On Dec. 25, 1993, I visited Mother Teresa in what was then Calcutta, and is now Kolkata, India. I had arrived in India the previous August for a planned nine-month period of independent study as a part of my preparation for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
While my program involved a number of travels in India, Calcutta was my home base, and there I sought opportunities to learn and to serve. One project I undertook eagerly was volunteering to work as an assistant with children at the Gandhi Centre, run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
Each day I walked for nearly an hour from my lodging, past rows of rickshaw pullers, through a maze of congested streets and alleys, to the center’s walled enclosure, and there I was greeted by a crowd of barefooted boys and girls, ranging in age from about 4 to 11, all dressed in tattered, bedraggled clothes.
The adults at the center included a few nuns in their signature white cotton saris with blue borders of Missionaries of Charity, and volunteer helpers from various countries. Although most volunteers did not speak any Indian language, our job was to teach/manage/entertain groups of children in “classes,” something like a school. We managed to make it through the ABCs, some children’s songs, a bit of math and coloring with crayons. Often, when the children grew exceptionally unruly, we volunteers knew we had to call in Sister Josma, who carried a big stick that assured order.
Since most, perhaps all, of the children were Muslim or Hindu, it struck me as strange to have the children coloring pictures of Christmas trees, but then again, this was Mother Teresa’s Gandhi Centre, and while they were in it, the children were relatively safe and received at least one meal each day.
I was told that these were children of “pavement dwellers,” families that literally live, eat and sleep on the street. The children came to the center by themselves, just for the day. At the end of my first chaotic afternoon, as the children drifted out of the compound, barefoot and grubby, dodging the heavy traffic, Sister Josma said to me in a low voice, “We have them for a few hours. Now they go back to the streets.”
I observed, in succeeding days, that these small children would dart through crowds and across streets, with 8-year-olds holding the hands of 4-year-olds, independently surviving on street smarts as they made their way to and from the center. If they saw me as I worked my way through the chaos of the streets, they would greet me with wide smiles and shouts of “Hello, Uncle.”
On Christmas Day, I walked to the center early in the morning and found it had been transformed. The courtyard had been swept and washed, and was decorated with colored balloons and streamers. In addition to the usual children, volunteers and nuns, a number of young women whom I believe were novices had come in to prepare for a very special Christmas celebration. The great highlight of the day was to be a visit with Mother Teresa at the Mother House.
The children had all been bathed – I have no idea where or how – and dressed in new clothes. The girls were all in splendid, new, long-sleeved dresses with colorful patterns, and the boys were in quite an array of buttoned shirts and ironed pants. Some even wore new shoes and socks. With their hair properly combed and treated, they looked, and even acted, angelic as they anticipated their meeting with a very special person.
We all were packed into a large, rickety van for the long ride to the Mother House. Being the oldest of the volunteers, I was given a seat in front, with at least two layers of children on top of me. We arrived safely, were ushered in, and waited eagerly with a crowd for the arrival of Mother Teresa.
Suddenly, conversation hushed as all attention focused on a small woman, bent over with age, wearing a blue cardigan over her blue-edged white sari, who shuffled into the room, her large hands clasped at her waist. Without anyone saying anything, the atmosphere changed. We were in the presence of an extraordinary human being, a tiny person, so much larger than life, who exuded charisma.
I had heard of the lifetime of good work that had been done by the Missionaries of Charity, which she had founded, whose mission was to care for, in Mother Teresa’s own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone, the poorest of the poor.”
Here she was, a woman who was born in 1910 to an Albanian family in Macedonia, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, but who had lived out her life of service, first in India, and then, through the Missionaries of Charity, reaching out to the neediest people all around the world.
Here was a personage fluent in five languages – Bengali, Albanian, Serbian, English and Hindi – who had been one of the most respected people in the world over the course of many years, who had received numerous honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. People of all religions celebrated her life of compassion. Calcutta, predominantly a Hindu and Muslim city, embraced her as, simply, “The Mother.”
We all stood as the children, now in their very best behavior, sang songs and The Mother led us all in prayer. After about an hour, it was time for us to leave. As we passed through the door, The Mother handed each of us a plastic bag containing fruit and bread.
After the bumpy ride back to the center, the children were directed to sit in rows on the concrete floor and were served dinner that featured rice and dal.
As daylight diminished and the children prepared to leave, I was shocked to see that they had changed back into their ragged clothes. When I questioned Sister Josma, she responded that the children would not be safe if they returned to the street in new clothes. The refuge of the Gandhi Centre was only for the day; at night they were on their own.
Mother Teresa died four years later, in 1997. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II as “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” in 2003. It is widely anticipated that she will named “Saint Teresa” in the future.
John Rex served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. He taught in the Akron Central School District for 27 years before he entered the Unitarian Universalist ministry and served congregations in Virginia and Florida. He is now enjoying retirement in Buffalo, and travels widely, visiting India for the sixth time earlier this year.