Stephen Fomba, is right when he says, “The [Ebola] outbreak reminds me that the lack of shoes in my hometown of Sierra Leone could be contributing to the spread of the virus”

I grew up among the Sapo people, the barefoot tribe of Liberia. As a kid, my home was a bamboo-mat house in the Sinoe jungle, the world's thickest rain forest. A single-engine Cessna dropped my family off when I was six.

The bush roads did not reach our remote mission. We had no running water or flushing toilets. Our drinking water from the creek was boiled in the large black pot out back, and kerosene lanterns lit our home at night. I shared my bed with our pet chimpanzee, Tarzan... and my friends ran barefoot.


In the jungle, shoes are the exception. That's why most of my friends in the bush had infected toes, swollen stomachs, or orange-colored hair… and today contract Ebola.

When the children of Liberia walk barefoot the parasites and viruses, left behind from animal waste or human urine, enter thorough the micro-lacerations in their feet. They multiply with a vengeance in their small bodies. The worry used to be bilharzia or filaria or hook worm, but now the worry has turned deadly – Ebola.

It’s a disturbing fate.

That's why my blood boiled recently when a student at a large Christian university found me after I finished speaking and suggested I stop taking shoes to Africa, "Because," he said, "Africans' feet grow tough, and they don't need the shoes."

His ignorance was astonishing . . . and offensive.

Shoes are not the complete answer to stopping the spread of Ebola, but they are certainly a significant part of the solution.

The barefoot poor constantly suffer puncture wounds from glass, nails, rocks, or thorns, as well as abrasions. The punctured flesh and microscopic cuts leave an open door to the parasites, bacteria, and viruses like Ebola, that thrive in the tropics of West Africa. The warm, damp climate keeps the parasites alive in the mud and groundwater contaminated by feces, and when it comes in contact with human skin, the parasites burrow through a bare human foot.

Shoes don't just provide some negligible degree of protection; they provide life-giving protection.

. . .

In "Barefoot Tribe: Take Off Your Shoes and Dare to Live the Extraordinary Life" (Howard Books, 2014), I write about how shoes are a rare and valued treasure in the jungle. So I was surprised when a young Sapo girl gave hers away.

On a stifling, dry-season afternoon, our bamboo house in the bush caught fire. Out of breath after running from the burning house, I stood on the grass next to my sister, Lisa, watching our home burn with violent intensity. Lisa cried deep sobs. Then I noticed she had no shoes. Lisa had run out in such a hurry that she’d left her shoes in the burning house.

Her best friend, a Sapo girl named Sophie, was standing next to her. She, too, saw that Lisa had no shoes. So she knelt down, pulled the shoes off her feet, and gently slipped them onto Lisa’s.

I was surprised by the act of generous love, but I shouldn't have been, because this is the way of the Sapo tribe.

. . .

Today, another kind of tribe is forming. I saw it begin to take shape a few years ago on a day we called “Barefoot Sunday.”

It could have been the memory of generous love by the Sapo girl years ago that made me start carrying shoes back to Africa. Maybe it was the thought of all my friends in the bush whose feet festered from walking barefoot. Or it could have been from watching high school boys share their shoes on the soccer field so a friend could play with at least one shoe on.

I think it was the pool of all these memories that made me begin taking suitcases of shoes to Africa each time I returned. I never seemed to have enough.

That's why I finally told the people of The Grove (the church I help lead in Chandler, Arizona), "I need your help—I need your shoes."

On Barefoot Sunday we asked everyone to come to church wearing their best and favorite shoes, then take them off and go home barefoot. Our team heading to Liberia would pack their shoes up and give them away.

That first Barefoot Sunday more than two thousand pairs of shoes were left on our stage, and the next year, five thousand pairs!

The shoes are desperately needed today in places like Liberia to help curb the spread of diseases like Ebola, but when you take off your shoes to share with the barefoot poor something also happens in you: 

When you take off your shoes you acknowledge excess. Most of us in the developed world live with more than enough. The average American owns 19 pairs of shoes. That’s more than enough shoes. The truth is we live with excess; let’s begin to live with less. And if we begin by simply sharing our excess clothes, cars, money, and shoes . . . we can turn the tide on the world’s most vexing troubles – like Ebola.

When you take off your shoes you walk with the poor… literally. On Barefoot Sunday we invite every person who takes off their shoes to walk the rest of the day barefoot, in order to experience in a small way how one-fifth of the world’s population lives every day. If they go shopping or to a restaurant, they go barefoot. It’s a bit shaming (they sometimes get kicked out of restaurants), and a bit painful, with the hot asphalt and the gravel. But people empathize with the poor in a new way, and they never forget the Sunday they walked barefoot.

Every day 1.3 billion people walk barefoot in underdeveloped countries, yet most in the developed world live completely unaware of—let alone bothered by—extreme poverty.

When you take off your shoes you make change. Never miss that your one life matters. It does. The world may be a broken place, but with your one and very important life you can change what is not right in this world—if we will care less about things like shoes and care more about people sick with Ebola.

You may not have enough shoes to put on 1.3 billion feet, but your one contribution matters in the life of one person. And when the tribe of Christ-followers pools its resources and piles up its shoes, we have more than enough to turn the tide.

When you take off your shoes you follow Jesus. My friend Leeland has written a song with the line that sings, "I will follow you into the homes of the broken." I think most Christians are willing to follow Jesus into an air-conditioned church or a living room small group, but how many will actually follow him into the shantytowns, and the blighted neighborhoods, and the inner-city slums, and the villages, and into the homes of the broken?

In Matthew Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, give clean water to the thirsty, share your clothes (and shoes) with the poor, and care for the sick… like the ones with Ebola.

If Christ calls you to be one with the least and the last, are you willing to take off your shoes and follow him and live that life? You cannot separate your spirituality from what you do, or do not do, about the sick in places like Sierra Leone and Guinea and Liberia.

So join the tribe, and take off your shoes and walk the holy ground of a broken world.

A rising voice in the social justice movement, Palmer Chinchen is a popular speaker and author of "Barefoot Tribe: Take Off Your Shoes and Dare to Live the Extraordinary Life" (Howard Books, 2014) and "True Religion: Taking pieces of heaven to places of hell on earth" (David C. Cook, June 2010) and founder of the national Barefoot Tribe Gathering. 

Palmer was raised in the jungles of Liberia and later returned to Africa, where he taught spiritual development and practical theology at African Bible College in Malawi and Liberia. Today he leads The Grove in Chandler, Arizona, a young, dynamic, and rapidly growing congregation. Palmer and his church are committed to working tirelessly together to eliminate extreme poverty, eradicate malaria, and end injustice everywhere.