Poor Calcutta woman offers great lesson in life

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, March 20, 2002

Leslie hoped to learn more about God. The poor and suffering taught her more about herself.

Last week, coffee companion Faith Brace spoke of "the unbearable sweetness of being" she experienced in the poor and suffering through her years of inner city pastoral work in Edmonton.

Leslie Davies – athlete, high school English teacher, and globetrotting volunteer – is of kindred spirit. Some years ago she departed for India to help out briefly at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta.

Leslie hoped to learn more about God. The poor and suffering taught her more about herself.

I first met the graduate of Cochrane High School in 1999 soon after she was inducted into its Alumni Society, an honor recognizing her humanitarian work in South America, Africa and Asia.

Readers of this column are aware of her more recent activities in Mexico. She just completed a year with Peace Brigades International, providing protective accompaniment for local human rights advocates.

This week she begins a one-year stint at the Centre for Human Rights in Tlapa, in the strife-torn southern Mexico state of Guerrero. Sponsored by St. Mary's Church in Cochrane, she will be assisting the centre's founder, Abel Barrera, who visited the Cochrane area last summer and is himself on the hit list of some in Mexico who are opposed to human rights advocacy.

It's Leslie's time with Mother Teresa, however, that I'd like to focus on right now.

While en route to Calcutta, she wrote in her diary:

"I know it will be the biggest challenge of my life so far. But I also am sure God has led me here to find out more about Him and about my relationship with Him. I look forward to it and pray for the courage and strength and grace to learn and grow from the experience."

Upon arriving, she didn't have long to wait for the lessons to begin.

Among the patients at the home was a woman, unable to speak, whom Leslie describes as "gentle and sweet." She had a badly infected ulcer on her back. Malaria was giving her a high fever, chills and delirium.

And on this particular hot, humid day, she was incontinent.

As Leslie walked past her bed while going about chores, she remembers thinking to herself, Oh man, not again! She even hoped that if she kept going, someone else might clean up the mess.

"But I didn't keep going," Leslie says. "I stopped – and I went up to the head of the bed and I looked into her eyes and what I saw there stunned me. When I looked into that poor woman's eyes, I saw shame. In the midst of her fever and the chills that wracked her body, this woman was ashamed that she could not control her bowels.

"And I wanted to fall on my knees in the face of her suffering and my own selfishness, I who in the riches of my health and skills, was petty enough to pity myself for having to clean up her mess. And I stroked her face and held her hand, and from my own shame I did my best to convey to her that she had no reason – no reason at all – to feel shame.

"A poor, dying street woman in Calcutta, in her humility, taught me a great lesson that day," Leslie says.

Leslie captured that lesson in a poem I've shared with some of you before, but it bears repeating:

The mute appeal in your eyes
as they meet mine
tears me in two.
I bend over you, caress
your face, so sorrowful,
and my heart aches for you
in your humiliation.
How to let you know that
there is no shame?
Your body wracked with fever,
chills shaking you,
life-force draining an
almost empty cup.
Yet not empty.
Your eyes tell me you have
not succumbed;
your soul, though weary,
struggles feebly
within your ravaged body.
Who can know the anguish
of your life,
your sojourn here on earth?
Feel loved, touched,
cared for.
But please
feel no shame.

— Leslie Davies

Poem © 1996 Leslie Davies, used with permission
© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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