In 1990, I was a single, twenty seven year old woman working with Latin American immigrants on Long Island. I was also learning Spanish, and I thought of going to a Spanish school in Antigua GAfter a day spent with some of the happiest and poorest women I have ever met, I came away understanding Mother’s saying, “Only in Heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.” uatemala. A thought came to mind, “Mother Teresa has a house in Guatemala City. Maybe I could volunteer there after the course”.
I had seen the film “Mother Teresa” by the Petrie Sisters and it impressed me deeply. I loved the scene where Mother visits Guatemala to open a home despite the bureaucracy of the government. I worked for a social worker for Catholic Charities, fighting just such a bureaucracy in New York. A system which left the mentally ill out in the streets in the name of deinstitutionalization. I loved how Mother ignored the officials’ attempts to obfuscate her mission to help the people they themselves had failed to help out of dire poverty. She opened the home in spite of them and spread the joy of Christ through her sisters. She was my social justice heroine!
The letter came in an ordinary envelope, typed by an old manual typewriter. But the postmark gave it away, it was from Mother Teresa! She did not want me to go to Guatemala, she told me that there are many people who speak Spanish in the Bronx. Classic Mother Teresa, “love begins at home.” She gave me the phone number and promised to look for me when she came to New York. So I called the sisters, and made a date to visit, early on a Saturday morning. No one says “no” to Mother Teresa.
Leaving my car parked in the early morning in the Fort Apache area of the South Bronx, I was approached by two police officers on foot, who asked me, “Hey lady, where are you going? Don’t you know it’s dangerous here?” Despite my best efforts, I obviously didn’t blend into the neighborhood. I answered merely, “Mother Teresa.” They nodded. Now my presence made sense.
After a crowed Mass in the simple chapel where participants knelt on the carpeted floor, I was greeted, given breakfast and a tour. A tiny two floor house with a large bedroom filled by dozens of simple cots, and a single mirrorless bathroom, and a large kitchen comprised the living quarters of the Missionaries of Charity.
I recognized some of the sisters from the movie, and the effervescent joy they displayed in the film was even more evident in person. They giggled like girls on a sleepover! Living in these simple, cramped quarters did not dampen their enthusiasm for service of others and love for Jesus in the poorest of the poor. They prayed the Rosary while cleaning windows in the soup kitchen next door. I helped by chopping donated vegetables for the biggest soup pot I had ever seen, all the while learning their names in Spanish, I was to run errands with two of the sisters. We were to pick up poor little old ladies to attend the wedding Mass of a doctor who volunteered for the sisters, and invited two coach busloads of the poor he had served to his wedding. Just like the wedding feast in the Gospel.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14 NASB
My little silver Honda could have been a royal coach, considering the enthusiastic waves directed at it as I drove the sisters through the most dangerous projects in the Bronx. They prayed with me before leaving me to go into the buildings to fetch the ladies, and told me to keep moving while I waited for them. The wedding guests speculated whether in their first time inside a Catholic church, they would see the Holy Ghost! On the way back to the convent, the sisters returned a wallet that had been stolen to its owner. The thief, after taking the cash, had thrown it over their garden wall knowing that the sisters would return the wallet to its owner. Even thieves knew these women loved God!
When we helped the ladies board the charter busses a diminutive Indian sister held up six lanes of traffic with the wave of a hand. Only the Missionaries of Charity who are known for their great love of the poor could command such respect in the toughest neighborhood!
We spent some time in prayer before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament before I left, and I understood that He was in their hearts as they served the poor and that the poor sensed Him in them. After a day spent with some of the happiest and poorest women I have ever met, I came away understanding Mother’s saying, “Only in Heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them.”
I never took the sisters up on their invitation to join them in the convent. Within two years, I had met and married my husband Francisco, and for the ensuing decades, I continued to teach the poor and raise three children, but I carried Mother’s words in my heart every day since I read them in her letter,
“The fruit of silence is prayer,
The fruit of prayer is faith,
The fruit of faith is love,
The fruit of love is service,
The fruit of service is peace.”