Adventure of a Lifetime
To say I was excited to embark on this adventure is an understatement. I knew that going to India was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I have always loved Mother Teresa, serving others and traveling so when I found out about this FOCUS Missions trip, it seemed too good to be true. Having the opportunity to serve with the Missionaries of Charity in India was a dream that I never thought would become a reality.
Being in a third world country with a group of people I had never met for about 5 weeks is not for the faint of heart, and I admit there were many moments when I questioned why I was there. My mission group, made up of 14 other college students and FOCUS missionaries from across the country, helped me to adjust to life in India and make this the most memorable experience of my life. We came from different backgrounds, varying points in our faith lives and with our own unique stories but these all bonded us in Christ. We grew together and became a family, supporting and teaching each other while in India and now back in the United States.
I am so blessed to have had this opportunity to serve the people in Kolkata, India, and I am excited to share my experience with you. I knew that there was a reason I was called to this specific mission, but never could I have imagined the scope to which I would grow and how much I would learn.
When we finally landed after 30 hours of traveling, we were full of adrenaline and ready to go. However, immediately all five senses were overwhelmed at the same time. The smell was a mix of pollution, rotting meat, animals, unbathed people, feces, urine and many I am not even sure of. I could literally feel the humidity heavy on my skin as I sweat instantly because it was over 100 degrees with no air conditioning. The taste of pollution and humidity made me start coughing uncontrollably. All around, there was obnoxious honking from the insane amount of traffic. All I could see were people everywhere, traffic, animals, and buildings. Needless to say, I found myself missing the wide-open plains and fresh air of South Dakota.
I knew Kolkata would be different, but I was not prepared for how different. Kolkata is home to 14 million people, and the major religions are Hinduism and Islam. You could tell based on whether a neighborhood sold beef which religion it belonged to (Hindus do not eat beef), and there were shrines to Hindu gods as you walked. The Muslims have a call to prayer multiple times a day, most notably at 4 am when it would wake us up.
The poverty is noticeable as people sleep, eat, bath and even die in the streets. There is garbage everywhere because there is no system for it. Cows, stray dogs and goats roam freely. Staring is a part of the culture and especially since we were a group of Americans, they stared a lot. There are vendors selling everything from clothes to fruit lining the streets. There are no enforced traffic laws so traveling was an adventure as pedestrians do not have the right of way. The people loved to say “Hello how are you?” as it was the only English they knew.
I soon started to call Kolkata home though and grew to love being there, craziness and all.
Missionaries of Charity/Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity (M.C.s) back in 1950 in Kolkata, India. The order began with just 12 sisters and has now expanded to over 4,500 sisters in 133 countries. Personally, I had learned the facts about the M.C.s throughout my years in school, but it was not until I was there, experiencing it for myself and interacting with them that I understood the amazing work that they do.
It was eye-opening going to a country where Christianity (and specifically Catholicism) is not a major religion. Even harder to imagine is what it must have been like for Mother Teresa to go into Kolkata with nothing to her name and found a new order of sisters amidst the caste system in Kolkata. It takes courage, faith and a trust in God’s plan to do something so radical. I thought about this a lot as I was working with the sisters.
Mother Teresa’s call to start the M.C.s is summed up by the last words Jesus said as he hung from the cross “I thirst” (John 19:28). He told her that He thirsts for all of us and for
the poor in India. I had a beautiful image while in India of Jesus telling me that I am not a mistake and neither are the people I am working with. This opened my eyes and allowed me to see Jesus within the kids at Daya Dan as well as those on the streets in a new light. Suddenly, I understood how Mother Teresa had the courage to do what she did. She loved as Jesus loved and treated each person, poor or not, with the dignity and respect that he or she deserves as a child of God. That did not disappear when Mother died; the Missionaries of Charity live this out in their witness to the people and the world. It was powerful to experience in person and be a part of myself.
The M.C.s have multiple houses that they run to help the poor. There are homes for the dying, children’s homes, an orphanage and a dispensary (similar to a clinic). They are each assigned to work at one of the homes and help take care of the people. There are also hired staff called Mashi that work at each home as well. I was working at Daya Dan, which is a home for disabled children.
