“Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals. The place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Depending on the version of the translation of the Holy Bible, one would find that exact passage or something close to it recounting an encounter between God and Moses.
Although many of the biblical sentences are constructed differently with slight variations of word placement, the message is essentially the same: being barefoot on holy soil or in a holy place was sanctioned by the Almighty. The text is Exodus 3:5.
So when two Bajan pastors of the United Methodist Church in New York heard about the ongoing controversy in their birthplace over “the barefoot preacher”, the Reverend William “Bill” St Clair, who was transferred recently from Ebenezer Methodist Church in St Philip to Shrewsbury Church, reportedly because he preferred to take off his shoes in the church, the ministers’ reactions were the same.
“The practice, the tradition of being barefoot in a church or a place of worship is both biblical and theological,” said the Rev. Dr Laurel Scott, a theologian and pastor of United Methodist Church in Port Washington on Long Island.
“It goes back to the days of Moses when God wanted him to press Pharaoh to release the people of Israel, the Jews from bondage.”
After all, she said, preaching barefoot was an indication of humility, not disrespect.
The Rev. David Henry, pastor of St Paul’s Methodist Church in Brooklyn, agreed.
“I don’t preach barefoot but in many different parts of the world, say in Africa, Haiti or parts of the Philippines where there is considerable poverty, pastors preach barefoot and people accept it for what it is, humility,” said the Barbadian, an ordained Methodist minister in the United States since 1975.
“In many places where you have barefoot preachers congregations take it in stride; they don’t care. It’s the message they are interested in, not the clothes, the attire of the preacher.”
Like Scott, Henry – who until recently headed a church on Long Island – wonders if there wasn’t more to the transfer than Barbadians are being told.
The Rev. Adreanne Brewington, district superintendent of the United Methodist Church network on Long Island East, shares that assessment.
“I can’t imagine that preaching barefoot would lead to a minister being transferred from one church to another,” said Brewington, who has overall administrative responsibility for 77 churches, many of them with a large Caribbean immigrant congregation although most of the churches have white middle-class congregations.
“After all, preaching barefoot is an indication of humility. I recognise that some people may have concerns about a minister preaching barefoot because it could be perceived as being too casual but that’s not what it is about.”
Interestingly, both Scott and Brewington said they often preached barefoot.
“Sometimes I take off my shoes and walk up and down the aisle as I deliver my sermon and I have never had trouble with it,” said Scott, who recently was awarded a doctorate in theology by Boston University.
She has served at churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut and now New York.
“There is a biblical precedent for it and people shouldn’t take offence. God asked Moses to take off his shoes and he did.”
As a district superintendent, Brewington said she wouldn’t transfer a pastor for preaching barefoot.
“If I had a similar situation to handle, I would encourage the congregation to embrace the pastor’s uniqueness, his humility. I just can’t imagine that preaching barefoot would lead to a transfer,” she said.
The three clerics didn’t criticise church leaders in Barbados for shifting St Clair but they said the situation left them perplexed.
“I don’t understand it,” said Scott.
“Barefoot preaching has nothing to do with the message being delivered,” asserted Henry. “We have to find out what else is at the root of the action.”