By Jim DeHarpporte
To win the Nobel Peace Prize is a rare feat. For a Nobel Peace Prize winner to be declared a saint, well that is unique. And for this Nobel prize winning saint to be revered by Christians, Muslims and Hindus alike, then our world may not see the like again.
It was at the Hindu temple dedicated to Kali, that Mother Teresa began her ministry. It was near a dark, congested lane next to the temple, lined with beggars and stained with the blood of animal sacrifice, that pilgrims came from distant villages to worship and sometimes to die. Here at Kalighat, she and her sisters set up a small room to bathe, spoon feed, and comfort the dying and destitute.
One of the great privileges of my life is that I knew this iconic figure: Mother Teresa. I was with her in Kolkata on that morning in 1979 when she received a telegram informing her that she was to be the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. During my time in India working for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), I got to know this small woman who put an enormous stamp on history. People would travel from all over the world to the Mother House just in the hope of meeting her. And I had the privilege of seeing her on many occasions.
On the morning I heard she’d won the Nobel Prize, I gathered all the CRS staff and 15 of us – including my wife Scholastica who had been teaching English to her novices – headed to the Mother House to offer our congratulations. When we arrived we were told that she was busy taking calls from the Pope, President Carter and other world leaders. When she came down the stairs from her second floor room, Mother Teresa took hold of Scholastica’s hand and, waiving the telegram, said: “This is not for me. This shows that the world has recognized the poor. This is for them, not for me.”
We took a photo together and as we were leaving she said to me: “I’m sorry for all the trouble I have caused you.” How ridiculous that this woman who would become a saint would apologize to me, but I knew what she was referring to ― my frequent requests for the reports and documents we needed to account for the food commodities that CRS had provided her. Keeping records and sending in reports was not a priority for her. Once when I asked her for documentation we needed for our donors and for the Indian government, she pointed up and said, “I report to God.”
She was always full of joy and possessed a wonderful sense of humor. And she worked what I considered miracles even back then. There was the time that some of the thousands of tons of U.S. government-donated food commodities CRS was importing each year for her programs were tied up at the port waiting for Indian authorities to approve the duty-free entry and all the other red tape. This shipment had been sitting for so long, it was on the verge of spoiling. I could not budge the bureaucracy. Totally frustrated, as a last resort I asked Mother Teresa if she would accompany me to a meeting with the Chief Minister, the highest official in the state of West Bengal. As soon as we explained the problem, he picked up the phone to the Port authority and demanded that the matter be taken care of immediately. On the way back in the car I thanked Mother Teresa for her time and intervention. She put on a Mona Lisa-like smile. “Sometimes it helps to be Mother Teresa,” she said.
One time when it was American bureaucrats to blame for delays she wrote to the White House on a scrap of paper: “Dear President Reagan. Please send food. God Bless. Mother Teresa.” Shortly after I got a call from an anxious White House staffer: “Please call her (Mother Teresa) and assure her that President Reagan will make sure that the food arrives as soon as possible. And please tell her not to write any more letters to the President about this.”
These are deeply cherished memories, but they are more than world-class fodder for dinner table anecdotes. They provide me with lessons that speak to every age, including our own. Today, before offering help to those in need, many ask, “Are they Muslim? Are they immigrants?” That would not sit well with Mother Teresa. Her help was unconditional, without regard not just to religion or ethnicity or immigration status, but also to cost, disease or her safety.
Mother Teresa also had a message for our age of increased isolation as the traditional family erodes, and as our obsession with digital devices steals the attention we used to focus on those around us. Mother Teresa knew that loneliness and lack of human contact eat away at the soul. That such alienation is as much a form of poverty as lack of food and shelter.
So she did not just hand out food and provide shelter to all in need whom she encountered, she also held out her hand to them, and smiled. I was blessed and privileged to have touched that hand, to have felt the warmth of her smile. It let me know that we are never, ever alone in the world because love like hers exists.
Jim DeHarpporte was Catholic Relief Services Zonal Director, based in Kolkata, India, from 1975 to 1980. He lives in San Diego where he continues to work for CRS.