listened and conversed with God and those God brought into my path, all that was replaced with a sense of peace, of belonging. Yes, my feet were filthy by the end. But that was just evidence that I had been present in my place.
We can live in a locale but be so shielded by our attitudes, habits, and comforts that we’re not really present. I know I often isolate myself from my larger neighborhood by working from home and not creating reasons to get out and about. What does it mean to really be present? What does it mean to really listen prayerfully in the place that you live? By shedding our shoes we can also shed some of my unseen assumptions about our community. Listening to God about our neighborhoods through our feet can help us to see and to pray differently.
- Have you ever prayed barefoot in your neighborhood?
- If so, how was it different than other forms of prayer?
- It not, would you consider it?
- Where else might you venture unshod?