Alabama congregation donates footwear to homeless people in spirit of Maundy Thursday

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 28, 2024

A homeless person in Huntsville, Alabama, is wearing two different shoes and for the same foot on their feet. The Rev. Rosie Veal Eby explained this is why volunteers at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville spend part of Maundy Thursday every year donating shoes and other footwear-related items to people at a local homeless shelter. Photo: Rosie Veal Eby

[Episcopal News Service] For the second year in a row, volunteers at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, spent the morning of this Maundy Thursday distributing new shoes, insoles, shoelaces, socks, magic erasers and shoe polish to people at the First Stop daytime homeless shelter downtown.

The Rev. Rosie Veal Eby, priest associate of the Church of the Nativity and a volunteer at First Stop, told Episcopal News Service that adding a footwear “twist” enhances Maundy Thursday’s foot-washing tradition.

“Maundy Thursday is the day we get that new commandment, that we can show love to our neighbor in so many different ways,” she said. “If your church is called to serve the homeless, then look at what your neighbor needs rather than what you want to give them.”

Foot-washing ceremonies, a tradition enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer, are part of Maundy Thursday observances in Episcopal churches everywhere, re-creating an act of service that Jesus performed for his apostles as “an example, that you should do as I have done.”

In Maundy Thursday services, the Book of Common Prayer recommends foot-washing ceremonies after the Gospel reading and homily. The Gospel readings recount the story of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in John 13:1-15, and in Luke 22:14-30, Jesus responds to a dispute among the disciples by admonishing them and commanding them to serve, rather than wield authority.

“For who is greater,” Jesus says, “the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Jim Chesney, a parishioner at the Church of the Nativity, told ENS that volunteering to distribute footwear at First Stop last year was “touching” for him. He planned to volunteer again this year, this time with his wife, Valerie. 

“One of the things I think that touched me was the sense of community among the homeless people,” he said. “You don’t necessarily think about that as a community similar to other communities.”

The Church of the Nativity distributed more than 50 pairs of shoes this year. Parishioners donated most of the shoes, but a Fleet Feet store in Huntsville also donated shoes. Eby encouraged parishioners to donate shoes in their size to ensure a wide variety of sizes available. The church also collected other footwear-related items, including shoelaces, insoles and shoe polish, for homeless people who may own shoes that need minor adjustments but are otherwise in good condition.

Volunteers at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, collect and distribute shoes and other footwear-related items to homeless people every Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. Photo: Rosie Veal Eby

Because homeless people spend a lot of time walking outside in all weather conditions, their shoes end up muddy and need to be cleaned. Last year, while washing and replacing shoes, a homeless Army veteran asked if he could shine Eby’s rain boots because he “was excited to show off his boot polishing skills.”

“One thing that we really take for granted is that most of our folks out on the street spend so much time walking around carrying their clothes and their donations,” she said. “When we get tired of our shoes, many of us donate them, and more than likely they’re a little bit worn out. So, to be able to give a pair of tennis shoes new life by putting new insoles in them, they really mean a lot because our folks walk around a lot.”

Eby said she was inspired to add the shoe polishing component of Maundy Thursday services after reading an article about bishops in the Church of England shining shoes in public.

Eby said she and the volunteers won’t be offering a traditional foot-washing ceremony at First Stop this year. When they offered it last year, many of the homeless people were “extremely standoffish” because they’re self-conscious about their hygiene issues. Even though many homeless shelters like First Stop offer shower and laundry services, not every person can arrive before the shelters are overcapacity for the day. If they aren’t staying at the shelters, many people will instead stay outside at the homeless camp in the city, known locally as “The Slab,” and have limited access to hand washing facilities.

In Alabama, an estimated 3,434 people are unhoused on any given night, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Huntsville, the state’s most populous city with almost 222,000 people, the homeless population is estimated to be about 600, although the number is likely higher. Nationwide, at least 580,000 people are experiencing homelessness.

“If you claim Christ and if you’re not doing anything, then chances are you need to look at yourself and look at what Christ commanded us to do,” Chesney said. “This isn’t an easy problem to solve, but there’s always more we can do to help homeless people.”

Eby said Episcopalians can effectively assist homeless people by building partnerships with existing local agencies that support community needs, such as after-school programs, homeless shelters and substance abuse centers.

“Oftentimes, people tend to want to go in and start a new ministry so they can fix something that they think is broken, when in that neighborhood or that area, that need is already being addressed. Yet they’re probably low on resources, so that collaboration is vital,” she said. “I hope more churches will get involved in doing these kinds of initiatives, because it’s a nice and practical way of bringing Maundy Thursday to the people.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at