**unless otherwise noted, all pictures are my own! I recommend reading on a computer for full quality
Kolkata, India. "The City of Joy" with the Missionaries of Charity: December 2022
before we begin... a caveat.
Service work is hard to write about. On one hand, you want to share your experience in hopes of communicating the beauty of your experience & the stories of the people you served. On the other hand, service work is meant to be defined by smallness. You ask God to work through you; you are his hands and feet ministering to others and so there should be no pride in your actions. Just absolute awe at how God can use someone so small to communicate his love.
Kolkata is a place of blatant truth: death, disease, suffering, pain, poverty, all difficult to witness, but the charity of those few, in particular the sisters, helps to level it. Open wounds and suffering scaled against flower markets and smiling faces. Kolkata is teeming with unashamed truth; it reminds us of our smallness. So much of what we value, fear, worry about, and "suffer" is not real suffering.
I hope, by telling a few of the stories from this trip, to remind you of smallness, truth, and the beauty of simplicity.
We all met at a pub...
You know when you run into a group where no one knows each other?
There's a feeling of anticipation in the air, a buzz of who knows what could happen?! That's the feeling I noticed as we all sat around, introducing each other and laughing at ourselves. The best meeting is often a meeting of strangers, with no reason to judge or worry about one another. You could tell from the beginning, this was going to be a good group. Our brave and grizzly leader, Adam Trufant, started the trip out right by having us each choose a single word to meditate on in prayer for the trip.
Simplicity. Humility. Perspective. Smallness.
We opened the trip in prayer and were on our way! After 8 hours of trying to stay awake, from 11:00p to 7:00a in our home time, we made it from New York to Helsinki, Finland. Upon exiting the craft, we were blasted with whirling snow and all dashed across ice to the bus, underdressed for the weather. Throughout the trip, it was beautiful to see how naturally we all fell into friendship. As we all played cards -- aggressive spoons was the name of the game -- we laughed until we cried and then all squished into the back of the plane from Finland to New Delhi, India. However, we were not to depart right away, as the blizzard had coated the plane in snow. We all moved to the back and hung out while the staff at the airport pulled out literal flame throwers and scorched the frozen wings. After several hours of delay, a few loudly sung tunes, and many conversations later, we were on our way to India and finally, Kolkata. Already, God was evidently working in every inconvenience turned adventure, new face turned friend, & sacrifice turned prayer on this trip.
An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
we attended mass at 6:00a in the motherhouse, or the original home established by Mother Teresa. As someone who craves a bit of quiet in the morning, I would wake up at 5:00a, trying not to disturb the other six girls in my dorm-style room, and sneak out to buy a cup of chai for ten rupees to start my day peacefully. Some mornings, friends came with me, and we would laugh and whisper in the smokey morning haze, tossing down our clay cups to break them on the road when we were finished with the steaming chai.**
**Disclaimer: They make new cups every day, and often I was out early enough to see them being delivered. The cups, or Bhar, are made entirely by hand by digging up clay from the Ganges river and sculpting it into the small, breakable cups which are baked on the fire and delivered to chai stalls to be served from dawn until dusk. According to the tradition, you are supposed to throw them on the ground and break them after you finish the boiling chai! Fun, biodegradable, and a great stress reliever.
Other mornings, I went alone and waited in the rare quiet moments along the Kolkata streets until I could walk over to the motherhouse with other volunteers. Ascending the staircase to mass, we would observe a fresh Mother Teresa quote chalked on the board near the chapel, and each morning the sun rose as the Lord descended for the Eucharistic consecration. While the noise rose with it, I found these mornings the most peaceful I'd had in ages.
When you have nothing left but God, you have more than enough to start over again.
the work: prem dan
gift of love.
The very first morning, we were assigned to different homes to work with the sisters, either shanti dan, daya dan, prem dan, or the Home for the Dying and Destitute, kalighat. My sister, Elizabeth, and I were assigned to prem dan, which means "gift of love" in Hindi, and is home for older men and women who are mentally or physically disabled. Around 8:00a we would either take a bus or walk across the train tracks to get to prem dan, about a thirty minute walk. There, we would wash our hands, sign in, and don aprons and head scarves with the other volunteers, since lice posed an ongoing health threat.
We would clean and make all the ladies' beds; they would already be sitting outside with the sisters. Then, we would spend some time with them, talking to them, painting nails, combing their hair, and giving them tea and biscuits. Since it was Christmas-time, we witnessed two Christmas shows - one by a local boys' school and another put on by some of the older people in the home.
