Souls from all over the world
come to serve the poor, sick, and dying in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa (to be canonized a saint this September).
Visiting at tea times and meals, for daily mass and prayer, and for outings to shops and Bollywood films, the volunteers — like touching a wick to another flame — have the opportunity to ignite each other’s hearts.
While we are all called ‘volunteers,’ we pray every morning that we each come to “a true realization of the privilege that is mine.”
I love that part. I choke up every time. The privilege truly is ours.
These 12 short, colorful snippets offer a peek into the souls of those we had the pleasure to work with in Calcutta.
Claire – At 19, Claire knows nearly every volunteer and Sister. She’s spunky, confident, and has a way of gathering people together. Claire’s been volunteering in Calcutta for four months already, and she’ll shrug one shoulder when you ask her how long she’s staying. It’ll either be the end of July or September.
And when asked about what she’ll “do with her life,” she’ll softly put up a hand and say, “That’s not for now.” Claire’s not worried — she’s taking the road where it leads.
Helmut – Helmut Jenners’ German accent fondly reminds Joe of his late grandfather, Adolf Jonaitis. Joe lit up when he introduced me to his new friend, who is proud of his 5 kids with distinct career paths: a professor at Cambridge, a catastrophe manager for Africa, a journalist, an opera singer, and a Buddhist monk. Now that’s an impressive variety.
80 year-old Helmut never slowed down since retiring from serving as a Lutheran pastor for 40 years, either. Since retiring 15 years ago, he splits his years: 6 months in Germany, 6 months serving the poor in Calcutta.
He also speaks 12 languages. Instead of reading the newspaper in the morning, he reads a language book. One of the reasons he comes to Calcutta is for simpleness. “I have pain and you have pain,” he says, “I can help someone be relieved of their pain. Life can be so complicated sometimes. You don’t have to worry about repairing your fancy car.”
Of his name, Helmut says, “What can I do about it now? I’m 80!”
Andi – Andi and I overlapped for just one day at Prem Dan — our placement within the Missionaries of Charity — a home for the sick and the dying.
I liked Andi right away — she was focused — her mission was to work and serve. I followed Andi as she did laundry duty, massaged the residents, and helped feed them at lunch time. I appreciated Andi’s mentorship-by-example. After just one day with her, I was confident and knowledgeable enough to serve each day forward.
Eileen – When I first met her, I had to listen. Eileen is soft-spoken — and incredibly sweet, gentle, and intelligent. For 26, she’s well-traveled, has a masters degree in cello, and loves to teach. In just our handful of interactions, Eileen offered deep encouragement to me to keep writing. She showed immense support and excitement for pursuing a dream. Though she barely knew me, she offered confidence and energy.
I have no doubt Eileen will touch the hearts of many students.
Su Jing Xi – “Whatchu say? Speak English!” she shouts as I try to repeat a Chinese phrase she’s teaching me.
Meet the most hilarious, edgy 19 year-old from China: Su Jing Xi. She’s a bit bossy, a bit frantic, and tons of bits energetic (unless she’s hiding out in the volunteer room taking a nap). I was drawn to Su Jing Xi from the very beginning – along with her big-rimmed glasses and witty take on English. I laughed and fake-bickered with Su Jing Xi for two weeks — she’s like the younger, animated, Chinese little sister I never had.
Jane – Donning long grey hair tied back in a ponytail, she sits quietly at breakfast, enjoying her banana and tea. Joe opens a conversation with her and her face lights up.
We learn that Jane is 76 and the mother of 11 children. She’s back in Calcutta. Why?
Because last time, her and her daughter were hoping for a pregnancy for one of Jane’s sons (Patrick) who had struggled with infertility and stillbirth in his marriage. One Sister told Jane and her daughter to pray 40 Our Fathers at Mother Teresa’s tomb. If they did so, the Sister promised Patrick’s wife would be pregnant within the year. As the story goes, 9 months from the time they prayed in Calcutta, Patrick’s baby was born.
