City of Joy Experience
WORKING WITH MOTHER TERESA
During the Christmas break of 1995-1996, I had the privilege to work with Wake Forest University undergraduate students in Calcutta, India, in some of Mother Teresa’s homes for the destitute and dying. I often took the opportunity to reflect upon the experience that was unfolding before my eyes. Some of these thoughts are expressed as poems, while others are prosaic. The poems and two articles from counseling publications follow.
REFLECTIONS FROM CALCUTTA
Samuel T. Gladding
(from the City of Joy, Wake Forest University trip to work with Mother Teresa
December 26, 1995 to January 14, 1996)
“To serve the poor, one must love the poor; to love the poor, one must know the poor.” …Mother Teresa
The fruit of SILENCE is Prayer
The fruit of PRAYER is Faith
The fruit of FAITH is Love
The fruit of LOVE is Service
The fruit of SERVICE is Peace.
Our band wanders out into the streets of Calcutta
hesitantly, with a touch of anxiety.
As a veteran traveler I am calm
sure within myself
that I will be safe from the shock of anything that might be new.
At every corner and in between are
and sellers of “things.”
At every turn and in straightaways
harsh realities come alive.
There is a dead dog next to a girl drawing pictures
a deformed old man talking nonsense to himself
the foul smells and loud sounds of taxis and rickshaws
a horde of flies and human feces on mounds of trash.
Amid the crowds, odors of food, and looks of desperation.
I am not shocked — just stunned (in denial)
my senses have been overwhelmed.
They lay still like stones
up against buildings and walls
covered with burlap sacks or coarse blankets.
Other people, full of life, like water,
are careful to avoid the rocks
They pull at my heart as well as my shirt
with their needs and outstretched hands.
Emotionally and numerically they overwhelm me.
Sometimes out of a lack of courage
(more than a depletion of coins)
I walk on quickly without looking
hoping they’ll disappear
Yet inside I know they will follow me
even in my dreams.
What You Can Get in Calcutta
You can get a Pepsi in Calcutta
and most diseases ever known.
Be smart, have a Pepsi.
She looks just like her pictures
small, frail, stooped, and wrinkled.
It is good to see godliness in the flesh
full of life with no surprises.
Sunday Bath at Naba Jabin
The boys come in off the streets in waves
bringing with them dirt and a spirit of adventure.
Lifeboy soap and cold well water
in the hands of volunteers and Catholic brothers
Challenge the filth of clothes and bodies
in a bath scene full of good-natured fun.
After the cleansing there is immersion
into the world of make-believe and frolic
as games are made up and played out.
For an hour all are equal
as a mixture of humanity blends together
and harmony prevails.
But time takes its toll
and after a lunch of steamed rice and vegetables
the gates of Naba Jabin are opened
and the inner courtyard
once filled with boys and noise
empties into silence.
I wished this trip upon myself
when I said last year:
“I’d rather go than be a sponsor.”
Since then I’ve learned to be careful about what I wish for —
A wish can change your life.
When Jesus said: “You will always have the poor”
He could have added
“To see them in mass, visit Calcutta.”
Within this bustling, polluted and disease-ridden city
live a crowd of the world’s most impoverished.
Yet the poor are more than meet the eye.
They are affluent and middle class people
down in spirit and apathetic to needs.
They are those within my sight
out of touch with their own humanity.
They are my neighbors
They are my friends
“They” are me.
In Calcutta you have a choice
You can have a shower with cold water
or you cannot have a shower.
I prefer the former although on occasions
the latter is best.
It depends on whether the water system works
and how many layers of dirt I am wearing.
Before I left home I promised Claire
I wouldn’t change too much.
I have kept my promise … almost.
The differences I bring back are subtle —
a new beard
a tired body
a challenged mind
a head full of memories.
My view of the world has shifted only slightly.
I now know there’s a Calcutta
wherever I live.
