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I’m back from Calcutta and still having nightmares

Slum Dwellers Live Near Railroad In India

Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images

KOLKATA, INDIA - NOVEMBER 12: Slum dwellers live by a railroad track Kolkata, India. India's slum population is projected to rise to 93.06 million by 2011, or 7.75 percent of the total population, according to a report of an expert committee set up by the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry. (Photo by Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images)

Jeffrey Bruno - published on 09/15/16

'Poorest of the poor' isn't some catchy little slogan ...

I didn’t want to write this. Probably because I didn’t want to think about it. Since I returned home from Calcutta, I’ve been trying to shake off what first seemed like a major case of jetlag. I’ve been referring to it as my “India hangover.” I’m battling extreme fatigue and trying to laugh it off, and I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, terrified that I’m still there. I’ve been avoiding conversations about it, and not even wanting to archive the photos I took. Something’s been seriously off.

So this morning, in an effort to shake off whatever has been bugging me, I went running on one of the toughest trails I know. It’s sandy, hilly and full of obstacles that always guarantee sweat, pain and occasionally some blood. It’s the best way I know to eliminate stress and also get a clear perspective on things…and after a mile or so, I realized what the problem was.

When I was in Calcutta I wandered around by myself through the streets one day, getting lost once or twice and seeing things that someone from the West just isn’t prepared for. I saw children being bathed in puddles, families sleeping in the streets with only a mat and a tarp for a home, people and animals together picking through piles of food waste discarded on the streets by the vendors.

As I walked through the streets, unable to fully process what I was seeing, I couldn’t even lift my camera to take a picture. Never in my wildest nightmares had I imagined that this level of poverty could exist in the modern world.

More to read: I put away my camera in Calcutta … and learned to see

I wrote a bunch about the grace-filled response of the Missionaries of Charity without really explaining the environment in which they were serving. It’s one thing to watch movies or see photos of these places, but it’s really quite another to walk among those who are suffering. In this case suffering from mind-numbing, bone crushing, abject poverty. And to them … this is life.

There are no safety nets, no welfare systems, no path to anything, and no way out, except death. I realize now why Christ said “the poor will always be with you”…because I don’t think anyone can fathom a way to ‘fix’ this.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. …

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

I now believe that Christ’s very Heart is in Calcutta, and to serve there IS to truly serve Him. When Saint Teresa of Calcutta arrived to serve the “poorest of the poor,” that wasn’t just a catchy little slogan … these, in fact, are the poorest of the poor in putrid, gut-wrenching misery.

In looking back and revisiting the experience, it’s become incredibly clear to me that she was on the path to sainthood from the moment she responded to this call, because it would require grace beyond measure to willingly go into these places, into what I can only describe as three-dimensional poverty, and seek to serve Christ.

A good friend once told me “If you don’t tell both sides of the story, it’s propaganda”… and it would be wrong to speak only of the amazing rewards of serving alongside the Missionaries of Charity in India, so in writing this, I hope to present some context.

Volunteering to serve was one of the greatest gifts and most grace-filled experiences of my life. It’s amazing to experience the brutally stark contrast of incomprehensible suffering and an equal and opposite response of Grace… a war rages on there, probably until the end of time.

Stop for a second, and give thanks for all you have, the good and the bad … because in the reeking, hot and humid, smoke-filled alleys of Calcutta exists a poverty beyond description … the ultimate poverty … a poverty that can only be answered by Grace …

Saint Mother Teresa, please inspire those called to respond to the challenge to serve Christ in these darkest of places, that more Saints may be created …

Mother Teresa
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