I have only in the last few years been drawn to the life and ministry of Mother Teresa. I was raised believing that she was not a “Christian,” because she was Catholic and “our people” didn’t put much stock in her or the work that she was doing. Six years ago, after my first trip to India, my theology (maybe more accurately my faith) went through a terrifying upheaval. Angrily, I came home from India no longer content with a Gospel that I saw as providing a ticket to heaven, but not addressing the hells that people are living in today.
In a desperate attempt to hold on to any remnant of faith from my past, I went to the Gospels and began looking anew at Jesus—Jesus, the person. Jesus, who the Bible claims was God in the flesh. I studied his teachings and looked at his life. So much of my upbringing in the church had been focused upon his death and resurrection, and then later upon his Great Commission, that I had never really examined who he was.
What I saw filled me with wonder as I saw him healing the sick, casting out demons, holding little children, feeding the hungry, forgiving the broken, extending mercy to sinners, loving the outcasts—the “least of these” in society—and standing up for them against the religious jerks who made it impossible to feel God’s favor. I was gravitationally attracted to this Jesus and realized this is who we are to be—transformed into the image of His likeness.
I read authors I admired that pointed to Mother Teresa as an example, and realized I really knew nothing about her. As I researched her life, I felt that same gravitational pull. Here was a woman who sacrificially gave herself to the “least of these”—because she heard Jesus calling her to do so. I read of her love for Jesus and her utter devotion to Him. I even appreciated her struggles, the doubts that came to light in her journals, as I could now totally relate! I respected her perseverance in her call, and I think most of all I admired the simplicity of her love—the love that God gave to her, with which she in turn loved the people she encountered.
My one regret: I found her after she had already “gone to her reward.” How I wish I could have seen her in action.
So when Jessi and I went to Kolkata, I determined that I wanted to go and spend at least one day volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in the Home for the Dying and Destitute. This was the place where her ministry began, simply picking up dying people from the streets of India, cleaning them, feeding them, loving them and offering them dignity as they died.
I only had one day. What could I really do? Not much. Other volunteers from all over the world, many who had been there for months or even years gathered in a hall for a simple breakfast of bananas, bread and chai and to hear instructions for the day. I stood there among these experienced world travelers and long-term volunteers, and that old, familiar insecurity of my youth snuck up on me.
“What am I doing here? I don’t know how things work. I’m only here for a day. What can I really do? These other folks probably think I’m pretty wimpy for only coming one day. Perhaps they even think I’m selfish—coming to have “an experience,” rather than to genuinely serve the poor and needy. Oh, I hope that’s not what I’ve done. What if that’s really why I’m here?!”
The nun gave instructions about a number of things that didn’t apply to me as a short-termer, but the part I heard for me stood out, “The Sisters are all very busy; don’t bother them with questions. Just ask another of the volunteers. There’s plenty to do. They will help you.”
I followed the crowd out the door onto a bus to the Home for the Dying, the whole way second guessing and reconsidering this perhaps foolish thing I had done. “What if I can’t handle the sights? What if I can’t take the smells? What if I cry? Oh God, what if I end up standing in a corner watching everyone else do the work, because I just don’t know what to do with myself?” (This is an old insecurity that sometimes plagues me.)
A French lady on the bus tried to make pleasant conversation. She asked where I was from and how long I would be staying. When I told her I was just there for a day, there was an awkward silence that added to my fears.
The bus stopped, and we filed into the home. We walked through a long room full of low, cot-like beds, each one occupied by a thin, Indian man. It smelled strongly of disinfectant. I glanced around, but then kept my eyes ahead on the volunteers, who went upstairs to lockers and put down their bags. People took off their jewelry and rolled up their sleeves. I followed.
A young girl in her early twenties smiled at me. She looked nice, so I got in line behind her. She headed down the stairs, and I followed. We entered a room where there were large, tile basins full of soapy water. Piles of soiled sheets, pajamas and blankets covered the floor. People started grabbing items, stuffing them in the basins and scrubbing.
Okay. I can do this. I know how to wash. I stepped up beside the girl and put my hands in the bubbles. We scrubbed and rinsed, wrung and hung things for a couple of hours. An assembly line of cheerful volunteers.
A lady poked her head in and said, “We need help making beds.” I know how to do that. The girl I had followed dried her hands too, so I followed her into the women’s ward. The room was filled with rows of the same low beds. A thin, fragile-looking women lay on each one. A volunteer sat next to one bed, holding a nebulizer to a woman’s nose and mouth, helping her to breathe. Another volunteer massaged the hands and arms of a woman who lay completely still. Another combed the tangled hair of a frail and tiny lady.
