How Mother Teresa Changed Missions
My siblings and I spent much of our lives sharing our home with the young children whom our mother, Colleen Samuel, had scooped up from various parts of Bangalore City, often in the middle of the night. There was young Asha (a pseudonym)—who was rescued from being the “payment” to a greedy landlord because her mother couldn’t afford the rent—and Sara, sold by her husband to a brothel in Bombay, who arrived at our doorstep dying of AIDS. Not content with serving the poor from a distance, my mother’s work brought our family from a wealthy, middle-class neighborhood of Frazer Town, where my father was an Anglican priest, to the very seedy and often-violent neighborhood of Lingarajapuram. My parents believed that conveying the gospel to the poor meant living among them as Christ would, and serving the poor meant embracing them as part of our community and even part of our family.
My parents’ unwavering commitment to the poor in Bangalore was deeply shaped by the life and work of Mother Teresa. Every day on my way home from school, I walked past Shishu Bhavan—Mother Teresa’s home for abandoned children—and every day, I saw a steady stream of weary mothers pounding on the gates as they held listless babies draped over their shoulders. At once, young missionaries of charity would open the gates, and I would glimpse the scores of children playing and laughing in the courtyard. Through those open gates, and also in my own home, I saw mercy in action.
Mother Teresa has been catapulted back into global consciousness because of her canonization this Sunday, September 4. As part of the culminating celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy—a year-long period of prayer—Pope Francis will recognize the Albanian nun who was arguably the most prominent advocate for the world’s most destitute people. Born in 1910 as Agnes Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa started the “Missionaries of Charity” order in India (that has now spread to over 130 countries) and dedicated her life to those who were unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. The young novices who worked with her often extracted maggots from the rotting bodies of the dying and sopped up pus from the seeping wounds of the many lepers who were lovingly rescued by her. Even as someone who works regularly with the poor, I am astounded by her actions.
On the surface, it might seem that Mother Teresa was solely preoccupied with the physical and material needs of the marginalized. She spent most of her life caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and rescuing the homeless. Yet even as she set up institutions to resolve world hunger, she talked of people’s hunger for God and their inalienable value as creatures made in his image. Material needs, she insisted, can be easily satisfied, but caring for a person’s spiritual needs is more important. In fact, she regarded it as her primary calling.
Inspired by Mother Teresa’s example, I have worked in India for the last 10 years with Dalits, also known as “outcasts” or “untouchables.” As I’ve studied and served among them, I’ve come to realize the simple truth of her vision. The poor on the streets of “Kolkata” and places all over the world are deprived of basic human necessities like food, clothing, housing, and healthcare. (Most standard poverty measures assess wellbeing solely in terms of “neutral” social indicators, like calorific intake or years of schooling, and many development practitioners and scholars assume these are the only real aspects of poverty.) However, as Mother Teresa understood, poverty is not always reducible to material factors, and it often involves deprivation of dignity and self-worth.
For generations, Dalits in India have been employed in jobs regarded as “unclean”—manual scavenging, road cleaning, and tanning. They’re often characterized by a passive acceptance of their low status, an unqualified absence of hope, and a total lack of aspiration to improve their lives. Other caste groups—and, more importantly, the Dalits themselves—believe these negative characteristics constitute their identity and personhood. In many cases, a person’s low self-worth propels him into a vicious cycle: his perceived lack of value reinforces his inability to change, which results in destructive behaviors like drinking or gambling, which in turn reinforces his low self-esteem and marginalization from society.
Of course, feelings of social isolation, indignity, and shame may arise because of economic poverty. But nonetheless, it’s not enough to simply care for the poor by providing for their material needs. Studies have shown that as much as they long to be fed and kept warm, the poor also yearn to have a relationship with the transcendent (and, I would add, the sense of worth and belonging that comes with it). According to Father Brian Kolodiejchuk in A Call to Mercy, as Mother Teresa wandered the streets picking up those unwanted by society, she often spoke of “clothing the poor not just with clothes, but also with human dignity.” She offered that dignity to the living, the dying, and the dead.
Father Brian tells the story of a young Hindu man who, during a visit to Kalaghat, watched Mother Teresa and two priests lift the body of a dead Muslim man on a stretcher. Although he was reluctant to help with what was (and still is) regarded by upper-caste Hindus as an “unclean activity,” he felt compelled to abandon his fear and transport the cadaver to the burial site. Upon returning, the young man exclaimed, “Today I have become a man!”
Every time I visit my native India (which is often), I hear stories like this of people who were inspired by Mother Teresa’s actions and even traveled long distances to see her mop the brows of the dying and destitute. Just being beside her—and vicariously participating in her tender acts of kindness—was redemptive for them. The “Angel of Mercy,” as she is called, is an object of adoration because of her profound vision: She believed the poor occupied an elevated status as the embodiment of Christ himself, and she drew others into a relationship with Christ through her actions with the poor. For the church and its missionaries, she is the model for true outreach.
Although I never met Mother Teresa in person, I watched her influence emerge in my mother (who, incidentally, is called the “Mother Teresa of Bangalore”), and I continue to see that same influence play out in my own life. I leave in a few days for another research trip to Bangalore, and from where I sit, it would be difficult to find a more perfect example of radical mercy than the “Saint of Calcutta.”
Pope Francis writes in Misericordiae Vultus, “How much I desire that the year to come will be steeped in mercy, so that we can go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!” Mother Teresa’s life was indeed “steeped in mercy.” She extended mercy to the dying, but she also showed the living that by serving the poor, we encounter the Lord, and through this service we ourselves—and our societies—receive mercy as well.
Rebecca Samuel Shah is Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute and the associate director of RFI’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team. A scholar of the impact of religious belief and practice on the social and economic lives of poor women in the Global South, Shah currently serves as a research professor at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where she is the principal investigator for the Religion and Economic Empowerment Project (REEP) funded by the Templeton Religion Trust. Born and raised in Bangalore, India, she lives in Washington D.C. with her husband Tim and their five children.