EASTER STORY: The Church Of The Washing Of The Feet, by Alan Paton

The Church Of The Washing Of The Feet Alan Paton

From Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful

The Reverend Isaiah Buti, pastor of the Holy Chuch of Zion in Bochabela, entered the room of the acting chief justice, if not with awe, then certainly with deference.  And certainly with respect too, for not only did Judge Olivier occupy one of the highest seats in the land, but he was held in high esteem by the black people of Bloemfontein.  Was he not the man who had tried to prevent Parliament from removing colored voters from the common roll?

The room was the biggest Mr. Buti had seen in his life.  The table was also the biggest he had seen, and behind it was a grand carved chair, and behind the chair, portraits of those who had been chief justices of the Union of South Africa.  And now from the chair rose the impressive figure of Acting Chief Justice Olivier, with his hand held out to his visitor.

—Welcome, Mr. Buti.  I got your letter, and now you are here.  Sit down and tell me all about it.

—Thank you, judge.  I must first collect myself.  I must get used to this room.

—Take your time.  It’s a very big room.

—There’s much power in this room, judge.

The judge laughed.

—Not so much as people think, Mr. Buti.

—Judge, I wrote to you because I am anxious.  I have lived in the Orange Free State all my life.  Of course, we are a conquered people, but we have lived in peace with the white rulers.  But things are changing, judge, and I am anxious that they should not change in the way they are changing now.

—What are you referring to, Mr. Buti?  The killing of the police?

—Certainly that, judge.  But not only that.  I am referring to the feeling against whites.  It is the worst I have known it to be.

—And the causes?

Mr. Buti gave a humble and apologetic smile.

—You know them as well as I do, judge.

—And what is the biggest?

—The pass laws, judge, perhaps most of all.  You have heard those words, “temporary sojourner”?

—Indeed.

—That’s what we are, judge, temporary sojourners.  Do you know the prayer of the Chief Hosea Kutako?

—I have read it.  But I do not remember it.  What did he say?

—His prayer ended thus: O Lord, help us who roam about.  Help us who have been placed in Africa and have no dwelling place.  Give us back a dwelling place.  O God, all power is yours in Heaven and Earth.  Amen.

—Yes, I remember.

—That’s what we are, judge.  We have no dwelling place.  The Government says I have a dwelling place in Thaba Nchu.  They say my dwelling place is not here in Bochabela, where I live and work and have my wife and my children, and my church, the Holy Church of Zion.  I am lucky, judge, because I am a minister.  But most of the people of my church are workers.  They work in white factories and white shops, they work for white builders and white carpenters.  Our girls, and often our women too, work in white houses.  Sometimes we feel, judge, that we have no meaning for white people except our work.  My son works in a white factory and my two daughters work in white houses.  But if I were to die, they would all be sent to Thaba Nchu.  My wife is not allowed to rent a house, and my son is too young to rent one.  Judge, you are a very busy man.  Do you want to hear any more causes?

—No, Mr. Buti.  The one you mention is cause enough.

—You see, judge, I am a minister.  I am not likely to lose my job.  But the men of my church often lose their jobs.  Sometimes it is their fault, but sometimes it is not.  The factory closes down, the white employer dies.  The employer of Mr. Philemon Moroka died, and he could not get a job.  So they told him he would have to give up his house and go back to Thaba Nchu with his wife and four children.  Once you lose a house, judge, it is very hard to get another.  If Mr. Moroka is offered another job in Bloemfontein, he will  have to leave his wife and children and come to a single men’s hostel in Bochabela.  Then perhaps after a year he will get another house, and he will be able to bring his wife and children back.  And sometimes it happens that, just after a man gets another house, he loses his job again, or he dies.  The Moroka family are luckier than most, because his mother has a nice house in Thaba Nchu.  But sometimes widows and their children are sent back and there is is no house, and no work either.  There is not much work in such places.  That’s the way we live, judge.  We have been placed in Africa, and we have no dwelling place of our own.

Judge Olivier listened to Mr. Buti with much pain, not only pain for the people that Mr. Buti was talking about, but pain for his own impotence.  How can the judge invoke the majestic power of the law when it is the law itself that is the cause of the injustice?  What had Mr. Buti come to ask him?  To do something that he had no power to do?  He thought wryly of Mr. Buti’s words that there was much power in this room.

It was almost as though the black man knew the white man was suffering, for his next words were meant to comfort.

—Judge, we have had more luck in Bochabela than in many other places.  The laws have not been applied so harshly.  Sometimes they have not been applied at all.  You will find widows still living in Bochabela.  That was the work of Mr. Karel Bosman.  No one shouted at you in his offices.  No one called you boy, no one called your wife Jane.  They called us Bantu, of course, which is a word we do not like, but we never heard the word, kaffir.

