Father Josef Eugster may not be the best evangelist for converting people to Christianity. He may not have touched the hearts of millions of Taiwanese, but he's easily Taiwan's most famous and influencial foreign priest for having touched people's feet. He declares his pioneering foot massage in Taiwan to be "God's gift."
"This is Chang-pin Catholic Church, I'm Father Wu Ro-shih," 62-year-old Eugster said in fluent Mandarin when answering a phone call from the Taipei Times. Actually, Father Eugster's accent is more Taiwanese because the first language he learned when arriving in Taiwan 30 years ago was Taiwanese.
Back then, a shy young man from the Swiss village of Berneck came to Taiwan's east coast town of Taitung, where people pray in shrines and Amis Aborigines hunt and hold ceremonies by the sea. The only plan he had in mind was to serve God. But how?
"It is really difficult to try to preach to Taiwanese!" Father Eugster said. He recalled that during his first few years in Taitung, his sermons always made people doze off. "I prayed to God, asking him to give me a good method for preaching, and then He made me sick," Eugster said. Now he says he's grateful that he was troubled by arthritis -- if he weren't, he would not have read the book about reflexology and began massaging first his own and then other people's feet.
When an old man was leaving the church following mass, he looked uninterested in my sermon and complained of a headache. "I grabbed his feet, saying `please give me five minutes,'" Eugster said. "I showed him, `here is a reflex area for your headache' and began massaging it for him." Like that, Eugster found his new method of preaching. Unlike other Western priests, who often bring rice or flour to remote villages, Father Eugster brings his hands.
His Taitung Catholic church has been packed ever since. There are often even hundreds of people lined up at the door of the church at midnight. One time, Eugster was too exhausted from doing massage and fell ill with nephritis. "I was hospitalized and couldn't do any massage, so I asked them to go to the beach to find pebbles to step on," Eugster said. This became the origin of "pebble paths" meandering through many of Taiwan's parks.
"Ninety percent of the people came to the church just for their health problems, only 10 percent were interested in the spiritual," Eugster said. But he never gives up hope. "Maybe in 10, 20 years, they will want to listen to God's words," he said.
Fame has brought its share of trouble. In 1980, people abusing his name began prescribing medicine. His taxes were checked and the Department of Health charged him with practicing medicine without a doctor's certificate. "I even received calls [from people] threatening to kill me," he said.
Eugster took an eight-month leave to study in Jerusalem. "I was actually suffering from neurasthenia and couldn't sleep at nights. I needed a break to find myself again," he said.
As foot massage became popular in urban areas, with his name and picture widely printed on clinics' signboards, Father Eugster returned to Taiwan's remote villages. Back from Jerusalem, he was transferred to Chang-ping, a small village at the border between Hualien and Taitung, distancing himself from money and fame.
"This is the most beautiful place in the world, with mountains and the sea. I have a farm for growing vegetables and I often go swimming in the sea, and sometimes fishing," he said.