Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Roberto Santiago goes barefoot in solidarity with the poor.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Roberto Santiago goes barefoot in solidarity with the poor.
Every step Roberto Santiago takes — on numbing winter sidewalks, sharp-edged gravel pathways and feathery grass fields — he walks in solidarity with the poorest of the poor. This Holy Family Church man has gone without shoes for almost six years.

“It’s just a very small act of solidarity,” Santiago said. “It gives me a little bit of a way to stay connected and be appreciative for what I have.” 
According to the World Health Organization, more than 25,000 children in developing countries under the age of five die every day from illness or malnutrition that could have been prevented with just a few dollars’ worth of food or medicine.  When Santiago heard that startling statistic six years ago, it niggled at him.

The summer that year had been warm, and he’d been in the habit of kicking off his shoes while puttering around the house. Then, one day, he felt a strong calling that he shouldn’t put those shoes back on.

In its infancy, the calling’s complete meaning eluded even Santiago, but over time he has come to understand why his act of solidarity is important. Personally, he sees it as a reminder to be ever thankful and humble. Publicly, he hopes his message helps raise awareness about the abject poverty experienced by people in developing countries all over the world.

Getting kicked out of an establishment for lack of proper footwear provides an opportunity to meditate and pray for those suffering from ostracism— the homeless, mentally ill or other people living on the margins. Stepping on a sharp object gives a jarring reminder to pray for those who live in pain and sickness.

Most importantly, going barefoot serves as a starting point for a conversation. Reactions run the gamut. Adults are mostly accepting, but aren’t likely to ask questions, especially in a free-spirited city like Portland. Those same social barriers don’t impede children’s curiosity.

In a crowd, Santiago will occasionally hear a tiny voice pipe up, “Mommy, why isn’t that man wearing shoes?” He explains to the young ones that there are many children in the world who don’t own a pair of shoes because they can’t afford them. Their reactions to this shocking new idea are often touching.

One child turned to her parents and asked if she could take money from her piggy bank to donate to the poor children. Another child’s response never fails to choke up the sturdy computer programmer.

“He took his shoes off and handed them to me.”   

The reality, Santiago said, is that going shoeless in Portland isn’t a hardship. He gets up and eats breakfast, gets into a heated car and walks at most three blocks to his office. Though he regularly takes long walks through his neighborhood, going without shoes in tidy Portland has little risk compared to that experienced by people in developing countries who are exposed to bacteria and parasitic disease.

Some people are offended by Santiago’s choice and tell him so. At first, that repudiation made Santiago feel self-righteous. Eventually, he learned confrontation is rarely an effective portal to education. Now, he apologizes for any offense and slips on a pair of flip-flops if they are unwilling to budge.

“Part of the path has taught me to pick my battles carefully because it’s clear that some people are not going to be moved,” he said. “Losing that unproductive righteousness has transitioned into a willingness to offer apology that sometimes opens up the conversation.”

That response is rare here; people in Portland are generally accommodating and supportive. More passersby look askance when Santiago and wife Anne visit their families in their home states of Wisconsin and Virginia.  

Anne, a political science professor at University of Portland, said her husband’s calling means they don’t often go out to fancy restaurants. That’s OK, though — it’s not their style. At this point, businesses and people in their community who are familiar with Santiago don’t even bat an eye at his exposed toes, she said.

“It’s an interesting thing he does to keep himself humble and a reminder of where his place is in the world,” Anne said. “In the United States, we are so focused on our perspective that we don’t realize how 75 percent of the world lives. It’s very different from the comforts that we have.”

Santiago’s children, first-grader Madalena and fourth-grader Xavier, are accustomed to their father’s feet — it’s been part of his existence for a good portion of their lives.
Going barefoot helps Santiago remember the joy of being a child, spending entire summers running around barefoot, but also the vulnerability.

“I’m vulnerable to being ostracized,” he said.  “I’m vulnerable to a very sharp piece of glass on the street that I don’t see before I step on it.”

After a year without shoes, Santiago’s soles developed hard calluses that protect from most ground hazards. Several times a week, he gives his feet a deep scouring to clean off dirt that can’t be scrubbed off in the shower.   

When his shoes first came off, Santiago was working with a team of adults at Holy Family to prepare teens for confirmation. His calling, which was so far outside of the norm, but also so meaningful, resonated with those teens, Santiago said. Many of his former students have grown up and gone on to college. But when they visit their home parish during holidays and summer, the first thing they do is look down to see if Santiago is still barefoot.

Occasionally, people tell Santiago that they remember feeling called to an act that was unusual, but felt deterred for a variety of reasons.

“Do it. If you feel called to it, do it,” he said.