Monday, January 19, 2015

A Story of Hope: Mother Teresa

Yesterday I had the beautiful privilege of visiting the Mothers of Charity home in Kolkata - the convent where Mother Teresa spent most of her ministry and her last days.

The home is also the final resting place of Mother Teresa. It was an incredible experience to visit and learn more about the life and work of this amazing woman in the home and presence of the sisters she led while alive. She truly was an inspiration, a reason to hope for a better future in India - and the world.

Though we now know her as Mother Teresa, she was born in 1910 as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, in modern-day Skopje, Macedonia. She left home at age 18 to become a missionary with the Sisters of Loreto. She spent a few years learning English and Bengali in Ireland and Darjeeling before taking her vows, at which point she took on the name Teresa.

She moved to Calcutta to work at a convent school, where she served dutifully for decades. Eventually, Mother Teresa became the headmistress of this school, but the position did not last long. She began seeing the poverty, hunger, and violence around her in this Indian city and became burdened for these people.

At this point, Mother Teresa felt the "call within her call" to work as a missionary to the poor. During this time she also became an Indian citizen and began dressing in traditional Indian clothing rather than her traditional habit. The situation in Calcutta was certainly dire at the time, with a recent famine leaving families broken and violence between Hindus and Muslims causing turmoil.

Mother Teresa did not let this deter her. In fact, it drove her to the streets with even more passion, seeing the enormous need. I could list all of the impressive accolades she received for her service, but many of you probably already know these. What I found most impressive about this woman was the simplicity that clearly surrounded her daily life.

The Mother Teresa house is by no means a tourist attraction. There is no cost to enter, photographs are only allowed in the tomb room, and life goes on in the convent as if no visitors are there. Besides the small museum (a mere room on the ground floor), the only memorials there to this great woman are her tomb and the room where she lived.

Her room touched me more than anything else. I've seen walk in closets bigger than her room. It was so modest for such an influential woman. There was a small desk, a twin size bed, and a chest of drawers. Here Mother Teresa answered letters, slept, and prepared for the day. The rest of her life was spent in the streets meeting the obvious needs.

Even more simple, though, was Mother Teresa's earliest strategy. I felt that this trip was an important reminder that sometimes we can far overthink service or aid. While I do believe it is important to discuss best practice or effective methods, at a certain point, someone simply must go.

Go, she did. Though Mother Teresa prepared herself with some medical training and language study, she did not spend years strategizing or prioritizing. She once said:

"If you cannot feed a hundred, just feed one."

Though this was one of the more straightforward quotes painted on a board in the museum that honors its speaker, it struck a chord deep within me. I spend a great deal of time thinking about the larger vision of poverty alleviation and human rights, but how often do I give food to a beggar on the street?

Now, of course Mother Teresa also participated in this world so that larger scale changes were made. She spoke to large crowds on the issue of poverty. Her ministries eventually spread to over 100 countries. She participated in humanitarian efforts in response to nearly every major crisis of her time. Yes her service began (and continued) by simply going out to the slums in her own neighborhood with a basket of food and minimal medical expertise.

My visit to the Mother Teresa house was a much needed reminder that those in this fight must walk a fine balance of vision for large-scale change and a compassion for individuals. May I never lose sight of either.



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