ATLANTA — As church members show up in new outfits Easter Sunday, pastors across America will preach barefoot in remembrance of the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King and to draw awareness to the more than 300 million people around the world who do not own a pair of shoes.
Martin Luther King III and Bernice King were among speakers at a March 19 press conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta designating April 4 as "Barefoot Sunday." Other religious leaders taking part include Stephen Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., and senior pastor of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago.
Barefoot Sunday is sponsored by Samaritan's Feet, a North Carolina-based humanitarian relief organization started in 2003 by Manny Ohonme, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, who received his first pair of shoes from a missionary at age 9 and went on to excel in sports. He studied in the United States on a basketball scholarship at the University of North Dakota-Lake Region and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees.
Samaritan's Feet, which is not related to Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse relief organization, gained national attention in 2008 when Ron Hunter, head basketball coach at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, coached a game barefoot to raise awareness about the global need for shoes. Since then more than 3,000 coaches have coached barefoot to raise money for the ministry.
Organizers say they expect 5,000 pastors from different denominations across the United States to enter their pulpits without shoes on Easter Sunday, which this year coincides with the anniversary of King's assassination on the evening of April 4, 1968, while he stood on the balcony at a motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
Along with preaching barefoot, pastors will ask parishioners to make donations of $10 to cover the costs of buying, processing, warehousing, shipping and distributing a pare of shoes to a needy child. Many of the shoes purchased with proceeds will be used in a multi-city domestic distribution to take place on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2011.
During the giveaways, volunteers wash the recipients' feet and fit them with a new pair of shoes — a symbolic act that King's children said is in keeping with the "Beloved Community" that their father envisioned.
"My father stood for the impoverished and Samaritan's Feet embodies that every day," said Martin Luther King III, president of Realizing the Dream, a non-profit organization devoted to carrying on his father's work in the 21st century. "This fits the model that my father stood for and we are honored to continue his legacy."
"My father stood for more than just marches and rallies," said Bernice King, an ordained minister elected last fall as the first woman president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil-rights organization co-founded by Martin Luther King.
"He encouraged people to serve and love each other," she said. "This will be lived out on the day when the world celebrates his life. I am so excited to be a part of a national movement that will significantly impact the impoverished."
Samaritan's Feet's long-term goal is to provide 10 million pairs of shoes for 10 million impoverished people in 10 years. So far they have collected about 3 million pairs of shoes. Organizers hope to add another 1 million pairs with money raised on Barefoot Sunday.
"These pastors are making a choice to preach barefoot," Ohonme said. "The children we serve don't have a choice to be barefoot. By preaching in their bare feet, it makes a statement to their congregation that they are not above these hurting families."
Ohonme worked 10 years in business before starting the non-profit ministry dedicated to not only giving away shoes, but also the potentially life-changing message of hope they bring, to impoverished children form North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.
He says for most of the world's shoeless people, their feet are their primary mode of transportation. Along with risking injury, being barefoot also contributes to the spread of disease.
Ohonme tells his story in a recently released autobiography titled Sole Purpose.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.