Kolkata, India, is a living city, engaging all your senses in a way that is difficult to explain through pictures, words, or even videos. There are so many people, animals, and vehicles moving throughout the city during the day until late into the night that when I first arrived, I was positive I would lose a toe in the hustle and bustle of my daily commute. Though poverty can be overwhelming to someone from a privileged and sheltered background such as mine, I immediately understood why Mother Teresa fell in love with the city when she arrived in 1929. The city draws you in to its movement. For someone with a heart for human connections, as Mother Teresa had, there was no other place for her to commit her life but the City of Joy.
On Sept. 4, 2016, nineteen years after her death, world leaders are gathering to honor Mother Teresa as she is canonized by Pope Francis at the Vatican. Some of her greatest admirers have called the Nobel Peace Prize recipient a saint for years, while some of her greatest critics do not believe she is worthy of the title or the sanctity, having transformed the complex identity of Kolkata into a simple one of poverty.
I did not work alongside Mother Teresa, and so I have only second-hand stories and my own memories of working for a few weeks with the nuns and Indian women and men in Kolkata, witnessing daily the effects of her work.
For some of my time in Kolkata, I volunteered at Shanti Dan – the home run by the Missionaries of Charity for women with various mental and physical disabilities. I had the opportunity during those mornings to work alongside physiotherapists, helping stretch the women and assisting with some physical exercises. I have no expertise in physical therapy of any kind, but the physiotherapists were good teachers and showed me how to move the women’s hands, arms, feet, and legs, to perhaps relieve them of some pain and maintain some mobility. We laughed a lot all together, despite language barriers and abilities.
I was awestruck by all that the women were able to do with the guidance of these physiotherapists. With their assistance, women with frail legs and curled feet were able to stand and even walk up and down the exercise room. Many people would have written off walking as something some of these women would never be able to do, and yet they were there, every morning – walking. There weren’t fancy machines or gadgets at Shanti Dan, and the woman received only 30-minute sessions. Yet the miracle of walking was happening every day in that house of solace.
I’m not deceived into thinking I made a major impact on the women I spent time with on those mornings. But we did laugh, and hug, and share precious time in the presence of one another. And my faith in God’s goodness and mercy was strengthened as I walked with these women, worked alongside men, and talked with nuns from all over the world who committed to service and had faith that God would guide them.
Faith is a large part of the work of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa had faith in her Lord that resources would be provided for the people she served on the streets of Kolkata and indeed she walked by a faith beyond what she could see. Beyond the poverty, illness, disability, and sadness, she saw joy, love, and the face of Jesus in each individual there. I saw what a difference such faith, in God and in other humans, can have on the lives and work of others through my time in Kolkata, and it deepened my own relationship with God in inexpressible ways. I know many others who would say the same from their experiences in one of the 130 countries where the Missionaries of Charity serve.
A sign that hung in the volunteer room at Shanti Dan quoted Mother Teresa, reading, “I pray each one of you to be holy and so spread [God’s] love everywhere you go. Light [God’s] light of truth in every person’s life so that God can continue loving the world through you and me.”
This was not just a commission for those serving in Kolkata. Poverty, violence, hatred, sadness, hopelessness, crime, greed, darkness, jealousy exist in our homes across the world. And Mother Teresa was known for encouraging people to serve their neighbors in their hometowns or wherever they are called, striving to love each person as God loves us.
Sainthood is not perfection, and we can’t achieve the perfect service of Jesus, for we are saint and sinner together. But as Mother Teresa’s life testifies: With great love, prayer, and community, we can show the light of the Lord to our neighbors.