I got up Sunday morning at 5:10 to walk about half an hour through the backstreets of Calcutta to the Mother House, the convent where Mother Teresa began her legendary work with the “poorest of the poor.”
The streets were dark, although men were already out preparing for the day, stoking fires for little food stalls on the sidewalk and opening the grates to small shops along the way. I pointed out a tea vendor where our students could buy 100grams of loose leaf assam for about 75 cents.
Mother Teresa’s tomb is at the Mother House, as well as a small museum. You can also see the simple room where she lived and worked, pretty much exactly the way she left it when she died at age 87 in 1997. But this was not our destination.
We came to volunteer to work in one of the many centers she organized as part of the Missionaries of Charity. The nuns all wear the same trademark white sari with blue trim that she did—and we crowded into their chapel for mass that began promptly at 6 a.m. In English, thankfully.
They sang sweetly and I followed along with the liturgy, sharing a book with a young Japanese girl, also a volunteer. Then we filed out into a large room where the volunteers were served breakfast— a piece of bread and a banana with spiced tea.
After reading a prayer and singing a song we crowded out onto the sidewalk where we looked for someone holding a sign identifying the center we had been assigned. We had picked up handwritten, xeroxed passes earlier.
Four of our students and I followed another volunteer onto a crowded city bus and traveled to Nirmal Hriday—a hospice with about 100 beds—where a nun sent us downstair to help with the laundry.
This was done by hand in three large concrete block basins—scrubbing and wringing out the blankets, sweaters, sheets, towels and long underwear and transferring them from the soapier to less soapier tanks before they were put into a large machine for a final spin cycle.
When we were done I walked through the infirmary and an elderly gentleman waiting to have his foot bandaged motioned for me to sit down beside him. He didn’t speak any English, but I just sat beside him for awhile. I massaged his shoulders for a few minutes—but the clinic was busy and there was no direction about what to do next.
So I helped an older Japanese woman carry laundry to the roof where I joined several volunteers, including my students, hanging the wash out to dry. About twelve volunteers set ourselves to this task.
It is here that a small problem became apparent.
There were more volunteers than there was work to do. Volunteers come from all over. Some of them stay for months. But many for only a day or two. What to do with all this help?
When we finished the laundry my students and I sat down to fold bandages, instructed by a lovely older woman from France who has been coming for a few weeks every year for about ten years.
It is clear that the long-term volunteers create a community of their own—and probably have more important work to do. Some have specialized skills in medicine or physical therapy.
But the ranks of volunteers swell with young evangelicals and Catholics, many on a pilgrimage for which volunteering at the Mother House has become a sort of bona fide—and while I was folding bandages I wondered if volunteering here was no longer a thing to do, but a thing to have done.
I sat there, folding, happy to do something that needed to be done so the sisters could do something more important, thinking of Mother Teresa’s observation that we do few great things, only “small things with great love.”
I would take a piece of gauze and lay it down over a square template, folding the edges back to the lines, folding it over and then over again, trimming the irregularities with scissors.
I did this over and over again, perhaps 150 times, listening to the same song being played over and over again on the street outside from loudspeakers at a Muslim center on the corner. Next door hundreds of faithful Hindus lined up at a famous Temple after buying relics at the dozens of vendors along the street and orange and yellow flowers to leave on the attar.
The friendly French woman explained that the nuns used to get bandages already folded and trimmed, but it was cheaper to do it this way. Shortly after that she send us away, three hours early.
We stopped at a little cafe and had some doula. Then we rode the Metro back to our hotel, with a new stamp in our spiritual passport—but perhaps a slight feeling of unease, as though the destination had not matched the picture in the brochure.
It was Sunday in Calcutta and there was plenty of time to buy tea.
And relics of our own.