Today I put away my camera to join the volunteers who assist the Missionaries of Charity with their work. There were about 80 of us, of different nationalities, religions, and backgrounds, deployed as one unit into the field.
Knowing no one and nothing of navigating the streets of Calcutta posed some challenges, but my friend Sr. Ita came to my rescue again and introduced me to two volunteers from Egypt, Bassem and Iriny, who happened to be going to the locations I was.
More to read: My trip with Sr. Ita to the ward for disabled children
One of the things about this type of mission work, as I’ve learned also on mission trips in the States, is that the people you work alongside become friends quickly. You’re thrown together by chance, and then work together toward a common good — a true bond is formed.
The first destination was Daya Dan, which is a home for disabled children. As we entered it struck me that this truly was a home. It felt as if I entered into a big family — sisters, volunteers, children, all a family — and our first task? Laundry! We washed it, scrubbed it, and hung it on clothes lines … just like home!
When the job was done we went to sit with the kids for a “quiet time.” We were directed by Sister to close our eyes and just be. I’m not sure if it calmed the kids as much as it calmed me … because, see, as a photojournalist, I’m always looking at things with the perspective of a lens. Telling myself to put my camera down is kind of like telling myself not to breathe. I was going out of my mind! There was so much to capture in this place.
That quiet time with the kids was what I needed to calm down and live in the moment and be present to those I was here to assist, to forget about what I wanted to do and do what I came to do …
And so it began. I sat down with several young boys and told them stories about my dog and about the Great Gray Bridge. I held them, fed them, laughed with them, discussed windshield wipers and motor cycles, and tried my best to love them as if they were my own children … they didn’t speak English … so they probably thought I was crazy … but they seemed enamored with my silly hand gestures and exaggerated speech. The only language that mattered was that of love.
Toward the end of our visit something that felt like a monsoon came through. There was torrential rain and we had a schlep ahead of us. We were to travel to Nirmal Hriday, the home for the Destitute Dying, which was a trek away.
As the last child went off for a nap, we departed. And we got wet. It was uncomfortable, particularly for Iriny who had neither rain gear nor umbrella, but she was a real trouper — a real wet trouper!
Bessem, who is a three-time veteran of serving in Calcutta, led us to a popular haunt where volunteers grab some lunch. There were five of us, two from Egypt, one from China, one from Taiwan, and me … we broke bread and talked … a memory I will cherish.
More to read: Now I see why Mother Teresa chose Calcutta
Nirmal Hriday was the very first home Mother Teresa founded. It is a hospice for the sick, destitute and dying. Before Mother Teresa sought permission to use it, the building was an abandoned Hindu Temple. The hospice was founded by Mother Teresa on her 42nd birthday, two years after she established the Missionaries of Charity.
After the experience with the children, I expected this to be terrifying. The idea of people on death’s door … diseases, age, disabilities … well, how could this be pleasant?
We entered the building and were ushered into a space with about 50 men sitting in rows in a large room. They were all dressed in blue. First impression? Uncertainty. What do I do? What do I say? Lord, please help me…
The ice quickly broke when we were directed to help the men take their medicine … I was handed a pill and a cup of water and told to give it to a very old man. He couldn’t see very well and had a lot of difficulty moving. I sat with him holding his hand for about 20 minutes trying to get him to take the pill. He didn’t want to.
As I sat before him, I saw him. I saw a man who lived a life, who now was in a home for the dying, but had never lost his dignity. I held his hands, moved close to him and just smiled. He looked at me … and I saw a moment of happiness in his eyes … and then he took his medicine. The language of being present and love triumphed again…
What did I learn from all this?
Be still, be present and love as Jesus does. As I realized this, I remembered what Mother Teresa said:
“God is still present in the world today, through you and me…”
Come to Calcutta, it’ll change your life…
More to read: Seeking Mother Teresa (and God) in Calcutta