Barefoot in Church

In the midst of media blitzes such as the current one, I long for something real and human more than ever. The following story from the “Readers Write” section of The Sun Magazine, fit the bill for me yesterday. I was delighted to come across this poignant personal story from its pages on the experience of being at the receiving end of help. It offers important lessons for aid workers and do-gooders alike.

How often do we act as the local married couple in this story?


IN FIFTH GRADE I WORE HIGH-TOP brogans [a heavy laced usually ankle-high work boot] to a two-room schoolhouse in the foothills of the High Sierra [California, U.S.A.]. My father worked on a dam-construction project and was gone during the week. As the eldest boy, I got up at 5 AM and milked the cow before school.

The brogans were my only shoes, and I didn’t always clean them well enough after the morning chores. When some of the other students complained about the odor of manure on them, my mother decided to purchase a pair of rubber boots that I would wear for my barnyard chores. Meanwhile the brogans were just about worn out, and there was not enough money for rubber boots and school shoes. In the spring I began to go to school barefoot.

One a day a local married couple came to visit us on our farm and said they had heard I was going to school without shoes. They wanted to take me to church in the city, twenty miles away, and get me a pair of shoes. I submitted only after my older, sister, who was eleven, agreed to come along.

When the couple arrived on Sunday morning, I was disappointed that they hadn’t brought the shoes with them. They said I would get them when we got to church.

After we arrived at the church, I asked again about the shoes, because I thought it was a law that you had to wear shoes to church—especially a big, fancy one like this. The little church in our town was sparsely furnished with benches and a simple cross on the wall. The city church was decorated with huge curtains, stained glass, and gold statues. But the couple brought me inside barefoot.

After a half-hour of preaching and singing, the church had a sharing session, and the couple brought us before the congregation. The husband told everyone that I had been going to school barefoot and suggested taking up a collection for me. He pushed me out into the aisle, where I stood, shoeless, feeling ashamed, and fighting hard not to cry.

On the ride home I hid my face, and my sister put her hand on my head and just left it there the whole way back.

The couple returned to the farm only once. When I saw their car coming up the road next to the orange grove, I ran to the river and hid out until they had left. Later I went into the house, and in the middle of the kitchen table was a cheap pair of canvas sneakers, two sizes too large.

Gary Adams, Santa Barbara, California


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  1. Pingback: People will never forget how you made them feel « Hands Wide Open

  2. Davetta Samuels

    Help should be thought through so that it is effective and does not make the helpless feel ashamed of their situation. The couple had good intentions, but did not communicate their strategy and gain acceptance of their strategy. Also, the follow through was rendered useless, since the shoes did not fit.

  3. Bonita

    We need to hear more voices from the receiving end. I remember as a child receiving food and gifts during holidays, and we had to pose for photos with the donating organization. I was so embarrassed I would have preferred going hungry.

  4. Myrna

    I rarely respond to postings like How Matters when they appear. This morning, as i began my day praying for my next steps to a new frontier in my work as a development worker i decided to go read through all the way to the barefoot in church story…Just reading the story title, i know, i will resonate with how the circumstance would be and truly it did. and it hit me hard, enough to make a resolve to go for an invitation for me to work for the good and rights of the most underserved and marginalized communities here in my region Mindanao in the Philippines: the poor muslims and indigenous peoples.

    Thank you for coming up with this and for providing some space to link and learn and get support or affirmation in some way in what we are doing…hopefully, to keep our feet social development workers and peace builders on the ground… to the hearts of the people we committed to work with and work for. Yes, i believe… it is not about what we are capable of doing for others but it is how we make them feel about their BEING all along…and if we don’t have to get credits for this. For me, this is what truly matters.

  5. Sylvester Obong'o

    That story reveals a lot about development aid management and effectiveness. In a number of instances the short time taken to undertake project feasibility studies might not reveal exactly what interventions may be needed. Subsequently, the project appraisal missions may turn lead to the ‘trips to the river’ just as the boy did.

    It is absurd but the story is so real and reflects what has been happening in the development aid arena. Having heard experience in working in Treasury in a developing country and processing payment for commitment fees for projects that never took and subsequently my seniors sending me to represent them in subsequent review missions, because deep inside they may have not approved of the projects and even then ashamed that the projects had not started.

    Going to Paris Club for rescheduling of debt the arising debt and portrayed as either Highly indebted or whatever,the Barefoot Boy can’t be more real.

    Whereas development assistance will never stop but a lot thought need to go towards reviewing the entire process!!!

  6. This has given me a new perspective on reaching out. Sometimes you forget that it is not about the physical gifts but the smile and hugs. Yes! it is never about the giving but how the person feels when he receives from you.

  7. Pingback: Development Digest – 13/05/11 « What am I doing here?

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  9. Ledoux

    When reading this, I simply feel more convinced in my belief that aid should not be an option. We shouldn’t think of giving/helping, or similar acts. Nobody feels happy by receiving, receiving and receiving; but if one works hard to obtain a result, then he is very proud of this and this is the way forward.
    On this case for example, instead of asking help for the boy, he could have been proposed to exchange his service (he surely knows a lot of things) against enough money to buy a pair of shoes.

  10. I recently resigned as “Director of Serving Ministries” for a large, downtown church in Shreveport, LA.

    The Senior Pastor is obsessed with money, building more & bigger buildings, teaching “leadership” strategies to the business community, and hosting mega-church seminars at least twice a year.

    I had to BEG for $100,000 to serve the poor every year – the church’s operating budget is between $3-4 million annually. Of course, that doesn’t include the oil & gas royalties that have been deeded to the church, the estates that are regularly willed to the church, and the huge private donations from wealthy members that are coveted (and received) on a regular basis.

    When the Sr. Pastor began openly condemning Islam, I knew it was time to go.

    Jesus forgive us for not simply serving with loving hearts and open minds, like you taught us.

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