Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 42
One of the questions that caused the most fear as I moved overseas was, “Will I ever be able to connect with women at a heart level?” After I arrived in South Asia, language was the most basic barrier, but the differences in worldview generated a whole host of communication challenges.
With all my heart, I wanted to communicate the beauty of Christ, but I felt inadequate for such a big task. So, I cried out to the Lord for wisdom, love, and creativity in order to first understand my audience and then to share the gospel with them in a way that would lead to genuine, spiritual transformation. From the time they are born, many South Asian women receive the message—in both verbal and non-verbal ways—that they are not valuable, that they are a burden and unwanted. Parents often prefer boys to girls, in part, because girls represent a financial burden and a costly dowry. As a result, family members frequently treat girls as inferior, speak to them harshly, and physically and mentally abuse them.
How do you help women understand that they are valuable when they have grown up hearing the contrary? How do you communicate the gospel message in a way that will make it through all the layers of lies and pain to the deepest places of women’s hearts and affect real change? How do you help them not only understand God’s truth and love, but feel it?
Physical touch holds a special power.
COVID has reminded us that you can’t digitize a hug. A Zoom meeting doesn’t have the same impact as being face-to-face with a person. Although technology has helped us stay connected with people during a global pandemic, it simply does not replace the vital need for human interaction and healthy touch.
Not long ago, I heard a preacher say, “You have a body, but you are a soul.” That’s a clever turn of phrase, but wrong. God made us spiritual and physical beings, both material and immaterial; the two are intimately interconnected. Intangible beliefs manifest themselves physically (Ps 32:3-4), and experiences in the body profoundly shape a person’s spiritual outlook (2 Sam 13:10-14,19-20). One way to impact a person spiritually, for good or for harm, is by physical means. Therefore, we dare not underestimate the power of physical touch.
Jesus was very intentional about touching people. Often, he would make physical contact with the people he healed (Mark 6:5; Luke 4:40). When Jesus made contact with people considered impure, he bucked the prevailing idea that the unclean would defile the clean through physical contact. The purity of Jesus was so potent that he cleansed those he touched (Matt 8:2-3; Mark 9:25-27).
During his ministry, Jesus used restorative touch to minister deeply to people’s souls (Matt 17:1-8). He touched those who were sinners, outcasts, unloved, broken, hurting, and sick (Matt 9:28-30, 20:30-34; Mark 7:33-35, 8:22-25; Luke 22:47-53; John 9:1-7). He touched women and children (Matt 8:14-15, 9:23-25; Mark 10:16; Luke 13:10-17). His touch removed shame, conferred dignity, and underscored forgiveness (Mark 5:25-29). Jesus used touch to help people feel the truth he was communicating.
Hugs can heal.
For years, I hypothesized that South Asian women were starved for positive human touch. My observations led me to believe that most women had only negative experiences with touch. I wanted to change that. I clipped a newspaper article that documented 88% of women in Bangladesh have suffered physical or sexual abuse—and that only counted the women willing to report. One of the most disturbing aspects of South Asian society is that it categorizes some people as untouchable.
In this context, the only touch most women receive causes pain or shame. In their experience, touch takes something from them. Sanctified Christian touch stands in stark contrast.
Godly touch is safe and selfless. It intends to give rather than take. It gives unconditional love, value, and comfort. It is transformative and healing. That is why, as part of my discipleship trainings, I intentionally hugged each lady who came. At the first meeting, it was awkward. My hugs seemed so foreign. The women would squirm, sometimes stiffen, but by the second meeting, they were eager for a hug. By our third time together, the women stood in line waiting for their hug. I thought I might pop because the women squeezed me so hard. When I hugged them, some would smile, some would weep. I taught my leadership team a groundbreaking strategy; I called it the “ministry of hugs.”
One of my dear South Asian national partners told me the story of a touch that changed her life. Before she was a Christian, she had lived a devout Muslim lifestyle. When her abusive husband threatened to kill her and their three children, she fled for her life. A Christian friend invited her to church. She was skeptical, but went out of desperation. When she first stepped into the doors of the church, the pastor’s wife approached her and gave her a hug. She said she had never experienced anything like it in her life. She was so impacted by that hug that it compelled her to return to church the next week in hopes of getting another one. Again, the pastor’s wife greeted her with a hug. The love she experienced in that church eventually led to her conversion, and the conversion of her husband, too.
By God’s grace, I have seen transformation happen in the lives of many women, and healthy touch played a role. I found out that one group of ladies I discipled was so impacted by my ministry of hugs that they started a time of hugging one another during their house church meetings. This gave me insight into why the Apostles encouraged believers to greet one another with a “holy kiss” (Rm 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14). They wanted to promote a culture of healthy physical connection among believers in the early church. The holy kiss expressed love in a tangible way that brought life to the believers. Greetings may take different forms in each culture, but regardless of where we are from, we are made for physical connection.
