As Christians who are concerned about reaching all the world’s people with the gospel, we can learn much from the example of one famous woman who powerfully lives out the good news among the poor of India.
Mother Teresa was born in Yugoslavia in 1910, and left home at age seventeen to be a missionary in India. Her ministry began there not among the poor, but in teaching the well-to-do young at a school in the city of Darjeeling.
Later she moved to the larger city of Calcutta, where she lived in a convent that was next door to a large slum known as Moti Jheel. Her biographer, Desmond Doig, tells what happened to her there.
Mother Teresa’s room at the convent looked out upon the acres of squalor and poverty and the unattended sickness of Moti Jheel…. She was increasingly disturbed by what she saw. She asked permission to go into these slums with such meager aids as she could lay hands on-a few tablets of aspirin, bandages, iodine, and the powerful will to help. Perhaps she did not know it then, but there would be no turning back.
Mother Teresa willingly gave up a secure, comfortable position to serve the less fortunate. She followed the example of our Lord, who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). A living model of what it means to be a sacrificial missionary in a foreign culture, her ministry reflects Christ’s earthly mission: “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
By 1948 she was ready to begin the ministry she is known for today-serving the poor and abandoned people living in the slums. Her motivation was simple, as we learn in her statements quoted by Malcolm Muggeridge in Something Beautiful for God. “I wanted to serve the poor purely for the love of God. I wanted to give the poor what the rich get with money.”
Muggeridge also related Mother Teresa’s thoughts about opening a home for the dying, an act which characterizes her self-giving spirit.
The first woman I saw I myself picked up from the street. She had been half-eaten by the rats and ants. I took her to the hospital but they could not do anything for her. They only took her in because I refused to move until they accepted her. From there I went to the municipality and I asked them to give me a place where I could bring these people because on the same day I had found other people dying in the streets.
The city offered her an empty pilgrims’ resthouse, which she accepted. Within twenty-four hours the Missionaries of Charity-the mission which Mother Teresa founded-brought their first patients to the new home.
You and I—must find them and help them; they are there for the finding.
She describes the continuing purpose of the home in these words:
First of all we want to make them feel that they are wanted. We want them to know that there are people who really love them, who really want them, at least for the few hours that they have to live, to know human and divine love-that they too may know that they are the children of God, and that they are not forgotten and that they are loved and cared about and there are young lives ready to give themselves in their service.
We are to be all love, all faith, all purity for the sake of the poor we serve.
No one taken there is allowed to die in despair, unwanted, unfed, or unloved.
What keeps Mother Teresa and her companions going as they carry out their mission in such a setting? In Mother Teresa’s mind, three ingredients seem to stand out: love for God, prayer, and practical action. Each reinforces and strengthens the others, resulting in lives that unite prayer and action. Spirituality becomes practicality, and love becomes personal action.
She explains that loving people is a way of loving God.
Our neighbors we can always see, and we can do to them what, if we saw him, we would like to do to Christ…. Our hearts need to be full of love for him; and since we have to express that love in action, naturally then the poorest of the poor are the means of expressing our love for God.
Her example can help us express this same love in our own lives for those who are, in her words,
unwanted, unemployed, uncared for, hungry, naked, and homeless. They seem useless to the state and to society; nobody has time for them. It is you and I as Christians, worthy of the love of Christ if our love is true, who must find them, and help them; they are there for the finding.
Mother Teresa clearly recognizes the worth of every individual.
I do not agree with the big way of doing things. To us what matters is an individual. To get to love the person we must come in close contact with him. If we wait till we get the numbers, then we will be lost in the numbers. And we will never be able to show that love and respect for the person. I believe in person to person.
To carry out these convictions among the poor in Calcutta, Mother Teresa and her co-workers live in poverty themselves.
Our rigorous poverty is our safeguard. We do not want to do what other religious orders have done throughout history, and begin by serving the poor only to end up unconsciously serving the rich. In order to understand and help those who have nothing, we must live like them…. The only difference is that these people are poor by birth, and we are poor by choice. It is nonetheless true that without the conviction that it is Christ himself that we see in the outcasts, such a lifestyle would be impossible.
For Christians in richer nations, her example challenges us to reexamine our discipleship. And for believers in poorer countries, her faith and loving service are a symbol of hope. God does indeed care about the plight of the poor. He is concerned for both their spiritual and their physical well-being, and he uses his faithful servants to lighten the darkest comers of the world.
Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity begin and end each day in prayer-an indispensable part of their work, and of their pursuit of holiness.
We must become holy, not because we want to feel holy, but because Christ must be able to live his life fully in us. We are to be all love, all faith, all purity for the sake of the poor we serve. And once we have learned to seek God and his will, our contacts with the poor will become the means of great sanctity to ourselves and to others.
“Love to pray,” Mother Teresa exhorts us in her book A Gift for God. “Feel often during the day the need for prayer, and take trouble to pray. Prayer enlarges the heart.”
Although she has focused her ministry among the poor of India, Mother Teresa’s mission has responded to needs worldwide. She says,
People today are hungry for love. That is why we are able to go to countries like England and America and Australia where there is no hunger for bread. But there, people are suffering from terrible loneliness, terrible despair, terrible hatred-feeling unwanted, feeling helpless, feeling hopeless.
The Missionaries of Charity now include thousands of members who serve the sick, the lonely, the destitute, and the dying in thirty nations. In 1979 Mother Teresa received the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of this work.
Materially poor yet spiritually rich, Mother Teresa’s life can be a model for Western Christians who want to be missionaries or who are sending out and supporting missionaries to work among the billions of unreached people in the world-most of whom battle the ravages of hunger and disease. And most of them are still beyond the reach of our present missionary efforts.
To become servants who are adequately equipped to cross these cultural frontiers with the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ, we must learn from pioneers like Mother Teresa, whose Christlike love shows the way.