Mother Teresa's acts of kindness felt locally

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 15, 2003

An icon of kindness will be beatified Oct. 19 in Rome by Pope John Paul II. By her small acts of caring for the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India, Mother Teresa set in motion a ripple effect that has washed the shores of every continent and touched lives right here in Cochrane.

Two Cochrane folks who have volunteered at Kalighat, Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta, are Leslie Davies and Matt Rogers. In view of the concern some of our readers have expressed over the meaninglessness of small acts of kindness toward the poor when, they reason, larger responses to the underlying causes of poverty would seem more in order, I asked Leslie and Matt for their opinions on Mother Teresa's approach.

Leslie, presently a human rights advocate in Mexico, spent four months at Kalighat in 1996, the year before Mother Teresa's death. She writes:

WHEN I FIRST arrived in Calcutta, a young local gentleman took me aside and began to rail against "Mother Teresa-types" and how what was needed was not "charity" but long-term, grassroots development to change the conditions of poverty. I allowed his point of view, but am of the belief that both kindness and development are necessary, and told him I would like more than one day in Calcutta and some time with the Sisters at Kalighat before I offered my own opinion.

My months of volunteer work at Kalighat only confirmed my boundless admiration for Mother Teresa and for the work she did. To open her arms and heart so unconditionally, to work so untiringly until the very end, to see the suffering Christ in the dying of all faiths, and to give so many forgotten souls the opportunity to die with dignity in the presence of others who care about them as human beings, these were acts of kindness on her part that opened the doors of my heart and those of millions around the world.

In a later discussion with the same gentleman who had railed against the works of Mother Teresa, I described my experiences to him and tried to explain, as I had before – but this time with much more passion – that in the face of poverty and disease and loneliness, in the face of all the ills of society, it is important to have both long-term development and on-the-spot kindness. For if not for the "small acts of kindness" of Mother Teresa and her workers, how many millions of people would have died lonely and forgotten, abandoned to rot in their own disease and filth on the streets of Calcutta and hundreds of other cities around the world, while the process of long-term development plans was being carried out? In our focussing on the future, we must not forget the present and the person right next to us, who may be suffering at this very moment.

—Leslie Davies, Tlapa, Gro., Mexico

MATT AGREES wholeheartedly. The 27-year-old university student, sometime coffee server, and serious Ironman competitor spent a month at Kalighat in 2001. He fed and bathed the suffering, and did laundry, dishes and anything else he could to be helpful.

"To say that Mother Teresa's small acts of kindness were meaningless can be seen to be untrue just by going there," Matt told me recently. "I would argue, as pitiful as her attempts were, she did achieve a great many things, one step at a time. Had it been any other way, she would have been so overwhelmed that she wouldn't have achieved anything."

I asked Matt what his own reasons were for going to Kalighat.

"I felt there must be something more that I can do, coming from such wealth as we enjoy in Cochrane," he said. "Going to a place like Kalighat, I realized my presence and my compassion were the only gifts I could give."

Leslie's and Matt's comments remind me of how Mother Teresa herself responded to her detractors:

"We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love."

© 2003 Warren Harbeck

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