I have been asked to offer some reflections on my experience as a volunteer in Calcutta, India with Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity.
Despite intense psychological preparation for my trip to Calcutta, I was in no way prepared for what I encountered on my arrival there. The dirt, the heat, the smell, was so overwhelming that I contemplated going home immediately. Off in a distant field outside the city through a haze of pollution, I saw the familiar blue and white saris of the Missionaries of Charity assisting some of the people in this remote community. I understood at that moment, the love and dedication that these people have in their conviction – service to the poorest of the poor. It was their strength that encouraged and sustained me.
Working in Calcutta, first in an orphanage, and then in Kalighat (Home for the Dying), was yet again overwhelming. The sight of these poor and homeless children and the sorry condition of some of the patients at Kalighat overcame me with pity. After observing how the Sisters loved and cared for these abandoned souls, I felt that they were privileged to be in Mother Teresa’s care.
Joy amid suffering
The faces of the sick in Kalighat while the Sisters fed, hugged and touched them was a beautiful sight despite their sad circumstances. The smiling faces at the leprosarium where the lepers live in their own self-contained community was inspiring.
Mother Teresa said she bought looms for the lepers to use to earn money for themselves – to give them a sense of pride. When Brother Joseph takes you through the leprosarium, the people are busy making beautiful tablecloths, bedspreads, and the Missionaries’ saris. Their sense of pride is apparent. The beautiful little orphan children hugged and kissed by the Sisters, given treats, always dressed in the best clothes possible. Attending the weddings of several girls who had grown up in the orphanage was inspiring. These were happy and well educated girls – some had asked for arranged marriages – some married the men of their choosing. I went with Mother Teresa to the wedding of two children who had grown up in the orphanage. Their parents were lepers living in Mother Teresa’s home for lepers just outside of Calcutta. On the day of the wedding, Mother asked where the parents were. Upon finding that they did not want to embarrass the children by attending the wedding, Mother immediately went in her car to pick them up. I have never attended a more beautiful wedding.
I have read some unfortunate criticism of Mother Teresa’s ministry. Some of the criticism even comes from people who like myself, have done volunteer work with Mother Teresa. I have read many inaccuracies and distortions from people who I believe understand very little about the Missionaries of Charity or their philosophy – people who do not understand the sacrifice of a lifetime or the enormity of organizing a ministry that involves hundreds of thousands of people in over 100 countries.
‘Share in giving’
Mother Teresa did not need any volunteers – or observers – nor did she ever ask. When people asked what they could do, she invited them to come and see what they would like to do – not what she would have wanted them to do. She allowed them the privilege “to share in the joy of giving.”
The criticism of her stance on abortion is baffling. Mother Teresa has had natural family planning clinics in Calcutta since the 1960s. Her home for the dying was not a proper hospital facility – it wasn’t meant to be, but she does have alternative arrangements. The director of the Assembly of God Hospital in Calcutta, Dr. Ben Alisha, takes all of the patients from Kalighat who need extensive medical attention.
Mother Teresa told us that I should take what I learned in Calcutta home to our own countries. “Some of the poor,” she said, “may be in our own families. Find them and love them.” She warned us that we should always be prepared for criticism. “If you try to do something, you will be criticized.” She was right.
My time in Calcutta has become an integral part of my day-to-day living since the moment I left, and it lives with me in my heart every day of my life. Ultimately, the experience moved me to a new direction in both my Christian faith and my faith in humanity.