Mother Theresa passed away in 1997 almost 15 years ago but her name is still as strong as it ever was. Her name still conjures up thoughts of her saintliness and her seemingly endless compassion. On my recent trip to India I had the good fortune to volunteer at Mother Theresa’s Mission in Calcutta. It was an unforgettable experience that caused me to rethink a few things.
Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity is located in Calcutta at 54A AJC Bose Rd in a small non-descript building that enters from an alleyway. The place was quietly buzzing with activity and work. But surprisingly, no one asked me for a donation. In fact, in all of my visits to the mission, I was never asked once, not even hinted, for a donation. The topic of donations was never brought up with any of the other volunteers either. This is almost unheard of in a charitable organization that literally depends on donations to support its activities.
My volunteer placement was at Prem Dan Hospital. A large campus that houses 300 patients: mentally and bodily sick people, dying people who lived in the street, and victims of traffic accidents. The volunteers gave their time generously with menial chores like mopping, washing dishes, doing laundry. Some volunteers would help feed the needy while others would offer massage or a compassionate ear. It was rewarding work, but I found myself feeling the limits of what I was offering. Good intentions and a helping hand were all that we had to give, but some of these patients needed expert medical care, tests, surgery and medication to ease their suffering. As a volunteer from a rich country like Canada it was difficult to see all these people falling through the cracks. Surely, there was a way to provide these people with what they needed.
I tried to meet with the head nun of Prem Dan and she was generous enough to oblige. I tried to help the sister see the need to set up a formal, organized way of approaching tourists and volunteers for donations. Surely, with all the extra money that could potentially be collected, more good could be done. Medicine, professional medical attention and surgery could be delivered to those in need on a more regular basis. I was sure my suggestion to help organize it would be met with open arms. Imagine my surprise when she told me they were not interested in asking for donations. “The Missionaries of Charity do not ask for money”. How is this possible? A charity that does not ask for donations? It sounds like an oxymoron.
To help me understand the depth of this principle and how dearly the sisters believe in it, she recounted two stories to me:
In the first story, an extremely wealthy man once approached Mother Theresa and offered to donate millions to her charity and set up the donation as a trust. Mother Theresa would not be allowed to touch the principal or original investment, but the interest earned would be hers and would be enough to support most of the Missionaries of Charity budget. He was stunned when she turned him down. Mother Theresa refused to take the money if it could not be used immediately to do her work. Any money that her organisation had should be used to do good. Money in the bank was useless in her eyes.
The second story is as follows: One night Mother Theresa plainly told all of the sisters at her Mission that they were completely broke. There was not even enough money to buy food for dinner that night and everyone would have to go to bed hungry. She calmly asked everyone to pray for help that night. Surely enough, no one complained, everyone retired to their quarters and prayed for help. Late that night, there was a loud knock on the door. A large Indian woman was at the doorway carrying bags of food, saying “I hate you Christians! I do not know why I am here, but my feet brought me here!” With that, she threw several bags of food at them and stomped away. They did not go to bed hungry.
This really didn’t make sense. Mother Theresa did a lot of good, but it is a bit of a secret that she could have done more good and simply turned her back on it. How much more could she have done if she had accepted the Millionaire’s trust fund? Wouldn’t it be better to open more centres, shelters, and hospitals? Wouldn’t it be better to give her patients better, cleaner, more modern facilities? Wouldn’t all that money help ease even more suffering?
Volunteering at one of their centres, the need for more money quickly becomes evident. They used to have an ambulance they used to literally pick up the sick and destitute from the gutters. When it broke down, they didn’t have enough money to fix or replace it and simply relied on taxis and volunteers to pick up people that were a few breaths away from death. The volunteers are provided with latex gloves to do their work with the sick, but due to budgetary constraints, these gloves are sanitized, washed, and reused regularly. There are also patients that are in desperate need of help. One man had a broken leg that was in constant pain as the bones had never been properly set. As it was, instead of the two pieces of leg bone being set one on top of the other, the fracture was never set ad the bones were as they had been found after the accident: beside each other. This man was in dire need of surgery to re-break the fracture and set it properly. Another was constantly coughing, dangerously underweight and in constant agony. Worst of all, he was undiagnosed. We tried to help him with care, food, a patient ear, but some testing and a subsequent regimen of medication would have been invaluable.
Yes, money could be used for such simple concrete things as an ambulance, new, sanitary latex gloves for the volunteers, surgery and better quality food for the patients. Money could have done these simple, essential good deeds, but it wasn’t. Money could have ensured that at least Mother Theresa and her sisters would never go hungry while carrying out their important work. Why would Mother Theresa turn down that money when they obviously needed it? Why would a charity turn away money?
The answer is that Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity was not really a charity. A charity has a specific mandate to carry out certain deeds as best as possible. The more good deeds it does, the better the charity performs. Mother Theresa did great things to help the poor, but her primary purpose was not to help the poor, but to pray. When people think of praying, they think of someone on their knees with their hands joined together, eyes closed in concentration and mind reciting some well memorized lines. But prayer can be much more varied than that. Some Tibetan Buddhist sects make a pilgrimage to holy sites by walking two steps, dropping to their knees and then lying on their stomach, before getting back up walking two more steps and dropping to their knees again. (imagine doing this for 50kms as they do) In a monastery in Thailand, after I complained that the 5am meditation in the lotus position (sitting on the floor with legs crossed) was too difficult for me, tried to introduce me to walking meditation which simply required “mindful walking”. Other devout Buddhists or Hindus make a pilgrimage by “walking” in nothing but simple thin robes and flip flops to temples at 4500m above sea level or higher. These are all forms of prayer or worship.
Father Helmuth at Prem Dan would often to say to me “The mystery is in your hands”. It is more important what you do. The things that you choose to do with your hands will change you. Mother Theresa’s form of worship, prayer or meditation is helping the poorest of the poor. She didn’t accept the money because it would take away from her worship. In her eyes, she helps those people in need while making herself needy as well. She forces herself to rely completely on God and good providence. She knows that at any time she may not have enough money to feed herself and her sisters and as such she prays with the intensity of the poorest of the poor. She forces herself to remain in the position where absolute faith is always absolutely necessary. If she had taken the money and lived comfortably, would she need to believe as she did?
Her lesson is interesting. Anthropologists will all agree that our religions were borne out of our needs. As science has now made most of our needs and fears almost fictitious, we find that strongly held religious beliefs are becoming rare in the west. In other words, without the need for religion, religion wilts. Mother Theresa ensured that she always needed God. She was always at his mercy. She could starve. She could run out of money to do her work. Her patients could suffer. As all this happened, she refused to ever ask for money. There was no donation box at her mission, no hand out, no pleas for help. She would rely only on prayer and faith to bring her what she needed. And as such, she never let herself live in a world governed by trust funds, interest rates or return on investment, choosing instead to live her life with the simple faith and devotion of a child where miracles seem to happen every day.
If you visit Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity today you will find that same tiny little plain looking building run by sisters in those unforgettable blue and white saris. And most importantly, you will never be asked for a single donation. But you may, like I did, find yourself offering to help or make a donation for no explicable reason.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Missionaries of Charity, visit their website.