One of my favorite ladies in the home was Dooga, a younger woman who had acid poured on her face when she chose not to marry the man her family wished. Her eyes and nose are melted, but she can hear well and speaks some English. She loves back massages, tickle fights, and smiles often. She's very self-sufficient and I would spend time with her when I wanted a break from caring for the other women since she didn't need anything except your presence. One day, I wore loose pants with a slit up the side (shorts are allowed at a certain length in the homes, so I figured this would be okay!). She was resting her hand on my knee and noticed the slit; she has no eyebrows but I could imagine them raising in horror as she traced the slit down my leg and then gently folded the cloth over my exposed skin and patted my knee. There there, much better, the action seemed to say. I blushed and laughed! And Dooga laughed with me.
Around 11:00a every day, we were tasked with feeding the ladies lunch. Some of them could eat on their own and some needed help due to shaking hands or joint issues. On one particular day, the sisters sat my sister Elizabeth and I down in front of two adjacent ladies and told us to feed them. The sisters even brought us stools, which was astonishing because usually we have to fend for ourselves and kneel. But we soon realized why. My lady refused to swallow, due to throat sores, and Elizabeth's needed supervision so that she did not eat too fast. We both were meant to stay put for a while, hence the stools. We were focused on our tasks until Elizabeth's lady gestured her forward. Elizabeth leaned out, extending her hand in case the older woman needed assistance. The lady inclined her head toward Elizabeth, and spat her food into her hand. We looked at each other... and died laughing! Meanwhile, my lady was glaring, mouth full and refusing to swallow, and we both laughed at our helplessness. "Sister!" I called one of the sisters over. "She won't swallo--" As the sister approached, my lady saw her coming and began to chew vigorously, eying me maliciously. The sister laughed, shoved the woman in a friendly manner, and spoke to her rapidly in Hindi. Sadly, it didn't work, for as soon as the sister left, my lady went right on refusing to swallow as Elizabeth's lady ate too fast. But we were in stitches the rest of the day!
There was a lady with a jaw issue that made her face as small as your closed fist, but she danced anytime one of us started humming. A lady who looked positively serious until you made eye contact; then she would smile so big that her singular, long tooth stuck out. A young woman with a hump back who laughed easily and shied away from attention. An old woman with a quick wit who would sneak food if you weren't paying attention. So many personalities, and so many smiles and faces. I think the hardest thing was not speaking their language and so not receiving their stories fully. But what beauty to get to look into their eyes.
We would wrap up the day with tea with the volunteers - we would have chai and biscuits while the sisters were in morning prayer and the locals watched the ladies. Then, we would hand out and serve lunch and do the dishes, help the ladies back to their beds and tuck them in, and then make our way back down the bridge and tuk tuk (small taxi) to lunch!
Christmas Production at Prem Dan
*photos taken with the permission of Mother Superior
faces of Kolkata
On our way to Prem Dan in the morning, we would walk along the slums lining the train tracks. I bring my camera everywhere, and the kids would run up and ask for photographs together. Here are a few of their photos.
Photographing along the railroad tracks
One of my favorite photos from the trip, Elizabeth snagged this iphone shot while I was showing the kids their photographs
falling asleep during prayer?
Jetlag is real.
With 6:00a mass and 6:00p holy hour/evening prayer, we all struggled to stay awake in the evenings during the quiet prayer with the sisters. During this time, I turned to journaling and reading my book ("The Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived" by Peter Kreeft, 10/10 so far) to stay awake. When that didn't work, I would meditate on the prayer of the sisters around me, in my opinion models of sainthood. In each one, I could see the small strength of Mother Teresa. They worked longer hours than we did, their feet were worn and shriveled from constant service, their faces weathered and worn, and yet we yawned and fidgeted as they remained focused and devout in prayer. I began sketching them in my considerations; it was beautiful to see how each attended to the Eucharist, with expressions of devotion, seriousness, peace, pensiveness, yearning, calm, or reverence.
We have such an inability to sit quietly for 10 minutes, let alone one hour. Give it a try, with nothing but your thoughts, and see what happens. Practicing contemplative prayer daily is essential to developing your inner prayer life, self discipline, dialogue with God, and virtues of patience and fortitude. And it's something we are all terrible at, so used to our attention being divided. Even me, right now... I'm writing this blog post while listening to music because I enjoy the mental stimulation of splitting my attention. The sisters reminded me that simplicity is found in quiet. True adoration is absolute. Prioritizing means choosing one thing, and in adoration or prayer, that one thing is our focus on God. If your mind wanders, acknowledge it, offer it up, and redirect. As Mama T says, if you have but God you have more than enough to start over and over again.
