Strangers stare at him as he walks through the airport, ambling along, feet slowly shuffling. People glower over their lattes and give him a once-over. It’s not that he’s wearing anything offensive. His casual button-down shirt and jeans should make him fit right in with his fellow travelers. His demeanor is pleasant, he’s not loud or displaying an ugly face. However, it’s what he’s not wearing that magnetizes the crowd.
He’s not wearing any shoes or socks. He’s completely barefoot.
His name is Dr. Jeff Brodsky. He took off his shoes and socks five years ago on July 19 and has been barefoot ever since. For years he had been on a search to find children that were truly “the least of these,” a phrase Jesus Christ used in the Gospels to describe needy children. As Jesus said, if you do something kind to “the least of these,” it is one and the same as doing it to Him. By 2010, Dr. Brodsky’s 30-year ministry to the poor of the world had already been vastly successful in feeding the hungry, but one day his search took him to the child sex slaves and exploited children of Phnom Penh. As he was giving out food to children living in a garbage dump, he noticed their feet. They were all barefoot. He had found what he saw as the “least of these.” That night, he sensed that God was calling him to go barefoot for a year in solidarity with, and to understand the plight of, these children.
His first barefoot year opened doors for his message of joy to the afflicted and hope to the perishing. He was able to “beg for the children who cannot beg for themselves,” he said. Many people embraced him and broke down in tears when they heard why he was barefoot. They had never heard of the child sex slaves whose shoes were taken by the brothel owners so they could not run away, or the children who lived barefoot and half-naked in city dumps and who were at high risk of being sold by desperate fathers and mothers to evil men. It was a challenging year for him. By the end of it, Dr. Jeff was longing for the snug feeling of a soft sock on his foot again. However, God had other plans.
I interviewed Dr. Jeff in his office one morning in May. He had a large map of the world behind him, filled with colored pins. His bare feet were out of sight, below his desk, and he looked into the air as he recalled, “On that morning of the first year anniversary, I was ready. I had the socks in my hand and I was ready to put them on my feet. But as I was trying to pull them on, I couldn’t get the socks past my toes. Then that still, small voice spoke these words to me, ‘Keep going. Those children are still out there.’”
Those socks never ended up on his feet. In many ways, the past five years have been miraculous. Even more opportunities have presented themselves, and the message has sprinted farther in bare feet than it could have walked in shoes. Dr. Brodsky’s ministry has now rescued hundreds of children from trafficking, and JOY’s restoration programs are experiencing a great success rate for keeping the rescued children from ending up in the sex trade again.
“Why am I barefoot? Am I crazy?” Jeff asks himself. “There’s really just one word as to why I’m doing this. Obedience. I believe with all my heart that God has asked me to do this, to live in solidarity with these children and obedience to God’s calling. Those people who think I want to be barefoot, have no idea who I am. I hate being barefoot. It’s embarrassing, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s sometimes extremely painful. But I do it because I believe God wants me to. It’s a tool. Sometimes you have to do the foolish things, you know? First Corinthians 4:10 tells us to be fools for Christ. Someone walking around barefoot all day long is a foolish thing. So being a fool for Christ is a tool for Christ. That’s how I look at it, and it’s working.”
Now, a new phenomenon called the “Barefoot Mile” is erupting all over the US, and schools, sports teams, youth groups, churches, and individuals are hosting walk-or-run fundraisers in which all the participants are—can you guess? Barefoot. This year alone, there have already been three Barefoot Miles hosted in the US, with several more scheduled.
The most significant Barefoot Mile happening this year is the one that Dr. Jeff will be personally walking on July 19, which is the five-year anniversary of the day he began his barefoot journey. A Global Barefoot Mile will take place in Phnom Penh at the Olympic Stadium on the evening of July 19. It will be an emotional time for him as he contemplates all that has happened since he took off his shoes. His goal, however, is much bigger than himself, which seems to be typical for Dr. Jeff. His desire is to create a worldwide network of barefoot walkers on July 19 to walk a mile in bare feet in their own communities at the same time as he is doing it in Phnom Penh. “Wherever you are in the world, you can join forces with me as we walk,” Jeff says.
Interested participants can join the Global Barefoot Mile event by going to facebook.com/Joy.org to sign up. Barefoot walkers can connect with other participants on social media during the race by using the hashtag #globalbfm. The mile begins at 6pm in South Pacific Time, which translates to 6 am Central Time in America.
Why the Olympic Stadium? Jeff wants to represent these children in “a place they’d never be able to come into,” either as an attendee, or as a competitor in a sport. The Olympic Stadium was built in the 60s but was never used for the Olympics. However, it is a fun community gathering place where Cambodian locals practice dance and exercise routines, or host picnics and play games. Recreational activities like these are unthinkable concepts to kids in captivity and held as slaves, so Dr. Jeff will be representing them as he “walks a mile in their feet.”
Dr. Jeff told me that someone once interviewed him with his wife Gail standing next to him. They turned to Gail and asked her, “Why do you think God would ask your husband to do this, to rescue child sex slaves, to go undercover, to risk his life?”
She said, “God knew Jeff would say yes.”
With a huge grin, Jeff leaned back in his chair. “And she’s right! She’s right. I see each child as God’s child. How could I ever say no?”