Sudder Street — 5 am
We walk in a small cluster of six
in the slums of a city that has seen better times.
Around us early morning fires give off thick charcoal smoke
and light the way unevenly.
Sutter Street is almost empty
only an occasional stirring occurs
as a dog digs through garbage
or one of the people under a plastic canopy
near the wall of the Salvation Army awakes.
I am filled with heavy thoughts
as I picture a child to whom I gave candy yesterday
beg for food today.
Calcutta, you embody the worst of us
bringing out the best of us
sometimes with surprise.
I will not walk this street again
after this morning’s quick stroll
But I will see it mentally
I will feel it physically
I will smell its foul odor
hear its sharp shrill cries
and sense its never-ending needs.
Then I will be moved in unsuspecting moments
and know again
why I came this way.
Counseling and Mother Teresa:
(from the Counseling Today)
It was 5 a.m. — our last day of a three week stay in Calcutta. Quietly and with a sense of expectation, our group walked through the downtown streets from our temporary home at the YMCA. Through the Hindu quarter, past the Muslim quarter, we were on our way to the Mother Teresa’s house and another day of labor intensive service. I, as the “older adult,” continued feeling responsible for the eleven undergraduates within my charge. Yet, I knew their dedication to trying to serve the poorest of the poor in India was a bond that connected them and me in a way that was healthy and required little direction.
As we made our way to mass that morning, I reflected back on how I had become involved with such a focused volunteer effort and what meaning it had in my life. Within my contemplation that day, as now, have been a multitude of thoughts. Some have centered on personal development. Others have involved the impact of being immersed in a foreign culture. Yet, a third group have centered on the complex dimensions of helping others, and in so doing, assisting them in finding their own way.
The experience began when a young woman named Jessica showed up at my office and asked for a few minutes of my time.
“I want to go to India and work with Mother Teresa,” she began. “It’s a dream I’ve had since childhood.”
“I’d like to play in the National Basketball Association like Muggsy Bogues of the Charlotte Hornets,” I countered. “I’ve always liked his style.”
“But I really have an opportunity to go work with Mother Teresa,” she said. “Besides, I’ve seen you play basketball and you don’t have a prayer.”
With that, she produced a wrinkled typed letter from Mother Teresa inviting her to spend time with the Missionaries of Charity. “Will you help?” she questioned, knowing full well that I administered the university’s endowment for ethics and leadership and was in a position to be of assistance.
Struck by her sense of purpose and readiness, I became a financial sponsor of her effort. Now some months later, I was leading a wave of students in her footsteps. I was no longer sending someone on a journey. I was in the midst of an experience that was almost overwhelming. At every junction was something new and different.
The trip started changing my life from the moment I arrived. I had traveled in Western Europe and Japan previously. However, I had always gone for fun, pleasure and education. I had never become immersed in the culture and had never encountered conditions of such a desperate nature. Thus, I was caught experienced but off guard.
It took time and effort to get to Calcutta. I started gathering information (and getting shots) eight months before the trip began. I read everything I could find about Mother Teresa and the history of India. In the process, I came to realize that as a white, middle class, North American, Christian I would be a novelty to many of the indigenous people. With each day I became a little more humbled. Though my family was old in America, it was young by Indian standards. Though I prided myself in knowing a great deal about American literature, I was almost ignorant about the richness of the written arts in India. Therefore, I undertook to become a learner first so I could become a doer later. Participating in a support group with the others who were making this pilgrimage helped. In addition to acquiring information, we talked about our hopes, fears, and expectations thereby dovetailing facts with feelings and learning about a culture and about ourselves.
Preparation was one thing, actual contact was another. Upon landing in Calcutta, I realized again the crucial nature of accepting and affirming the environment, its people, and the Indian culture on their terms, not mine. The air was filled with a variety of smells and a cacophony of noise. There were people everywhere and a rhythm to the city that initially seemed chaotic from an outsider’s view. It was similar to counseling sessions I had experienced where different worldviews and values came together but did not mesh. Thus understanding and appreciation of the city came slowly over time and with effort. I listened to and observe verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
Therefore, a key to initiating contact was becoming sensitized to the newness. It was a way of offering help based on simultaneously looking outward and inward. The process led to understanding, appreciation, anxiety and frustration. It also produced knowledge and awareness that transcended judgments and emotions.