Jane is a believer in miracles — and if you heard her story, you would be, too.
Brian – The strapping, rugby-playing, curly-haired Argentinian arrived halfway through our volunteering in Calcutta. He struck me because he was completely unassuming. Rather than desiring to share his own stories or accomplishments, he asked about others’. He wasn’t concerned with garnering attention or mentioning cool things he did (though, with probing, we learned he farmed for months in New Zealand).
Brian wanted to know what people did for fun in America and Spain, and how to say phrases in Chinese. He demonstrated curiosity and an infectious easy-going demeanor. When I asked him if he ever got upset, he said smiling, “Just with my brothers.”
Always up for visiting and making people feel included, Brian gave us a sense of Argentina’s loving community atmosphere. He also shared his mate with us, which is a special tea made from the infusion of dried yerba mate leaves. Mate is what Pope Francis drinks.
Michelle – Wearing leggings overlain with an Indian style smock dress and pouring cups of chai for the volunteers, Michelle’s bright energy and spirit caught my attention our first morning at Motherhouse. Feeling immediately connected with Michelle, we exchanged travel stories and those of our shared home: the Midwest.
When a job ended for her (interestingly enough, in Holland, MI), she hit the road and traveled Southeast Asia by herself. Michelle’s a pristine example of feminine bravery and capability. Based on the magnitude of her vibrant energy, I figure she ought be called Magnetic Michelle.
Kevin and Nicole – Two soon-to-be med students from New York are volunteering for six weeks in Calcutta, pulling nearly 14-hour days. Nicole’s family is from India, so she had been to the country before. And both studied in Spain, and were spirited in their encouragement for our upcoming time in Madrid.
We were at ease around Kevin and Nicole – they’re smart, dedicated, and care about every person they come in contact with. Nicole, for example, spent her rare free time buying nail polish for the ladies at Prem Dan. If I were in high school with Kevin and Nicole, we’d have been good friends — and they’d be far outperforming me in every science class.
Ilse – I was excited after meeting Ilse. She humbly introduced herself and asked us where we were from. She initially thought, before hearing our accents, that we were from Northern Europe (how cool for someone to think I was from Europe!). While Joe has close cultural ties, I’m just white.
Hailing from Germany, Ilse spent three years in Boston for her residency. She’s a pediatrician with a brilliant mind. When the hospital gave her four weeks of vacation to use, she booked her flight to India and dove with full engagement into everything around her. Ilse impacted me, also, by recommending the book, “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” which has proven to be incredibly inspiring, just like Ilse is.
Juan – Joe noticed Juan’s character on the first day and every day thereafter. Juan consistently greets, cares for, and checks in on patients, religious sisters, and volunteers. His genuine, caring heart shines in all of the little ways that matter, like making sure someone was feeling well or ensuring we knew our way back to the Motherhouse. Juan started coming to India after the difficult passing of his wife of 43 years.
He never thought he’d be volunteering in Calcutta during his retirement. On his first trip, he met Helmut, and the following 6 years since, has volunteered the same 6 months as him. Juan and Helmut look after each other — they have a friendship that can only be formed in this special place. Special friendships form because volunteers come for similar reasons or values. As Juan says, “It unifies us.”
Juan reminded us of Mother Teresa’s teaching: “Calcutta is everywhere. It’s in your family, outside your front door, and in every town.” That poverty, he reminded us, is even internal, such as with loneliness or abandonment. While it’s important to feed and clothe, it’s just as important to smile and hold.
Lucy – And then there’s Lucy, my laundry soulmate, who also hauled two heavy metal buckets (at once) of wet laundry up four flights of stairs repeatedly in the 105 degree weather to the blazing hot rooftop at Prem Dan. Her encouragements spoken in the most darling French accent kept me going.
Because of Lucy, I could continue doing work that was sweaty hard and made my soul feel alive.