The Prayer of the Sisters of Charity
Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly, that our lives may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through us, and be so in us, that every soul we come in contact with my feel your presence in our soul. Let them look up and see no longer us but only Jesus! Stay with us, and then we shall begin to shine as you shine; so to shine as to be a light to others; the light O Jesus, will be all from you, none of it will be ours; it will be you, shining on others through us. Let us thus praise you in the way you love best by shining on those around us. Let us preach you without preaching, not by words, by our examples. By the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do, the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you. Amen.
A day off in Kolkata
the colors: 4:00a flower markets
On Thursdays, volunteers have a day off from working. However, instead of sleeping in, we woke up at 4:00a to take a bus out to a local flower market. In the hazy indigo hours before dawn, we walked down rows of flowers, so bright they seemed to be glowing, as vendors set up their wares. The air was thick with the smells of fresh cut flowers, steam from boiling pots of chai, and the anticipation for sunrise. It was quiet, too early for the regular honking of tuk-tuks and yelling of rickshaw drivers. I couldn't soak it in enough and kept pausing back to photograph and look around.
recommendation: Raj's Spanish Cafe
If you're looking to go to a more Americanized location... the Raj's Spanish Cafe off Sudder Street in Kolkata is a quiet alcove with great food, American music, and a tourist shop right next door where we bought our iconic parachute pants. After our 4:00a wake up, we all headed over there for some lassis (a yogurt-based fruit drink), coffee, & a killer breakfast. Oh! And you can sign the wall to leave your mark. I drew a palm tree - had to spice it up somehow!
We explored most of the day, but the real highlight was that evening we all met up to debrief on the lawn in front of Victoria Memorial. It had been a long, wonderful day buttt everyone was tired & we had trouble reconnecting due to bad cell phone service and GPS. Eventually, we all found each other on a field, in front of Victoria Memorial, with horses galavanting about, monkeys to take photos with, and an army demonstration happening nearby. Surreal.
We sat in a circle and began a debrief from the day. However, there is no way to be inconspicuous when you're a group of 15+ Americans in a public park. Vendors kept coming over to stand nearby, offering horseback rides and popsicles, and kids would giggle as they drew closer asking for photographs. Their smiling eyes were irresistible, and we caved, taking photos, laughing, and singing "Country Roads" with some of the locals. Probably one of the highlights of the trip!
"You are so beautiful."
There is such an infatuation with Americans in India; it's hard to explain but it's humbling in a way. We're waking up early, wearing clothes from goodwill and working with the elderly and sick, so by the end of the day, we are pretty smudged up. But the girl next to me in the picture above came over, all she wanted was to hold my hand, and she smiled so big: "You are so beautiful!" I asked her name and returned the compliment; all four girls were all sisters and all full of so much joy! Earlier in the day, at a flower market, a group of young boys asked to take photos with me, purely because I was an American, a novelty. The attitude toward Americans is so joyous and full of intrigue... and we've done nothing to deserve it. It feels like a blessing that these kids are so excited and welcoming, and their words mean more than any compliment I could ever receive.
dreams of painting...
I was first inspired to travel to India by my older brother, Henry.
While Mother Teresa has been my confirmation saint since I was sixteen, and I have read countless stories about her, growing up the reality of visiting the Motherhouse seemed impossible. That is, until my older brother, Henry, went to Kolkata in 2017 and came back with stories of Mother Teresa's homes. Suddenly, becoming closer to my "sassy grandmother" became a reality.
Henry has inspired me in many ways. In his selflessness and dedication to serving others. In his determination and work ethic. And in his sense of fun and adventure. When he was serving in India, he had the opportunity to paint a mural at one of the sisters' homes, Nabo Jibon. You can read the beautiful story of how this came to be and the intentionality in his design here. So, needless to say, it was a dream of mine to 1) see his painting, and 2) if God willed it, do a mural of my own.
Mama T doodles
This is one of my favorite photos of Mother Teresa, turned into a pen sketch years ago. I love the smile in her eyes.
a "spunky grandmother"
I wrote this back in my Sophomore year of college, when I tried to go abroad to Kolkata with my university -
"I once compared Mother Teresa to a spunky grandmother on a mission trip application.
I didn't get to go on the trip, so maybe that wasn't the right move? But seriously, Mama T is my Confirmation saint, an I chose her because she was a saint with a gentle heart & spunky attitude.
I mean, think about it! She is attributed with these world-changing nuggets of wisdom:
- If you judge people you have no time to love them
- There are no great things, only small things with great love
- Peace begins with a smile
She was a contradiction of strength in small, sweet stature. practical. direct. driven. gentle. empathetic. caring. Despite periods in her life where she doubted, she pushed forward, actively seeking answers through prayer and service.