Then Mr. Buti was silent for a long time.

—The funeral service was very painful, judge.  We wanted the people of Bloemfontein to see that we loved this man.  We went there to show our love.  But it wasn’t wanted.  I haven’t come here to attack the church, my lord.  I have come to ask you to do a work of reconciliation.

—Me?

—Yes, you, my lord.

—Judge, every year on the Thursday before Good Friday we have in the Holy Church of Zion the service of the Washing of the Feet.  Many people from other churches come to see it, and they are satisfied.  This year the minister, that is myself, is going to wash the feet of Mrs. Hannah Mofokeng, who is the oldest woman in Bochabela.  And my daughter is going to wash the feet of Esther Moloi, who is a crippled child.  And I am asking you, Judge Olivier, to wash the feet of Martha Fortuin.

—Martha?

—Yes, judge.

—She has washed the feet of all my children.  Why should I hesitate to wash her feet?

Mr. Buti’s face was filled with joy.  He stood up and opened wide his arms.

—Do you understand, judge, I want our people to see that their love is not rejected.  Do you see that?

—Yes, I can see that.

—It will be simple, judge.  I shall call out the name of Martha Fortuin, and she will come up and take a seat at the front of the altar.  Then I shall call out the name of Jan Christiaan Olivier – you will not mind, judge, if I do not call you a judge?

—No.

—Then you come up to the altar, and I shall give you a towel to put round yourself, and then a basin of water.  I shall take off her shoes, and you will wash her feet and dry them, and go back to your seat.  Then I shall put on her shoes, and she will go back to her seat.

—Does she know that I am to wash her feet?

—She knows that her feet are to be washed, but she does not know who is going to wash them.

—Will she be embarrassed?

—I do not think so, judge.  She is a holy woman.  She knows the meaning of it.  After all, the disciples’ feet were washed by the Lord, and no one was embarrassed but Peter, and he was rebuked for it.

—There’s one more thing, Mr. Buti.

—Yes, judge.

—She does not know.  Then who does know?

—Only myself and my elders.  And, of course, you, judge.

—Well, that is proper.  You see, Mr. Buti, a judge can do this kind of thing privately.  He is free to do it as anyone else.  But a judge must not parade himself – you understand? – he must not… .

—I understand, judge.  Judge, you have made my heart glad.  For me, and for many of my people, this will be a work of healing.  I hope for our young people, too.  You know, judge, some of them think that white people do not know how to love, so why should they love them?  I told them that Jesus said we must love our enemies, and one bright boy said to me that Jesus never lived in Bochabela.


On the evening of the day before Good Friday, Judge Olivier set out privately for the Holy Church of Zion in Bochabela.  He parked his car near the church and set out to walk the short distance.  As he passed under one of the dim street lamps, he was recognized by a young reporter by the name of David McGillivray, who was in Bochabela following up a story, but who decided that it might be better to follow the acting chief justice.

The judge was welcomed at the door by Mr. Buti and was taken to a seat at the back of the church.

—I am sorry to put you at the back, judge, but I do not want Martha to see you.

So it was that David McGillivray saw the washing of the feet:

—Brothers and sisters, this is the night of the Last Supper.  And when supper was over, Jesus rose from the table, and he put a towel round himself, as I do now in remembrance of him.  Then he took a dish and poured water into it, and began to wash the feet of his disciples, and to wipe them with the towel.  And when he came to Peter, Peter said to him, Lord, are you going to wash my feet?  And Jesus said, What I do now you do not understand, but you will understand it later.  Peter said, You will never wash my feet.  Jesus said, If I do not wash your feet, you will have no part in me.  And Peter said, Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.  Jesus said, If I wash your feet, you are clean altogether.

—Hannah Mofokeng, I ask you to come forward.

The old woman was brought forward by her son Jonathan, a white-haired man of seventy.  Mr. Buti washed her feet and dried them, and told her to go in peace.  Then he called for Esther Moloi, the crippled child, who was brought forward in her chair, and for Maria Buti, his own daughter, who washed and dried Esther’s feet.  Then both girls were told to go in peace.

—Martha Fortuin, I ask you to come forward.

So Martha Fortuin, who thirty years earlier had gone to work in the home of the newly married Advocate Olivier of Bloemfontein, and had gone with him to Cape Town and Pretoria when he became a judge, and had returned with him to Bloemfontein when he became a justice of the Appellate Court, now left her seat to walk to the chair before the altar.  She walked with head downcast as becomes a modest and devout woman, conscious of the honor that had been done her by the Reverend Isaiah Buti.  Then she heard him call out the name of Jan Christiaan Olivier and, though she was herself silent, she heard the gasp of the congregation as the great judge of Bloemfontein walked up to the altar to wash her feet.

