On January 7th Duane Severance was killed in a single car single occupant accident. His untimely death provoked within the Austin community a lot of emotions. Duane is married to Brandy and they have three children and another on the way due February 14th. Duane was the pastor to the homeless on the streets of Austin, Texas. After reflecting on his death for some time I offer the following thoughts.
Duane and I began to be aware of each other probably in 1999 or 2000 when Church Under the Bridge was getting started and my parish was contemplating taking on adopting CUB for one week per month. That never came to fruition but as we were building Mobile Loaves & Fishes we frequently encountered Church Under the Bridge on our Sunday runs. It was wonderful to watch such a diverse group of people all gather to worship the Lord; black, white, brown, male, female, rich, poor, homeless, mentally ill, addicts, disabled, trans gendered, gay you name it and it was there mostly in harmony. Truly amazing to watch. At the helm was Duane Severance, Pastor to these brothers and sisters each made in His image. Makes me think of Acts 2:42 and on when the church was just getting off the ground after the death of Christ.
But it was in May of 2003 when I REALLY met Duane. I had organized Mobile Loaves & Fishes' first Street Retreat (www.mlfnow.org/streetretreat). This retreat was 72 hours and is a one on one retreat between the retreatant and God with our retreat center being the wall-less streets of downtown Austin. We had heard while out on the streets that there was a bible study held in East Austin on Tuesday nights where one could grab a meal and a place to sleep while also entering into some powerful praise and worship. When asked where this place was no one knew; all they could tell us is that if you go to the corner of Congress Avenue and 7th street at around 5:30 a little pickup truck would come and pick you up. Several of us decided to go. Standing on the corner kind of felt like Pinocchio waiting to go to Pleasure Island.
The evening was phenomenal to say the least! I will never forget it. The music, the bible study, the teaching, the fellowship and the community of broken brothers and sisters all worshiping together. It was transforming to say the least. Duane and I grew in solidarity to our missions but clearly on differing paths. There was a mutual respect for each other.
Since that time I have facilitated a whole bunch of Street Retreats. Nearly 200 people have participated and now we always do our 72 hour retreat beginning at 5:00 on Palm Sunday and ending on Wednesday. Almost always we end up at the Tuesday night bible study which since its inception has been moved to the New York Avenue Christian Center near 12th and Chicon. As of about six months ago because Duane needed a change of pace and moved to West Texas the bible studies ended.
Well, a few years ago one of our veteran retreatants Judy Knotts (read this article in the American Statesman) had the idea that we should wash the feet of the homeless while at the Tuesday night bible study. Since we are out during Holy Week it makes sense to do this. In the Catholic Church we celebrate Holy Thursday and the institution of the priesthood. This institution begins with Jesus' washing the feet of the disciples. Very powerful! Now Judy wants to bring this celebration to the homeless. Quietly, I am reluctant as I try not have any "agenda" while out on the streets; only doing what God calls us to do at any given time. I am glad I was quiet on this; not normal for me.
So here we are at the New York Avenue Christian Center on a Tuesday evening of Holy Week praising the Lord and the time came for the ceremonial washing of the feet. The crowd was stunned that we wanted to do this and some were ashamed. Ashamed because the condition of their feet was something that we did not anticipate. Our feet for the most part were nice and soft and free of callouses and crevices. We could afford quality foot care; a fresh clean pair of socks everyday; a bath everyday. Heck some of us (women particularly) could afford regular pedicures. Not the homeless. No siree! As anyone involved in going out on a Mobile Loaves & Fishes truck knows socks are the single most popular item on the trucks.
It is hard to describe the condition of these feet. Some were so injured that you questioned the sanity of even touching them. But here we were girding ourselves as Jesus did and committing to something that we had to fulfill. For all of us this was a powerful moment. People were weeping and crying. The presence of the Holy Spirit in that room that night was palpable. Emotions were running on high.
The plan was to wash the feet of those who were homeless; to let them know that we were, as Jesus, there to serve them. We did not understand that it would be important for them to wash our feet but that is precisely what happened. More weeping and crying!
What was remarkable and providential was that I was about to wash the feet of Duane's and he mine. At the time I weighed nearly 330 pounds so getting down much less back up was difficult. As I went down on a knee I gently needed to support myself by leaning onto his knee. As I came closer to the ground his feet began to come into focus. Now understand that Duane rarely was seen wearing anything but flip flops; no socks and no supportive shoes. I on the other hand always wore socks and I am disciplined about having a high quality supportive tennis shoe. I, because of my weight, battled diabetes. Foot care was essential. My feet were soft and without callouses. Duane's feet on the other hand were the feet of a true servant; the feet of someone who lived simply and with profound Gospel focused purpose. Duane's feet were heavily calloused with crevices running through the callouses as the Grand Canyon slices through the landscape. Was I holding in my hands the feet of a Saint? The feet of Jesus? I hearkened back to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Knowing that their feet too had many unprotected miles of servant love embedded deep in their landscapes.
As I reflect on the death of Duane I am always drawn to this moment in our ministries where we had the opportunity to wash each others feet. I am drawn back to the servant life he lived. I am drawn to his feet. I am drawn to the landscape of the good servant who girded himself with a towel and washed their feet everyday.
I believe I washed the feet of a Saint!