Touching the feet can touch the heart.
One form of touch that is especially powerful in South Asia is touching someone’s feet. In South Asia, it is the highest form of honor to touch someone’s feet. It’s also the highest form of dishonor to raise your foot or shoe at someone. In 2008, an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. While Americans scratched their heads in puzzlement, almost everyone in the “10-40 Window” understood the gesture as an intentionally degrading insult. In South Asian culture, only a person of lower social status touches the feet of someone higher. A teacher would never touch a student’s feet. When grandchildren go to visit their grandparents, the first thing they will do is touch— and sometimes kiss— their grandmother or grandfather’s feet. The act shows great honor. I would witness this interaction take place regularly at the airport when families would reunite. In other cases, if someone has deeply offended another, the offender might touch the other’s feet to show contrition and seek forgiveness. The gesture can also express deep gratitude. At the end of our women’s discipleship trainings, we held a special foot-washing ceremony. The leaders got down on their hands and knees and washed each woman’s feet. Immediately, the women were pierced to the heart. Many of them started sobbing. Throughout the training, we told the women that they are valuable, but this ceremony enables them to feel it.
As we washed the women’s feet, they often scrunched their toes and said, “Please don’t touch my feet. We are not the same. I am beneath you. Let me wash your feet.” It’s difficult for them to accept a foot-washing from their teachers. I hugged them as they wept. I prayed for them. I told them, “We are all equal before God. You are not insignificant. You are a daughter of the King. God loves you and I do, too. You can go and do this for others.” We also told them that their feet are beautiful because they have been commissioned to share the good news (Rm 10:15).
Because washing someone’s feet is the highest form of honor in this culture, the foot-washing ceremony breaks through their defenses and helps them accept an expression of God’s love. Many women struggle to feel worth, but in this sacred act, they experience love and honor.
God can use other cultures to open our eyes to truths in the Bible.
Whenever I read the account of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before going overseas, I always focused on Christ’s humility. I had missed the full significance of this story, because I had not considered the disciples point of view. In the West, we have a cultural barrier to understanding the magnitude of this story because we don’t place much significance on feet. I learned that, compared with individualistic, technological American culture, communal, agrarian South Asian culture shares much more in common with the culture of the New Testament. Living in South Asia helped me realized how deeply Jesus’ act of foot-washing must have impacted his disciples. The disciples were no doubt astounded. When Jesus knelt down and washed their feet, they experienced what Jesus had been telling them—that they were beloved, clean, and honored in God’s eyes. We read that Peter struggled to comprehend and accept the role reversal when Jesus girded himself with a towel and washed his feet (Jn 13:1–17). This touch of grace left such a profound mark on their lives that a few decades later, John recorded it in his Gospel.
In the act of washing his disciple’s feet, Jesus’ touch communicated powerful truth. Jesus voluntarily lowered himself, taking the form of a servant. In doing so, he elevated his disciples and empowered them to humble themselves, so that they could lift others up to experience God’s love and honor. We have the privilege of doing the same.
Move from transferring data to transforming lives.
As Christian teachers, entrusted with God’s eternal truth, we are eager for people to learn everything quickly and efficiently. Sometimes we wish we could transfer knowledge with a Matrix-style data download, but teaching styles that rely on “information dumps” rarely succeed in changing lives. Radical transformation involves more than understanding at a theoretical or intellectual level. Radical transformation involves connecting with the truth at a heart level. As Christian educators, we must strive to create experiences where people engage with truth mentally, emotionally, and practically. We shouldn’t merely tell them truth; we should also try to help them feel it.
The Word of God brings transformation, and we are right to emphasize that the gospel is the power of God (Rm 1:16). But the Word became flesh. In the great act of kenosis, the eternal Word of God took on flesh and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14; Phil 2:6–11). Now we have the privilege of proclaiming the Word and manifesting the truth of the gospel in tangible ways. The Apostle John opened his first epistle by saying, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 Jn 1:1)
The message of the gospel doesn’t change, but we can work to be intentional and creative about reinforcing the gospel message in contextually appropriate ways. In whatever culture you find yourself, seek for ways to help people feel spiritual truths, not just understand them. Remember: a loving touch can transform the heart.
Christy Allen | Former missionary with the International Mission Board in South Asia for 14 years.
“Living in South Asia helped me realized how deeply Jesus’ act of foot-washing must have impacted his disciples. The disciples were no doubt astounded. When Jesus knelt down and washed their feet, they experienced what Jesus had been telling them—that they were beloved, clean, and honored in God’s eyes.”