Kolkata, West Bengal, India

Unlike some of the other places I have visited in India, places where you can ease into the lifestyles and cultural norms, Kolkata isn’t really like that.  Kolkata kinda hits you in the face.  It’s loud, crowded, smoggy, smelly, overwhelming and filled with millions of people of every size, shape, religion, and economic class.  It’s filled with beautiful structures like St. Paul’s cathedral and the Queen Victoria memorial, and its filled with places not as aesthetically pleasing.

I got to visit a number of places while in Kolkata, but one of the things that I had that chance to do was to walk the streets, really walk the streets.  Now I’m not talking about the business areas or the places used for shopping.  I’m talking about where some of the poorest of the poor live. 

I feel like I saw everything there is to see on this walk.  I saw people butchering animals and hanging the carcasses outside of their store in hopes of gaining a sale.  I saw people bathing and washing laundry.  I saw families cooking and sleeping and begging.  I saw a little toddler have diarrhea as her parents sat and watched from a distance.  At one point I found myself walking on the sidewalk which was also the home to several families, but to continue on I had to walk through their “living room”, past the “bathroom” where several were bathing and changing, and over their “table” where others were eating.  I encountered a lot of poverty while being in India, but that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to experience.

At the end of the walk our group arrived at one of Mother Theresa’s houses where disabled and orphaned children lived.  We didn’t stay to help out or anything, just to learn and observe.  From there we went to the mother home where Mother Theresa used to live which now consists of her resting place and a museum.  What I learned was that Mother Theresa was a very dedicated and quotable woman.  It’s like she spoke in these deep, meditative thoughts that would rock the cultural norms of the way the poor are approached.  She radiated the love of Christ and was able to help so many during her time in this world.  While I appreciated learning about all Mama T did, I have to be honest…I left that place with Mother Theresa envy.

She makes caring for the poor seems easy, like anyone can do it.  All you need is a white sari with blue trim and a somber smile and you can do it.  But since being in India I have encountered corruption and wealth and poverty and caste and gender dynamics and offering help to those in need doesn’t always seem as easy as Mama T made it out to be.

And thus I left Kolkata in a quandary and with a little bit of jealousy towards a little nun who ended up being really good at loving people.  But the more I think about it the more I realize that it isn’t about coming up with the end-all-be-all model of how to approach service or about outdoing an Albanian sister-in-Christ.  It’s about a deep, meaningful relationship with the father and about living life in humble obedience to the things we are asked to do.  Maybe there are pieces about Mama T’s approach that I don’t completely understand or elements that I don’t completely agree with, but she and I are a part of the same body and we both possess a deep desire to make God known in a world where he can sometimes be a little hard to find.

Ashley Sider