Once grounded, I concentrated on getting to know the clientele in Mother Teresa’s homes as well as people on the streets. On a daily basis I met the homeless, the sick, the malnourished, and even the dying. I did simple tasks such as washing clothes, making beds, feeding the crippled, emptying bedpans, and giving coins and comfort to those I found to be downtrodden. Children were relatively easy to get to know because of their curiosity, outgoing natures, and their participation in playful activities. Adults were more of a challenge. In all cases, what was required was looking beyond outer appearances and circumstances to find the uniqueness of persons and to attend to them.
Some situations were obvious in what they demanded, such as dressing a wound or shaving off the hair of a person infected with lice. Other times subtleties prevailed and employing appropriate behaviors, such as silence or nodding an acknowledgment, were not apparent. As with counseling, helping responses had to be practiced. In the process, I made mistakes but also learned to overcome my tendency to stay encapsulated as a member of my own culture. This demanded that I take risks beyond my levels of comfort. Doing so meant becoming attuned to what was happening outside of me and working to channel my own thoughts and feelings constructively.
Leaving Calcutta might have seemed easy and a relief after such intensity. However, just as working with difficult clients sometimes produces surprises, so did our exit. Upon getting ready to depart, our group bid farewells to those inside the compounds in which we worked as well as to the street people we had grown to know. We realized through our conversations that the impact we made on Calcutta was not great but that our experiences would continue to have an influence on us as we reentered the United States. Therefore, after saying good-bye to the Missionaries of Charity with whom we had labored, we partook of a last meal together. We thought it important to get closure for ourselves individually and collectively as well as with others.
As another way to terminate our experience on a positive note, we took a train to New Delhi and visited the Taj Mahal so that one of the last sights we saw of India was a monument of lasting beauty. In such surroundings, we could celebrate goals we had accomplished. We could also admire the achievements of a culture and its people.
Months have now past since that morning in Calcutta. During the trip I got to visit with Mother Teresa, talk extensively with the missionaries, interact with many different Indian people, work with a wonderful group of young adults, and have the joy of giving to the truly needy. All of these encounters and experiences helped shape my impressions of a culture and the difficulties of helping the poor. Memories from the time have stayed with me in ways I cannot explain. There are few days that go by without my remembering aspects of the trip and realizing the journey still continues.
Normally, I would think that with time I would become less sensitive about the culture I encountered and which became a part of me. However, I doubt that will happen in this circumstance. The reason is due to the living nature of conversations I have had about what occurred and the feedback that it keeps producing. Nowhere has the power of this quality been more dramatic and impactful than when my five-year-old son, Timothy, came up to me with an envelope full of dried beans just as I was leaving for work. “Daddy, please mail these to the poorest of the poor people of India,” he said. I agreed and slipped the package into my pocket as I headed for the door. Looking back I saw an excited and smiling blue-eyed and curly blond-haired boy who, despite his limited knowledge of the world, had caught the spirit of giving and the idea that he could be a helper. This same attitude underlies the profession of counseling on many levels. Hopefully, it makes a difference both in what we do and who we are.
Counseling and Caring:
(from the Chi Sigma Iota Newsletter)
December 26th is normally a day of rest at our house after the flurry of Christmas activities. Yet, last December 26th I found myself anything but relaxed as I left New York for Calcutta. With me were eleven undergraduate students from Wake Forest, memories of a series of seminars and shots, along with considerable anxiety and anticipation. I was the “older adult” on a student planned but university sponsored three week trip to go work with Mother Teresa and serve the “poorest of the poor” of India. Cognitively, I knew where I was going and what I would be doing. Emotionally, I wondered what the real experience would be like. To be frank, I was scared.
