During this COVID19 crisis, many people are suffering. Suffering with illness, losses, joblessness, and fear of losing their homes. We have seen the faces of faithful, heroic nurses, doctors, and emergency medical personnel on television, and we admire them. But a long time ago I really didn’t like suffering or being around those who are suffering. That is how I avoided meeting Mother Teresa 54 years ago. This is how it happened.
In the mid 1960's I was living in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. I was there with three others, my wife, plus a friend and his wife. He and I had graduated from seminary the year before, but neither of us wanted to go into “conventional ministry.” We were avoiding that, you could say. But an organization called the “International Studies Program,” offered us an exciting opportunity. It was a very small organization which encouraged studies in the third world for a very select type of student. To qualify, you had to be a seminary student or graduate. Neither of us had felt called to ministry at the time. We had studied out of curiosity, you could say. People actually did that during the 60's because education was so much cheaper back then.
We chose to live in Jadavpur, a sprawling Kolkata suburb, because we had been accepted to do post-graduate studies at Jadavpur University. We had our own apartments. Some stipulations of the I.S.P. support were that (1) we had to pay our own way to get to the “third world” country, and (2) we would receive only enough money to live just above poverty, about $100 per month, which is equivalent to $1,000 in today’s money. That meant we never had a refrigerator or air conditioning, for example. We shopped for food daily, and did our best to keep the rats and cockroaches out of our kitchens. The density was 86,000 people per square mile. We were to stay for two years, to “study something” and to write a letter back to our supporters once a month. We were to communicate with ordinary Indians however God led us, and to learn something from them.
By our second year, we had met a Catholic priest who taught part-time at Jadavpur University. He was really a missionary too, of course. One day he mentioned to me that I ought to take the time to go see what this unique nun, Mother Teresa, was doing in Kalighat, a traditional Hindu quarter of Kolkata. When I asked him what she was doing, he described it something like this. “She and the Missionaries of Charity sisters take care of dying people. They bring in desperate, impoverished, or abandoned people who are lying on the sidewalks or wherever they are, who are near death. They care for them and show them love. It’s a remarkable ministry.”
Mother Teresa was not known around the world at the time. I had never heard of her. It was not until the next year, 1967, that Malcolm Muggeridge first conducted a half-hour interview with Mother Teresa on BBC television. “The interview was unexceptional, so much so that there was some question whether it would be shown,” according to The Globe And Mail. That interview and a documentary two years later brought her to the world’s attention. But I had missed meeting her in 1966, when I could have.
Why? Well, perhaps you can identify with my feelings. Read that description again, a few lines above. As a 27 year-old graduate student, I was interested in book learning, studying, and meeting interesting people. But I had already seen enough sick or dying people on the sidewalks in Kolkata. It didn’t sound very interesting to meet someone like Mother Teresa and her sisters who spent all their time with these dying people. On a deeper level, I think I did not want to be around that much suffering. Would you?
Since that time I’ve discovered that being around people in the most desperate moments of life, when everything is going wrong, when suffering cannot be avoided, those lead to some of the most precious and unforgettable times. I’ve learned that lesson. And since those early years of youthful arrogance and stupidity, I have never regretted being with people in trouble.
That’s how I avoided meeting Mother Teresa, and how sorely I regret it. I wonder what opportunities you or I may be missing out on right now.
And the King will say, "I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me ! . . . I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me."
(Matthew 25:40 & 45 NLT)
© 2020 Stanley Hagemeyer