For all the merriment contained in the Christmas season, a highlight of December was a joyful venture to West Bengal, India with a wonderful gathering of our camp family and alum. We had former staff members, current staff members, and parents of future staff members in our group. Numbering at 19 CKC staff and alum throughout the course of the journey, we had quite the crew!
In 2014 I was praying in Church, and a thought came to me. It was one of those thoughts that seemed too out-of-the-blue to quite feel normal and it unsettled me a little; “Bring camp counselors to Calcutta”. I let the thought sit for a few weeks and I brought it to prayer. Although I had already been to Calcutta 3 times myself, I didn’t know if I was comfortable leading others there in any formal fashion. Nevertheless, it bothered me. It bothered me in the perhaps-I-actually-really-like-this-idea kind of way.
So, after sharing the idea with some friends, I put a trip together. There were 6 CKC staff members in that first batch, and it was an incredible trip! The next year, we had a whopping 21 people. This year’s crew was just right at a grand total of 19 (although not everyone could be there for the entire time, we had a total of 19 over the course of 10 days in India). A highlight for me was meeting Theo Longenecker at the Calcutta airport. Theo, a long time Chosman, has attended all three of these CKC staff journeys to India!
This recent staff trip was full of such a radiant cast and crew! Every day we would rise before the sun to join the sisters at the Motherhouse for early morning prayers, starting our days with reflection and time for God. This was our “morning watch” in India 🙂 After breakfast, we split into different groups headed to a variety of homes throughout the city where the sisters centered their charitable work. One of the benefits of having many different projects distributed amongst our group was that everyone had an individual and unique experience. This made for incredible stories at the end of everyday – Calcutta is not an uneventful city! Just getting a rickshaw or a taxi across town is the ride of your life.
One of our staff members shared the following reflection: “Going to Kolkata, I expected to have my world rocked. I expected cataclysmic revelations, supernatural grace and love. That’s not at all what occurred. Instead, I got a world realignment. Instead of shaking I got world steadying. I encountered genuine love, not some idealized version. It brought me out of my mind and back to planet Earth. There was a fulfillment there. In the closeness, in the chaos, the full busses and wild traffic. Kolkata felt alive, as if it was the real world, not a manicured version of it. It was wonderful. 10 out of 10, would go again.”
There will be more reflections on this trip in the future, but I would like to mention that his word “steadying” hit the nail on the head. A person can not encounter the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and witness their sacrificial lifestyle (which is a very difficult thing to maintain for one’s entire life) and not come away impacted. Even with 30 hour flights, wild jetlag, early mornings, difficult shifts at Mother Teresa’s Home of the Dying and Destitute, and the general discombobulation of being captured by a radically different culture, the experience “steadied” us. This is the Gospel, the wild call, and it’s the same voice that calms the storm for the Apostles in the Sea of Galilee. Epic.
Who is Mother Teresa?
Ever since my first trip to Calcutta (known as Kolkata to the people of West Bengal), I have been deeply impacted by the story of Mother Teresa and the people and culture of Calcutta. It is a difficult city to describe. Most people are overwhelmed by the noise, sights, and smells who first walk the streets. Calcutta is a city of considerable squalor and poverty. Nonetheless, there is a powerful sense of connection among the denizens of these storied avenues. Formerly the lavish jungle capital of the far-flung English colony on the south Asian subcontinent, Calcutta is now conspicuously marked by the bones of the old English Empire. The white marble of many Victorian buildings throughout the city are smudged by nearly a century of smog and vegetation grows unchecked out of the walls and crevices of buildings that were once beauties to behold. The decaying vestiges of the old English empire give this city a haunted feel. This ill-suited, disjointed empire on-its-deathbed became the dark scene into which a brave and prayerful little Albanian Christian woman was called by God.
Daughter of a prosperous and influential business man in Skopje, Albania, young Agnes felt the tug to be a missionary as early as 12 years old. Impassioned by the preaching of the pastor at her local Church, she inquired into options to sell her possessions and seek to teach the far corners of the world about Jesus and his love. Her pastor knew of a religious order which had schools in India and he recommended them to her. At the age of 17, she departed from her beloved homeland and family and started her journey into the religious and missionary life.
