December 2012 - Vol.  64

Serving the Dying of Kolkata and Being Filled with Godís Blessing
by Marc Barbara

This past August I went to India for two weeks to serve the poor and the homeless with the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I was joined with my older sister (21 years old), my older cousin (21 years old) and my friend (21 years old). We traveled from Lebanon to Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) in West Bengal. Kolkata is one of the poorest cities in the world. The Missionaries of Charity welcome a continuous stream of volunteers who come to offer their help. I discovered that volunteers don't even have to sign up or call to be part of their program. You give your name as soon as you get there. The sisters have so many people to care for that they can't do their work of mercy without the help of volunteers from around the world. There are many poor and sick people in need and very few sisters to care for them. Every volunteer really makes a huge difference, and the sisters are more than happy and thankful for each new volunteer who offers their service. 

After our plane arrived in Kolkalta we took a taxi to the hotel, and then started working the very next morning. We went to the Mother House where the Missionaries of Charity live, gave them our names, and then chose one of their centers we wanted to serve in. In Kolkata they have a center for the sick people, a center for the mentally ill, a center for the physically handicapped, and a center for the people who are dying. I volunteered to help at the center for the dying people.

We worked every day in the center from 7 am to 12 pm. I chose the job least chosen by most volunteers; washing peopleís clothes by hand, feeding those who were dying, and even showering them. Most of the dying can't walk, so I would carry them from their beds to the bathrooms. Most of the other volunteers couldn't stand to see the people I was working with because of their misery and the poor state of their bodies. Four people I worked with died during my stay. 

I joined the sisters every morning at 5:30 am in their Mother House chapel where they prayed  the psalms together and received the Eucharist at their daily Mass. Without this time of daily prayer with the sisters and being filled with God's blessing for the day, I would have had no energy or motivation to volunteer. Just before going to work, we used to sing a small prayer all together which the sisters taught us: "We have our hope in Jesus that all things will be well in the Lord." There was also a prayer and meditation time in the Mother House every afternoon at 5 pm. It was a calm and peaceful environment during that time, a good time to forget everything around us and concentrate on being alone with God. 

I heard a saying that Calcutta [Kolkata] is an attack on the five senses. The smell on the streets is very bad, you can't touch anything because it is so dirty, the people and the condition in which they live in can be disturbing. You barely find good food that won't make you sick, and you always hear the sound of heavy traffic Ė a lot of cars and honking horns. Kolkata is a really disturbing city, and I found the first days there very hard because I didn't know anyone or anything about the local culture. I expected it to be tough, but when I got there it was much worse than I could have ever imagined. After a few days passed by, I got used to it. The weather for me was the worst combination ever Ė very hot and humid with heavy rain.

Every morning I used to spray my whole body with insect repellant to prevent mosquito bites. I underwent all the vaccines necessary before the trip and took malaria pills before, during and after the trip. I found Kolkata to be  a safe city, even at night. So there is nothing to worry about except the food you eat and the water you drink. We always drank imported bottled water (not tap water) and found a few restaurants that were safe to eat in. Transportation is easy there; there are a lot of taxis, and streets are named and numbered. Everything in India is really cheap as well.

Serving the poor in Kolkata can be a very hard and tough experience Ė I donít think everyone who would like to volunteer can survive it. The work is  very tiring, but once you get used to it, it is a great and rewarding experience. This experience has taught me a lot. First, I learned a new culture I didnít know before. Second, I now better realize how blessed and fortunate I am and how much I really have compared to those who lack so much here. Third, I learned how to adapt to a new style of living there (walk from place to place, use public transportation, helping people and learning from them, as well as being able to teach and encourage them...). Fourth, I was able to meet people from many cultures around the world. We became friends with volunteers from Italy, Japan, and America... We also got to go out to lunch and dinner in our free times. We were all there for the same reason: to help and love the way Mother Theresa did, to make a little change in people's lives and give them some hope to go on. 

If anyone reading my testimony has any interest in serving with the Missionaries of Charity, I would encourage you to go even if it is only for a week. There isn't much tourism you can do there, but it won't be boring. And you will be blessed and inspired, as I was, with the opportunity to serve and be blessed by the Missionaries of Charity and the people they care for. 

[Marc Barbara is from the People of God community in Lebanon, where he serves with the youth program and is an active member of University Christian Outreach. He is completing his bachelor's degree in business at the American University of Beirut.]

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