The German woman who had called for help thrust a pile of linens at me and said, “We’ll move the ladies. You make the beds.” The girl and I got busy. Gently they lifted a woman and lay her on the next bed, while I removed the sheet and blanket. We worked together to wipe the plastic covered mattress with disinfectant and then tied up the corners of the sheets that volunteers must have washed the day before. They gently returned the woman to her bed, and we moved to the next one.
Some of the ladies smiled. Some spoke words I could not understand. Many stared with no expression at all, perhaps even unaware that they now had clean sheets.
Beds all finished, I looked at the girl and asked, “What’s next?” I followed her upstairs to a table piled high with bulbs of garlic. We sat down with a few other volunteers to peel hundreds of cloves for the evening meal.
Soon it was time for lunch, and a call came for help downstairs. Someone put full plates in my hands, and I followed others who took the food to the women in the beds. Some could feed themselves. The longer-term volunteers knew who needed help, and they sat down to spoon feed the ones who were too weak.
Plates all distributed, I stood watching. I wasn’t sure what to do next. “Oh, no. Here’s that feeling. Only here for a day. What was I thinking? The long-term volunteers have this totally under control. Maybe I’m just in the way.”
I spotted that girl going into the kitchen, so once again I followed. No time for thinking, as basins had been filled, and once again my hands went into soapy water. I know how to wash dishes. Again, an assembly line of cheerful volunteers—doing the work.
Suddenly I remembered something I had read, something that Mother Teresa had told a discouraged volunteer many years ago. She had said, “You must learn to pray the work.”
The crisis of faith that I experienced six years ago left me reeling. After twenty years of serving Him, I was not even sure that God existed. And yet . . . I could not deny the personal experiences that I had known with him. He has gently and lovingly been rebuilding for me the foundation of faith that I now know that He deconstructed. A new—and I hope better—faith has been growing in me.
However, one of the areas that I still often struggle is prayer. I pray. I can’t help myself. It is so much a part of who I have been. But I have watched many a fervent prayer go unanswered in my life—prayers from godly people, about things that most certainly are God’s will—and honestly . . . I just don’t know.
I am totally comfortable with prayer for intimacy’s sake. For conversation. Even for transformation of myself. What I struggle with is petition. I don’t know anymore what prayer does. Do we convince God to do things that he otherwise would not have done? Why do some prayers get answered and others don’t? Does God intervene? If so, why sometimes and other times not? Why for him and not for her? Why for Americans and not for Indians?
These are the struggles of my own walk of faith—but with my hands in the dishwater, suddenly I understood what Mother Teresa meant.
So many times at Joe’s Addiction, I am faced with overwhelming need. I don’t know what to do. The needs are so often not simple. Layers of issues complicate. Not enough money (Though I know money doesn’t fix everything, so many times it seems like it would sure make things better for folks!). Not enough food. No home for this person. Can’t seem to help this one get (and keep) a job. Can’t get this one to stay sober.
In the ever present sense of helplessness, I often look at people and say, “I don’t have a house for you, but are you hungry?” Sometimes I say, “Can I take your dirty laundry home and wash it for you?” These are my favorite things to do at Joe’s—because I can do them. I sometimes don’t know what else to do, but I can feed and I can wash.
Mother Teresa must have lived in the despair of helplessness. The poverty of India overwhelms me. But somehow, she found solace in simply “praying the work.” The work of serving, of practically loving and caring for the least of these is a connection with the God of the Universe. Perhaps it is a most precious place of intimacy, because as she said, we see the face of Jesus in the poor and needy. “Whatever you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”
Dishes done and put away, the volunteers began to disperse. Small groups picked up their bracelets and bags and headed for the door. I looked at the girl I’d been following and asked, “Are we done? Is that all?” She said, “Yes, the Sisters take care of the afternoons. We just work until after lunch.”
As we went upstairs to gather our things, I thanked her. “Thanks for helping me today. I looked for someone who seemed like they knew what they were doing and decided to follow you.”
Her eyes widened, and she laughed out loud. “I just got here yesterday! Today was my second day!”
This is the way of the Kingdom. None of us has any idea what we are doing, really. We’re each just doing our best to follow Jesus. We look around and we see someone who looks a little down the road from us, so we jump in behind them and start following. Praying the work together. An assembly line of cheerful volunteers.