A gifted teacher, Agnes took the name Teresa and eventually became the Headmistress of a Catholic school in a run-down part of Calcutta. The increasingly volatile and depressed state of the city after the departure of the English troubled her. There were horrific riots as a result of the tension between the local Hindus and the growing Muslim population in which thousands of people were killed in the streets. Mother Teresa, as she had come to be called by her students, witnessed the effects of these events while she was out looking for food for the hundreds of girls in the school. The horrific conditions in the city stirred her heart to witness to the words of Jesus, “Whatever you did for the least of these… You did it to me”.
Shortly after the experience of seeing the dead in the streets from the riots and witnessing the escalating poor population in Calcutta, Mother Teresa went on a retreat in the Himalaya, to the hill-town of Darjeeling. No one knows exactly what happened on the train ride into the largest mountains in the world (you can see Everest from Darjeeling), but she emerged from the journey deeply moved. Decades later, letters to her spiritual director were discovered that detailed some of the mystical moments in prayer she encountered; she saw throngs of hungry, hurting people, and heard the voice of Jesus calling her to “Come be my light”, “Carry me into the hovels of the poor”, and exhorting her to gather “Indian sisters to serve the poorest of the poor”. Thus, at 40 years old, Mother Teresa discovered her life’s deep calling.
It took a few years, but once the superior in Calcutta tested Mother Teresa’s claims and came to believe that her call from God was authentic, Mother was released to go and begin a brand new work for God. Imagine how unnerving it must have been when she was dismissed from the convent with no resources and released into the streets of a terrible jungle of humanity. Despite being alone, tired, and empty handed, she testified to a deep peace in trying to be true to her conscience, to the call of God in her heart.
Many other reputable Christians in her community thought she was insane. Folks thought she would die in the streets like the poor. They were yet unfamiliar with the gritty, bulldog attitude of this Albanian nun. She adopted a new religious garment made from a white Sari with blue bordering (the common garment of the very poor – costing less than 10 cents at the local market). Mother began to work, person to person, to bring the light of Christ to her neighborhood. Local donors began to collaborate with her to organize the purchase of food and property for the poor. Word spread of this woman who was “only all for Jesus” and who had accepted a radical path of poverty in order to love the poor eye to eye.
Within two years, a dozen other sisters joined her, all of whom were her former students. This, to me, is a testament to her integrity and the sheer attraction of her tenderness, her humor, and the way she loved everyone in her path. There is a lesson to be taken from this in our camp family! When we accompany those entrusted to us with love, then often they will long to obey you, to go where you go, to do what you do, and to adopt your way of following the Lord even if it makes great demands on their lives. This is the fruit of love: discipleship.
Decades later, we are still following in her footsteps. Our CKC family found a welcome home in the life and example of Mother Teresa; in Calcutta we learn so much about loving others that we can come home to camp with! Mother’s radiant example of small acts of love, a smile, a touch, being the first to volunteer for a tough task, and her ferocious fidelity to praying every single day provides a model for us as we love others.
“Love one another as I have loved you”, Jesus says. In Kolkata, the CKC staff attended a daily school of love. Mother’s emphasis that EVERYONE has gifts to offer the world is a valuable word to hear in these times when many are duped by lies of meaninglessness. “I can do something you can not do; you can do something I cannot do; together, we can do something beautiful for God.” Is this not true? The radiance of joy I saw in face of the people served by the sisters in the homes in Calcutta and the joy shared by our campers at CKC attest that we all desire to hear someone call out our dignity, our gifts, and our purpose in the world. For Mother Teresa, our purpose was clear! We are created, echoing the words of Jesus, to “love and be loved”. When love surrounds us and melts our various barriers of distrust, we are free to grow in a beautiful way, in the way God had in mind all along.
“I am a little pencil in the hand of God, who is sending a love letter to the world.” Mother’s words convict the listener and gives us permission to offer ourselves, with all our strengths and especially our weaknesses, to God. Only he is able to write straight with crooked lines, and in this there is a tremendous amount of peace.
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them”. – Mother Teresa