Volunteering with Mother Teresa’s nuns: ‘Getting right in the dirty of things’

Lay missionary Eloisa Greenwald volunteered at Shanti Dan, home for women and girls with disabilities. (CNS photo/courtesy Eloisa Greenwald)

Lay missionary Eloisa Greenwald volunteered at Shanti Dan, home for women and girls with disabilities. (CNS photo/courtesy Eloisa Greenwald)

By Anna Capizzi

What is it like to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata?

Thousands travel to Kolkata, India, each year to give their time helping the order of sisters Blessed Teresa founded to “satiate the thirst of Jesus” by serving the poor in the slums of India.

Anyone can volunteer. And you don’t have to make prior arrangements — just find lodging in advance and apply for a tourist visa. The sisters hold orientations three times a week for new volunteers.

Volunteers come from all over and might not necessarily be Christian or even religious. Some are curious about Mother Teresa’s work and just “want to do some good,” said Joe Reciniello, who has served in Kolkata six times.

Upon arrival the “cacophony of noises, smells and sights” struck volunteer struck volunteer Renee Roden, who volunteered in 2013 for two months with University of Notre Dame’s International Summer Service Learning Program.

Missionary of Charity Sisters chat in alley near the motherhouse in Kolkata, India, before afternoon prayer. (CNS photo/courtesy Victoria Vissat)

Missionary of Charity Sisters chat in alley near the motherhouse in Kolkata, India, before afternoon prayer. (CNS photo/courtesy Victoria Vissat)

Navigating through the chaotic, dusty streets thronged with people, “poverty hits you in the face, right along with discomfort,” said Eloisa Greenwald, a missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach, who volunteered for three weeks in 2015.

Volunteers find it difficult to see so many families and individuals sleeping along the road and “even more difficult to understand the greater complexities of poverty” and not become “desensitized,” said Jenna Ahn, who spent two summers volunteering.

But this is why volunteers come: to tend to the unwanted, the forgotten, those on the margins of society.

The day begins with Mass at 6 a.m., followed by a simple breakfast of chai tea, bread and a banana. The sisters sing a “thank you” song for departing volunteers and send everyone off with a prayer for the day’s work.

Volunteers pray before the tomb of Mother Teresa and ask for her intercession. (CNS photo/Victoria Vissat)

 

The volunteers split into groups and travel to the different homes the sisters have throughout the city. Each home has its own apostolate, a specific purpose.

At Shanti Dan, the home for women and girls with disabilities, Ahn spent mornings with the girls “singing, dancing, mediating, working on nonverbal modes of communication, learning colors and numbers, watering plants in the garden.”

“Over two years, the girls at Shanti Dan taught me so much more about love and acceptance than I could ever repay,” said Ahn.

Other volunteers assist with manual labor. To do laundry by hand “hit me hard,” Greenwald said. “You’re getting right in the dirty of things — carrying buckets of water, wringing out loads.”

While most volunteers typically can’t converse in Bengali or Hindu, they still find ways to communicate. “We would try to learn their name,” noted Levi Rash, a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students who spent five weeks there in 2015.

Rash’s group visited Titagarh, a leper colony Mother Teresa founded on the outskirts of town. Weavers there create the sisters’ saris and blankets for the sick and dying.

When Rash’s group arrived, the weavers “started working even harder, weaving the looms” to show us “the worth they had as humans.” The sight reminded him “that every single person has worth … and they should be cared for and loved as if you were loving Christ.”

The sisters allowed Dani Bell, a medical student on a five-week mission with Creighton University’s School of Medicine, to work with women they had brought in off the streets.

The most moving part of her trip, Bell said, was when she spent hours “hunched over one woman pulling dead pieces off her skin that maggots had eaten away. She was emaciated and barely alive. I remember looking in her eyes and telling her she is safe now.”

Flower petals on Mother Teresa’s tomb spell a different message each day for those who come to pray. (CNS photo/Christiana Molnar)

Flower petals on Mother Teresa’s tomb spell a different message each day for those who come to pray. (CNS photo/Christiana Molnar)

After the morning shift, volunteers break for lunch and a much-needed nap. The afternoon shift ends with evening eucharistic adoration. Volunteers then depart for dinner and are free to choose their own evening activities

During their time there, volunteers get a sense of the spirituality and personality of the Missionary of Charities.

Roden described the sisters as “tough,” yet “so full of joy.” The strength and will of the sisters to love and help others “simultaneously puts me to shame and inspires me to be better.”

Like their founder, the sisters are straightforward. When Susan Johnson volunteered in 2011, she told the sisters she missed her six children back in New Jersey. Instead of comforting her, the sisters offered a challenging response: “These children here need you more right now.”

For all volunteers, the experience is transformative. “I’ve always known it was important to serve the poor,” but there “I realized how much help was actually needed,” said Greenwald.

To go to Kolkata takes careful planning and spiritual preparation. But a response to Christ’s words “whatever you did to one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” is possible anywhere.

As Mother Teresa said, go “find your own Kolkata.”

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