From the moment our plane touched down in Calcutta until we arrived back in the United States, I was confronted with people, problems, and possibilities that presented a challenge that was both inspirational and heart-wrenching. In order to reach the goals I and members of the group had set, we literally had to work our way through situations that were uncomfortable and different from anything we had ever experienced. After Calcutta I cannot be, nor would I want to be, the same person who left the United States. While my words can convey some flavor of the journey, much must remain unwritten because of the limitations of language. What I describe here are aspects of what happened that relate to counseling and my growth as a person and a counselor.
The first thing I had to do upon arrival was become acculturated. As in counseling, that was easier said than done. Calcutta is a city of about 17 million people. There are crowds of people everywhere with a multitude of languages and different traditions. The streets are beehives of activities and some people even live on the streets. Customs, beliefs, and histories link and divide everyone. Only a multitude of adjectives, some of them contradictory, can describe the people of Calcutta.
Yet, my focus was not to just understand and acclimate. Rather, it was to be a servant within the culture. Initially, our group was assigned to work at Naba Jiban, a home for orphaned boys. Our day started at 5 a.m. Amid the first light of morning, we walked to the Mother House where we worshipped, ate a light breakfast, and then took a crowded bus across town to our destination.
The boys of Naba Jiban were mostly preadolescents. Almost all were physically or mentally challenged. Some needed help in walking. Many needed assistance in being fed. Others could not keep the flies off of their legs or heads. In addition, their clothes needed washing and their beds and rooms needed cleaning. One of my daily jobs was rinsing out the boys’ clothes with cold well water. In this task I paid particular attention to scrubbing away the dried feces and remnants of food that stuck to the fibers. The point is that our assignments were menial but necessary. They required hard work but we did them with joy because we felt a sense of mission. In between jobs, we played with the children. There was an emphasis on care and concern for others in Mother Teresa’s homes that was pervasive.
In addition to Naba Jiban, our group was assigned to work at Prem Dan, a home for 350 men and women who are physically and mentally disabled, and Kalighat, a 50 bed home for dying destitute. It was at the latter facility that I literally became physically sick. I felt fortunate only to be nauseated and I found myself being attended to lovingly in a way that gave me both peace and comfort. I wondered if the clients we were serving had similar feelings.
So what did I learn and how has it affected me? Some of the answers to this question I do not expect to know for some time. Yet, I am aware of some initial thoughts.
First, I realized anew that poverty and disease destroy lives in ways that are degrading. Care and prevention must be personalized if individuals and groups are going to truly change for the better. The giving of information and working from an impersonal perspective, although well intended, are not enough to make significant differences for most people.
Second, I became sensitized anew to the reality that giving and receiving are reciprocal. Helping is a two way street. Because of my work wounds were bandaged, bodies were cleaned, and the disabled and abandoned were fed. Those who received my assistance gave back to me a smile, a nod, and simple words of thanks that are now indelibly etched in my mind. It did my heart good to work in such ways.
Third, I gained a greater appreciation for the work of Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs on which he elaborated. My awareness of ministering to the whole person was enhanced. I understood again the importance of people helping people even in mundane and simple ways. Attending to the unique needs of others in an inhumane environment is enriching, transforming, and necessary for the common good.
Finally, I became even more convinced of the importance of the spiritual nature of helping. Counseling operates on multiple levels and one of those levels involves realizing that beyond humanity is a divinity that unites us all regardless of our apparent differences.
I greeted my wife and three young children upon returning on January 14th 1996. My mind danced with delight during the celebration. Yet, simultaneously I felt sad. I realized there were still great needs in India. However, because of the trip I knew that to find and address the conditions I saw in Calcutta, I need not travel around the world again. Being international and caring begins in one’s neighborhood with a commitment to reach out beyond oneself. It is something we all can do.