A Ketchikan minister is going barefoot for a month, in hopes of raising awareness of the need for shoes among the world’s poor.
While only part way through his month-long project, Peter Epler has gotten a feel – so to speak – for what many people deal with all the time.
Epler’s bare feet are a little weird in downtown Ketchikan. Most people here and in developed countries around the world don’t think twice about wearing shoes, beyond which pair matches which outfit.
Some places, though, there’s a shortage of affordable shoes, which can be a health and safety hazard.
“(People) walk through dirt roads, sewer systems, manure, sharp rocks,” he said. “Kids get cuts on their feet and infections because of what they walk through, so they can lose their feet or die from the infection. So, shoes tend to save lives in third-world countries.”
Epler is a pastor at Ketchikan’s Church of the Nazarene. That church and other Nazarene churches in Alaska are working together to raise money for an international charity that provides special shoes for kids in developing countries.
The group is called Because International, and the shoes they provide are made to last five years.
“They grow five sizes in five years, so roughly kindergarten through fifth grade,” he said. “And they’re working on a second pair that will take them up to ninth grade.”
And will they actually last five years?
“Yeah, they’ll last five years,” he said. “The rubber on the bottom is made from the rubber you make street tires from. And then they used high-quality leather and industrial snaps. So, these things are very sturdy. It’s multiple iterations. This is the final product they put out. They’ve been working on it for years.”
Many churches involved in the campaign are raising money through their congregations. Epler is taking it a little further in hopes of involving more community members. So, to raise awareness, he’s pledged to go without shoes for a month.
About a week into it, Epler has had some new-to-him tactile experiences.
“I’ve got a blog that I’m kind of keeping track of my own experiences: Things I’ve stepped in that you take for granted with shoes,” he said. “I’ve stepped in unidentifiable wet substances on a hot, sunny day, I’ve stepped in dog poop. I’ve stepped in gum. That was not my favorite. There was a sticky, warm quality to it that was distasteful.”
The point of going barefoot is to attract attention, and hopefully engage people in conversation. Then Epler can talk about the campaign and hand out cards with information about how to donate.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not so much.
“Most people give me the once-over stare, like ‘Who’s the crazy guy without the shoes?’” he said.
That was the case as Epler and I walked through downtown Ketchikan. He received a lot of furtive glances.
“Yeah, the glances go from head to toe and they kind of linger, and they look away,” he said. “I tend to wait until someone leans a little in for the conversation before I’m like, ‘Here’s the card and information.’ Because I don’t want to creep people out. It’s enough that I’m the barefoot guy.”
Epler said the campaign is, indeed, raising money, although it’s difficult to say how much in total. People in his church have given about $600, but the cards he’s handing out direct people to not only the church’s web page, but also to Because International’s main site. He said that’s a way to reach more people.
“Some folks might not be religious and might not feel comfortable donating through a church and that’s fine,” he said. “They can still go to theshoesthatgrow.org and donate. “
Epler isn’t the only one going barefoot for the cause. He said a few other people in his church, adults and kids, are spreading the word, too.
“I think kids are the key to this,” he said. “They can relate very much to other kids and they have this unashamed ability to buy into an idea and advertise it quite well, because they’re bolder. They can do a lot of good. Kids can make a lot of difference. And because this project is for kids, I think getting kids involved is the best way to go.”
With several weeks left in the campaign, Epler predicts his feet will become sturdier. And, so far, it’s not been a bad experience.
“I’m feeling more connected to the world around me, which I didn’t expect: sticky things, smooth things, soft things, temperature changes, from going inside to outside. These are things I was completely unaware of before,” he said.
So, Epler’s barefoot campaign is raising a different kind of awareness for himself, along with helping the public learn more about a global need.