By Kathy Berken
On Christmas morning in 1999, Roberta Roberts did two amazing things. She fed me breakfast and she washed my feet. “Bertie” died on March 31 at age 67 and was buried on Holy Thursday. She had Down syndrome, as if that matters. For three of the 10 years I lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton, I shared a home with Bertie.
Do not miss the irony in how Bertie lived and when she died. L’Arche founder Jean Vanier says that Eucharist and footwashing are deeply connected. In The Scandal of Service: Jesus Washes Our Feet, Vanier says that “in order to wash others’ feet, i.e., in order to be as humble and loving as Jesus, we need to be nourished by his body and blood in the Eucharist.” Plus, “we cannot adequately receive the body and blood of Jesus unless we are forgiving and loving towards others” (30).
What’s so amazing about making breakfast, and how exactly did Bertie wash my feet? I had just arrived at The Arch and felt very sorry for myself that first Christmas away from my usual traditions. Bertie had no way of knowing my thoughts, but on Christmas morning, she laid out a table of what she knew to be my favorite food and beckoned me to sit. “I’m serving you now,” she said. Juice, cottage cheese, toast and applesauce became a feast for my self-pitying soul. Her hugs, smiles and teasing washed the clay from my way-too-dirty feet that morning and hundreds of mornings thereafter.
John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ example, and despite Peter’s stubbornness to never have his feet washed, Jesus tells his disciples to go wash each other’s feet (13:1-18), just as he tells them in Luke’s Gospel to remember him as he broke the bread (22:19). This is precisely how Bertie lived and how she showed me the way to be a L’Arche assistant, by her selfless act on my first of 10 Christmas mornings in the community.
Towering at just a little over 4 feet, Bertie commanded a room, but it was her immediate open arms reaching up to a stranger, a tug on your ear and calling you “puppy,” and her willingness to respond to most requests with “yeah” that set her apart. This stubborn and lovable little woman with Down syndrome who refused to wear dentures and was extremely hard of hearing helped me understand the meaning of Eucharist and footwashing. This woman of the sacramental cloth taught community by just living it.
I was assigned to work at the other two homes for two-week stretches before settling into my duties at Bertie’s house. When I’d return at 10 p.m., there was Bertie, standing at the back door, hands on hips: “’bout time you got back!” she’d scold each night, and then reached out her arms so she could hug my neck and kiss me on the cheek. Of course, I’d whisper very loudly, “Why aren’t you in bed?” and she’d answer, “yeah,” which meant, “I was waiting for you.”
My 10 years in L’Arche had its moments, but Bertie’s compassionate service told me two things. First, we assistants were there to wash each other’s feet. And second, as theologian Bernard Cooke said in “Sacraments and Sacramentality,” in our post-Easter days as we come to understand what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension means, Eucharist is an experience of “the continuing presence of the risen Christ in [our] lives” where we are “meant to recognize the risen one ‘in the breaking of the bread’” (158).
Indeed, the Road to Emmaus is marked with Bertie’s little footprints leading to a home with bread waiting to be broken.
(Kathy Berken recently received a master’s in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch)”.)