Each day, there are flower petals placed on Mother’s tomb (located at the Mother House) and arranged to spell out a quote or saying by Mother. They always seemed to spell out exactly what I needed to hear after volunteering that day and a good reminder that Mother is still watching over the M.C.s.
Daya Dan is a home for disabled children. The top floor is home to girls with the first floor housing the boys. The age range is from 5-18 and they have some form of mental or physical disability. Many of the boys had been abandoned by their parents and were taken in by the Missionaries of Charity. When we arrived at the home, we would start off doing laundry with the Mashi by hand and hanging the clothes on the roof. We
would have morning prayer with the boys, and then they would go for meditation while we prepared the class lessons (in math, reading, etc) for the day. I worked with a 17 year old kid named Justice who had some form of mental disability.
Something that was difficult for me is that I am not trained at special education and felt that I was hindering his learning. Sister Amvita, the head sister for the boys’ part of Daya Dan, sat us down one day. She told us that we are not there to teach them school-related subjects. What we are doing is teaching them behavioral skills which they can one day use in society. We are to show them the love that they were not receiving before arriving at Daya Dan .
I began to focus more on loving each of the boys and it changed my outlook on work there. Their desire for love was so obvious and to be able to show them the love that they have been lacking was a powerful and life-changing experience. They taught me more about how to love selflessly and I miss them everyday.
- 4:00 am- call to prayer would wake us up
- 4:45 am- get ready for the day
- 5:20 am- leave for Mass at the Mother House
- 6:00 am- Mass with Missionaries of Charity
- 7:15 am- breakfast with other volunteers from around the world (consisted of a slice of bread, a banana and the best chai tea I have ever had).
- 7:45 am- Sister would come in and we would pray before leaving
- 8:00 am- travel
- 8:35- arrive at Daya Dan after bus and Tuk Tuk ride
- 8:35-9:15 am- laundry
- 9:15 am- prayer with the children
- 9:35-10:15- class I (math, reading, science, etc)
- 10:15- tea time
- 10:45-11:20- class II (art, clay, drawing, etc)
- 11:25- Fun activity with the kids (singing, dancing, game, etc)
- 12:00 pm- finished for the day
- 1:00 pm- meet with the rest of the group for lunch at a local restau rant
- 3:00 pm- walk back to Nirmala convent (1.5 miles from Mother House)
- 3:00 pm-6:00 pm- shower, nap, do laundry, journal, hang out with group
- 6:00 pm- Adoration (prayer) with the Missionary of Charity Fathers that lived down the street
- 7:30 pm- dinner on the roof, sharing highs/lows/God moments from the day
- 9:00 pm- night prayer
- 10:00 pm- bedtime
At the end of the 5 weeks in India, we made a pilgrimage to Goa, where the tomb of St. Francis Xavier is located. Goa was like the Hawaii of India, very tropical and beautiful. Unfortunately, it rained every day that we were there because monsoon season began the day we arrived.
Our trip director Anthony had to have emergency surgery while we were here to fix a boil that became infected. It was scary for the rest of us because no one wants to have surgery in a foreign country. He had to stay back with Katie, another missionary that was a leader of our group, for a couple days after the rest of us returned to the US. Thankfully, he is back now and doing well!
Goa was a great time to relax (apart from the surgery) and a good transition back to American life as it was more western in culture than Kolkata.
What I learned
There is simply not enough room on here to say all the things I learned but here are a few highlights:
- How to be a Christina servant. I may be the only chance that someone has to meet Jesus. It takes patience and most importantly love, knowing that I am doing something for God. The Missionaries of Charity are great examples.
- Trust in God and His plan. For the first time, I have been able to do this. It is the most freeing feeling! He is always there and will guide me on the path He has chosen for me. Believing this has brought me so much peace and joy.
- Understanding that I am and will be used as an instrument to accomplish God’s will.
- What true, authentic friendships are like (found with my mission group). It has given me a greater appreciation for those that I have here, and a greater love for those that were formed in India.