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Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta
June 14, 2000

"We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop."

-Mother Teresa

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I'm in Calcutta and as I take a rickshaw to the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse, where Mother Theresa worked until her death in 1997, I have the opportunity to reflect on poverty. My rickshaw-wallah is on foot, and he has no shoes. He carries me for half an hour through city streets where bicycles, buses, motorbikes, and pedestrians compete for space. Flies land on me. The incense smoke, noise, heat, and the sight of so many people playing, bathing, eating, and squatting in the streets almost overwhelms me. Calcutta teems with 12 million people, many of them refugees. During Partition as well as the 1971 war with Bangladesh, thousands flooded into this city in the west of Bengal, and many set up permanent camps with little space and almost no water, which soon led to an absence of basic hygiene. City of Joy, a book by Dominique LaPierre, recounts the situation of one of the poorest slums, and is worth reading for more vivid descriptions of the situation here.

About Mother Teresa:

Mother Teresa was born Gonxha (Agnes) Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910, in Serbia. She was the youngest of three surviving children of Albanian parents. At 18, she left home and went to Ireland to join the Loreto Sisters of Dublin, an order of nuns who were missionaries and educators. Three years later, while posted in Darjeeling, she made her first vows as a Sister, taking the name Teresa in honor of two saints, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux.

When I visited one of Mother Teresa's clinics in Delhi, Sisters Amalrani and Sister Eric pointed out a poster on the wall with a quote from Teresa of Avila. This quote describes the beliefs of the Missionaries of Charity:

Let nothing perturb you,
nothing frighten you
All things pass
God does not change.
Patience achieves everything
Whoever has God
lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.

I arrive at the Missionaries of Charity Motherhouse, ask the rickshaw-wallah to wait, and enter the unpretentious building on the corner. I take off my sandals and leave them under the chalkboard, which has a colorful pink-and-green illustration scribbled on it. "Love begins at home," the message on the chalkboard reads. I enter a small room with blue and white curtains and realize that I'm really here. Mother Teresa herself, founder of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity, is buried under a white marble tombstone at the side of this room. An oil lamp burns nearby, surrounded by potted plants, and a small statue of Mary with a rosary sits next to the headstone, which is inscribed with a line from the Gospels: "Love one another as I have loved you."

When I kneel down to pay my respects, the tomb doesn't feel dead or cold. Instead, the whole room seems filled with warmth and compassion. In 1948, Mother Teresa received permission from the pope to leave her established order. She worked alone as an independent nun with only her faith in God to guide her. Mother Teresa described herself as "God's pencil--a tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes." She cared for the sick and the dying, many of whom were abandoned on the same streets I just passed in the rickshaw.

Mother Theresa had no idea how much she would influence the city of Calcutta, and eventually, the world. She's been called a 20th century apostle and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work with the poor. Despite Mother Theresa's death in 1997, her order shows no signs of diminishing. In the room today, I recognize Indian, Kenyan, Filipina, and Western faces, smiling underneath white saris with blue stripes. These Sisters continue to provide a message of light, hope, and love in more than a dozen countries.

A Well-known Expression:

"Give a person a fish, they eat for a day. Teach a person how to fish, they learn how to eat for a lifetime."

One story about Mother Teresa is about a government official who criticized her method of caring for the poor. This official thought the poor would be better served if Mother Teresa "taught them how to fish." She replied, "The people I take care of--they are disabled, they're hungry, they're sick, they're rejected by society, they have forgotten what love is. They are completely broken. I will give them the fish to eat and then when they are able to stand and hold the rod, I will hand them over to you and you give them the rod to catch the fish."

As the Sisters prepare for a memorial mass, one of them hands me a songbook. Outside I already hear women's voices lifted in glorious

teems - to become filled to overflowing
unpretentious - free from elegance, modest
rosary - a string of beads used in counting prayers
Gospels - one of the first four New Testament books telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ

, and I am amazed at how the Sisters exhibit such warmth while working in extremely difficult conditions like those in the Nirmal Hriday (home for the dying) and the Shanti Nagar (treatment centers for those suffering from leprosy). "Works of love are works of peace," Mother Teresa has written. The example of her life and the lives of the other Sisters at the Missionaries of Charity demonstrate to me that, even in the most challenging of situations, peace really is possible in the world.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Andrew - Burial at Sea: Being Thrown to the Fishes in Teeming Varanasi
Abeja - Trading With The Enemy? How One Company Dominated India
Andrew - Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to meet an eight year old monk?)!
Monica - Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Jasmine - Village of Angels

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