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Remembering Mother Teresa

by Jim DeHarpporte

One of my favorite cartoons shows Moses with his arms outstretched and the Red Sea parting in front of him, while behind him stand hundreds of Israelites waiting for him to lead them through the sea. In the cartoon, he has his head half-turned and says, "What do you mean, 'Isn't it a bit muddy?' "

Mother Teresa

Mother had an easy smile. Photo by CRS Staff

This is how I sometimes feel having returned to the United States after nearly three decades in Asia and Africa as a representative for Catholic Relief Services. Yes, there are a lot of serious issues, which our Church has to recognize and address. But where is the recognition of the enormous contributions being made by the U.S. Catholic church both in this country and around the world? A shining example of these contributions is the CRS partnership with the Missionaries of Charity — the community of sisters founded and directed by Mother Theresa. On the 10th anniversary of her death, it is fitting to remember some of the priorities she humbly displayed in the slums of India.

What stood out about Mother Teresa was her total conviction that she was meeting and serving Christ in the poor, just as she met him in the Eucharist each morning. She would often speak about that to those who came to see her work.

Second, was her conviction that she and her community should live as the poor live. She had begun her work in India, as many of you probably know, as a sister of Loretta, a teaching order that came from Ireland and ran some of Calcutta's finest schools. Mother was a teacher there until she felt a call to go outside the clean and austere, but comfortably furnished, walls of the school and convent to live among the poor. Some of her students joined her and began the community that was thriving by the mid-70s.

Living as the Poor Lived

Her convents had no running water — just a pump where the sisters had to collect water each day for washing and carrying upstairs to the dormitories to clean the lavatories. Each sister had only a change of sari and a bucket for washing. The galvanized steel buckets were numbered with red paint so that each nun could identify her only possession. Mother Teresa and her nuns slept on a simple grass mat on the floor, just as the poor do. I only realized that years later while I was speaking to some of her nuns in Cambodia. They told me they wanted to invite her, but she had no place to stay in Bangkok, where she would have to stop on the flight from Calcutta to Phnom Penh. So, I offered my home, but then the sisters said I would have to remove the bed and any furniture from the room before she could stay there.

And it was not only an austere life in terms of living conditions and possessions, but food as well. Each day the sisters ate only a little tea for breakfast and rice and dal [lentils] for lunch. Once a week — on Thursdays — which was also their day off and was a day of prayer — they could look forward to their weekly meal that contained some meat, but it was mostly tripe. One time, one of the novices, who was an American, told me how hard it was for her, so I snuck her a hamburger one day. But she only did that once.

The sisters' routine began at 4:30 every morning when they woke up and began an hour of meditation. Mass was at 6, followed by a light breakfast of tea and a banana and some bread. After that, they washed and cleaned the house and by 9, they were out in twos, visiting the sick and homeless on the streets or one of the centers where the poor are served.

The third thing that never ceased to amaze me was the joy of Mother and all of her sisters. In spite of the desperate condition of those living in poverty, the sisters were never sad or even businesslike. Rather, they went about their tasks with great cheer and joy. They would always be smiling and I would wonder, How do they do it?

Mother had an easy smile and she would always find a way to make a point and to challenge her visitors. She seemed to enjoy asking for things and waiting for the reaction. I was always afraid to tell her, for example, that I was going to New Delhi or to the United States because she would send over a bag of mail — without stamps — to be posted in the country of destination. And her sisters would pick up on her tricks and little impositions. Years later, when I would visit her communities in Ethiopia or Cambodia, they would do the same thing.

One day, I told her how wonderful her work was and that I felt that all I was doing — just working in an office — didn't match up. "Well," she said, "that's important work too, but you know our sisters take Thursdays off and you can come and work in one of our homes on that day." It seemed like Christ saying to his disciples, "If you want to follow me, leave all you possess." And you know the rest of the story.

Jim DeHarpporte is CRS regional director for the western United States, based in San Diego. He has worked with CRS since 1973, serving in the Philippines, India, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Thailand and Indonesia.

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