Volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata
by Verity Worthington VolunteerMany people have asked me what draws me to Kolkata, and it’s a difficult question to answer. For my confirmation, way back in the last millennium, I received a book with daily quotes from Mother Teresa [“The Joy in Loving”]. I remember reading one entry which described a young girl visiting Kolkata from Paris. Mother noted that her eyes weren’t smiling, and sent her to work in Kalighat, where she found Jesus.
Perhaps I knew my eyes weren’t smiling either, because as soon as I finished school, I decided I would go to Kolkata to volunteer. Looking back I was certainly very young and innocent. I remember my journey from the airport, wondering if these people really slept on the streets, who owned the dogs and cows etc! It was akin to landing on another planet - many miles away from my all-girls school in rural England. However, I was soon captivated by the volunteer community; by the warmth and friendliness of the people and sisters. For the first time in my life I felt accepted for who I was, not for what I could do. I began working in a dispensary, and led a group of volunteers painting the park at Shishu Bhavan. It probably sounds cliched, but from the very beginning it became apparent that whatever we gave, we received much more.
Since that first visit nearly 10 years ago, I’ve returned many times to Kolkata, and have volunteered elsewhere with the Missionaries of Charity. Like many other volunteers, I enjoy sharing in the prayer life of the sisters as well as the apostolate. We began our day at 5am with morning prayer, and ended it with adoration. In a city as chaotic and noisy as Kolkata, the chapel becomes a vital part of the volunteer day. Mother’s Tomb is also a very special place to offer prayers and find moments of solitude. The volunteer community, under the care of Sr Mercy-Maria , is remarkably close
Sometimes it’s easy to become immune to the poverty in Kolkata – after all, everything is relative. However, volunteering is a very humbling experience. Kalighat especially is a very special place. It is a quiet place; a place where the tears of the dying and the tears of the searching meet; a place where east meets west; where boundaries are broken. I was continually humbled; at the lady who thanked me for helping her eat, at the lady curled up in the corner of her bed sobbing who let me sit with her ... at the woman with excrutiating burns who endured daily agony, yet raised her hands in gratitude to the doctor.
You’re reminded that it’s 2009 and people are dying without anything and anyone; forgotten by the world; rejected; unwanted; unloved. One lady in particular stands out in my memory – she had such sad eyes; our lives had been so different; different languages and cultures and customs; yet as I fed her, we were somehow united "together" in our humanity. That shared experience matters, and you realise that touching each other’s brokenness is where we find Jesus.
Every volunteer contributes a drop to the ocean of humanity, and it is certainly true that the ocean would be less without these drops. It is so easy to look at the big picture; to see the thousands of suffering people, and forget that we can only do small things with great love - that the one person we serve at a given moment is Jesus. This was definitely apparent when on Christmas day we served food to thousands of people who queued so patiently at the gates of Shishu Bhavan. This is a passage from an email I sent home: "There is a chilly cold in the air at the moment, and as I walk to work past bodies wrapped in sheets on the pavement - I realise how close to that first nativity we are here. When we tend to the dying in Kalighat - when we give out blankets as we were this morning ... this is Christmas ... not fairy lights and tinsel. I find myself seeing the Holy Family on every pavement in this city - poor, needy and vulnerable; whole families surviving in this cold weather, on a patch of dirty pavement - one day to the next, one year to the next. They aren't busy preparing the turkey or wrapping last minute presents. They haven't sent any christmas cards this year, or decorated a tree. These babies know nothing of Santa-Claus, they don't have a stocking to hang at the end of their bed - yet they have something many people with all of those things will lack this Christmas. Perhaps it sounds cliched, but Mother Teresa was right, here people share ... they huddle under the same blanket; they share the little food they have with their neighbours. There is no room at the Inn for them either ... they live in the cold, rejected by the world - and they do so with humility.
I was reminded this morning as we gave out blankets and rice, of the queues around the world in shopping malls at this time of year. People waited so long for these essential items, which they received with such gratitude. It is a lesson to us all."
I have met so many wonderful people during my time volunteering, and I consider the Missionaries of Charity to be my extended family. People think it is courageous, to go to Kolkata and volunteer – yet those who do so discover that far from being difficult, they are embraced and welcomed with such love. I would like to say my motive for volunteering was alturistic, but I needed them far more than they needed me. The irony is, it is easy to love in Kolkata, where the physical poverty is so great. As Mother said “you will find Kolkata all over the world if you have the eyes to see”; and this is the biggest challenge for long-term volunteers and indeed, for all of us.