Then Mr. Buti gave the towel to the judge, and the judge, as the Word says, girded himself with it, and took the dish of water and knelt at the feet of Martha Fortuin.  He took her right foot in his hands and washed it was dried it with the towel.  Then he took her other foot in his hands and washed it and dried it with the towel.  And as he was doing this, he thought how far these feet had walked for his family.  And suddenly he saw Martha and his own daughter when she was a child, and he remembered clearly how Martha would kiss her feet.  So he thought to himself, if she can kiss my daughter’s feet, why can I not kiss her feet?  Then he took both her feet in his hands with gentleness, for they were no doubt tired with much serving, and he kissed them both.  Then Martha Fortuin, and many others in the Holy Church of Zion, fell a-weeping in that holy place.

Then the judge gave the towel and the dish to Mr. Buti, who said to him, Go in peace.  Mr. Buti put the shoes back on the woman’s feet and said to her also, Go in peace.  And she returned to her place, in a church silent except for those who wept.  Then Mr. Buti read again.

—So after he had washed their feet and had sat down, Jesus said to them, Do you understand what I have done?  If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.

But young David McGillivray does not hear these words.  He has left the Holy Church of Zion, and has gone to find his editor at all costs.


Young McGillivray has got the story of the year, there can’t be any doubt about that.  In the whole of South Africa, his paper alone carried the great story, and it enjoyed pride of place for twenty-four hours because the afternoon papers don’t publish on Good Friday.  It was the front-page story, with great black headlines like those that tell of war, or the eruption of Krakatoa, or a rugby victory over New Zealand.  Even on Saturday morning it was still the big story: “Acting Chief Justice Kisses Black Woman’s Feet.”  No fewer than three papers had those identical words, and that’s not surprising, for how else can you tell that story?

Well, for better or for worse, the story has gone round the nation.  It’s the kind of story that hardly any South African could be indifferent to.  You either like it or you don’t like it.  They don’t like it at all in the Palace of Justice or the Union Buildings.  As for the judges in Bloemfontein, most of them don’t like it.  Such things are not done and, if they are done, they should not be seen to be done.  Some people think that Judge Olivier did it on purpose, but those who know him well don’t believe that at all.  In fact, most judges don’t believe it.  Probably no one reads a news item with greater clarity than a judge, and young McGillivray’s story makes it quite clear that he was in Bochabela for quite another purpose.

Perhaps it’s wrong to say that the story has gone right round the nation.  Die Stem of Pretoria has not mentioned the strange happening in Bloemfontein and, as far as the South African Broadcasting Corporation is concerned, it didn’t happen at all.  The English press – ah well, of course, of course, but they do blow things up, don’t they?

And on Saturday two of the great papers of the world, The Times of London and The New York Times, told the story.  Stories like that place the South African ambassador in Washington in a most unsatisfactory position.  In the White House such an event is regarded as a redeeming act in the history of a wayward nation, but in the embassy it is regarded as an act destructive to the tireless propaganda that goes out in praise of separate coexistence and separate education and separate worship and separate lavatorial accommodation.


—Judge.

—Yes, Mr. Buti.

—I am ashamed to look at you, judge.  I didn’t know that that young man was from the newspaper.  You asked for it to be private, but now everybody knows it.

—That’s not your fault, Mr. Buti.

—So you forgive me?

—There is nothing to forgive.  But if you wish me to forgive you for nothing, I do so.

—That makes me feel better, judge.  But apart from that, you did a great work.  You helped to heal the pain of the Bosman funeral.  There’s nothing else that could have done it.  I could preach a thousand sermons and I couldn’t do it.  I told you about the boy who said that Jesus taught that we should love our enemies because he did not have to live in Bochabela.  He told me on Friday that he was sorry.  And, judge, the people want to give a new name to the church.  It will still be the Holy Church of Zion, because all our churches are called that, but they want to call the church in Bochabela the Church of the Washing of the Feet.  Some wanted to call it the Church of the Kissing of the Feet, but most of them thought we must keep to the Bible.

—Very sensible.

—And I want to ask you one more thing, judge.

—Ask it then.

—It’s not an easy question, judge.  But people are saying that government will be angry with what you have done, and that you will not become the Chief Judge of South Africa.  Is that so?

—I do not know, Mr. Buti.  It may be so, and it may not.  But taking part in your service on Thursday is to me more important than the chief-justiceship.  Think no more about it.  Think no more about it.

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