Life isn't always going to be easy, but Mama T would face it anyway, saying that we have today so let us begin it with a smile.
I love Mama T because she's been a constant role model throughout my life, from when I was learning about her for Confirmation to now living in a dorm named after her.
So maybe I shouldn't call her a spunky grandmother, but you know I don't think she'd mind :) & if she does, maybe a nice charcoal portrait will make up for it!
needless to say, I asked the sisters on Day #1 if they needed any artwork done.
It turns out, God's plan was a bit different than my own.
pequenas cosas con grande amor
A few of the mornings we would volunteer to help pack bags for different areas around Kolkata. These bags included everything from soap to grains and spices and were delivered to the homeless and prostitutes in the area. On one such morning, I worked with a Spanish woman who spoke very little English, but we spent the whole morning laughing. She taught me Mother Teresa's famous quote in Spanish - small thing with great love.
Repeating it over and over to get the pronunciation right (even though I'm still quite certain it's not there!), I began meditating on this phrase. We were doing repetitive, small things, unpacking and repackaging gifts and food, measuring out grains over and over, but the little bit of effort in each of these menial tasks was choosing to do a small thing with great love. Intentionality in mundane tasks can be a way of living out Mama T's words.
Little did I know that this mantra would be essential the next day.
Remembering my request to paint, the sisters sent me to a home near the Motherhouse. It was devoid of people but filled with plants and flowers and much more open than some of the other houses. I was excited; what could they want me to paint?! I ran into the sister superior as I entered through a small door, and she smiled and led me to their back entrance.
"You paint 'no parking' sign?" She asked.
I paused and took a mental assessment, expecting disappointment. But her smile was contagious and I couldn't help laughing at myself and raising an eyebrow at God. I ask for a mural (literally pray about it this morning in mass) and you tell me to paint "No parking in front of the gate" on the sisters' back door? Way to remind me that my word for the trip was small!
"Of course sister," I told her, and she meticulously walked me through what she wanted, even writing out in my sketchbook the words. I don't have many pictures from this afternoon - you can't take pictures inside the homes and I was trying to be intentional and focused. People zipped by on the street, occasionally trying to talk to me, making comments either derogatory about the signage or supportive, "I hope people listen!" I was asked if I was from Spain, which felt like a compliment haha. It took a while to get the letters looking even and straight, as if stenciled, but finally, the sister came over. She looked...
"You forget 'the'!" She exclaimed! I stared. Ah shoot! Despite her having written it out and it being a simple task in my mind, I had miswritten her wording to say "No parking in front of gate." She waggled her head disapprovingly at me, and I promised to fix it, erasing some words to fit it all in. Another hour later, and she comes back, stares for a while, takes the rag from me with the polish, and starts cleaning up my letters.
Talk about a reminder that I am a prideful soul! I ask for a mural and God tells me to paint a no parking sign. Not only that, I mess up! And get a taste of what those truly meek of heart must endure. God grant me the grace to approach all tasks with humility.
It took several hours between talking with the sister, painting, and repainting. When we finally finished around 3:00p, I hadn't eaten lunch and was looking forward to heading back. However, the sister stopped me. She had laid out a full lunch she had made herself for me! It was amazing. Egg burrito, naan, chicken, chai... I was awkward at first - I'm not the best at allowing others to serve me, another pride thing - but sister joined me and was very insistent that I eat. She told me about her time working in Miami at the same soup kitchen where I had volunteered in college!
I remember someone telling me that when you go to volunteer with the sisters, you will have these memories that hold a sacred place in your heart. If you have made it this far, this is one of those moments for me. My heart was so full in such a simple way, I felt that God was blessing me with a closeness to Mama T in those hours. I don't think I can express this story to you with its full weight, but I hope that what you can take away is that no matter what you are doing, do it to the best of your ability with the meekness of Christ. Small things with great love.
I asked for a mural and God gave me a 'no parking sign.'
A set for a king!
In addition to the 'no parking' sign, I was able to paint part of the set for the volunteer Christmas show at the Motherhouse! While I didn't get to see the show myself, I loved getting to work with the other volunteers from France, Chile, and beyond to bring the sisters joy! After Christmas, when I was back home, some of them sent me photos from the play:
Meet our crew!
2 nights in airports, parachute pants, & lots of laughs later...
back in the United States just in time for Christmas
Kreeft, Peter. The Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived.
Missionaries of Charity Website - https://missionariesofcharity.org/
**You can donate to the sisters via the "Contact Us" page on their website!