She was probably in her seventies, Afro-Caribbean, with watering eyes and a limp so pronounced that she could scarcely walk without her stick. She had been arrested for shoplifting, and I, as a Woman Police Constable, had been called to escort her to a cell and strip-search her. The rules on how the search should be conducted were very clear. Under no circumstances should I have let her keep her stick. Nor should I have helped her with the removal of her clothing. Rather I should have kept my distance and verbally required her systematically to strip. But my heart went out to this suffering grandmother alleged to have stolen a few groceries, and as she struggled to undo her shoes, I stooped to help her with her laces. The stick, she should never have been allowed to keep, cracked down upon my head and I saw stars. In my surprise and pain I wrested the weapon from the old lady and found myself barking orders at her as we went through the remainder of one of the most undignified procedures to which one human being can subject another.
The next time I was required to strip-search someone I did it by the book. Never again did I suffer a physical assault but I did wonder about the injury to my humanity. The awareness that, for all my good intentions, at some level a change was occurring in me that I did not like became one factor in my leaving the police. I ran from my own inability to forgive.
Every Easter I marvel at the account of how Jesus chooses to lose his battle with the political and religious authorities of his day and, on the eve of his death, removes his outer clothing, thus making himself vulnerable, and kneels before each of his disciples in turn. Knowing they are about to betray, deny and abandon him, he nonetheless washes their feet. ’I have given you an example so that you can copy what I have done to you…’ The message is clear: ’Make yourself the least among those about you and, in the words of Mother Teresa, ’Forgive endlessly’.
It is all in the viewing. I can dwell upon the hurt the elderly shoplifter occasioned in me, resent the brutal injustice of her action and feel guilty about its effect, or, with greater maturity, I can see that, but for that feisty Afro-Caribbean lady, the washing of the feet would never have resonated so powerfully with me. Nor would I have changed career and been led to Mother Teresa and so many other extraordinary souls. Was our encounter an ugly incident in a dreary police cell or a luminous moment by which my life’s story was transfigured?