“I touched poop today,” Olivia announced calmly.
She continued, “Right after the meal, there was an explosion of grandmas who needed to use the toilet. I dragged a chair with a grandma on it back from the bathroom to her bed. When I lifted her on her bed, I noticed there was poop on the chair. I quickly lifted her back on the chair. Her hands also had poop. The grandma besides her was panicking and started to scream. Although I don’t know Hindi or Bengali but I know she said, ‘Poop’.”
“She touched me and I had poop on my hands. She started touching the bed and all the other beds as I dragged her back to the bathroom on the chair. There was poop everywhere. The local helpers were so angry at her because that morning we took hours to change the beddings,” Olivia continued animatedly with her arms flying with different motions.
We were sitting in a small, beat up local restruant eating fish and chicken curries while we listened to Olivia and each other’s experience as a volunteer in Mother Teresa’s order, Missionaries of Charity, in Kolkata, India. It was also our last meal in India before leaving for Nepal by sleeper train. Kolkata was our last city in India. It was also where we had decided to volunteer for a week with Mother Teresa’s various homes for the poor in the city. I had read her biography. I had watched the “Mother Teresa” movie. So We came to Kolkata for the sole purpose of volunteering here.
On our first day of volunteering, we attended the morning mass with the Sisters at 6AM in the “Mother House” as it was called affectionately by everyone. The tomb of Mother Teresa is located here. We had to wake up at 5AM to make it to the service but it was worth it. In the center stood the 30+ Sisters who wore, in place of the traditional nun costume, sari with three blue strips which represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Wearing sari allows them to go out to the street to care for the poor. To the left were also around the same number of “trainees” who wore the sari without the blue strips. Trainees usually serve for four to five years before they can take the “vow of poverty” as the Sisters did. Against the back wall was a statue of Mother Teresa sitting on the floor in her usual posture, attending the mass almost as if she was still present. They sang with angelic voices, simple and humble. It was just like what I saw in the movie. However, this time, I was part of it.
After the mass, the volunteers and some of the sisters gathered in a hall to have bread and tea before heading out to the different homes for the day. It felt like the UN of volunteers as there were people from Italy, Spain, France, Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia, Philippines, India, Korea, US, Canada, and more. The atmosphere was lively as everyone was eager to find out why everyone came here and for how long. Bonds formed surprisingly quick. One of the Sister led us in our daily prayer:
“Dear Lord, the great Healer,
I kneel before you,
Since every good and perfect gift
Must come from you.
I pray, give skill to my hand,
Clear vision to my mind,
Kindness and sympathy to my heart;
Give me singleness of purpose,
Strength to lift at least a part of the
Burden of my suffering fellowmen,
And a true realization of the
Privilege that is mine.
Take from my heart all guile &
Worldliness that with the simple
Faith of a child I may rely on you.”
Then we sang together a simple but uplifting song:
We have our hope in Jesus
We have our hope in Jesus
That all things will be well
That all things will be well
That all things will be well
In the Lord.
With that, around thirty to fifty of us volunteers headed out to our pre-assigned home to serve. The five of us had different schedules. In the morning, Olivia and I went to Kalighat, the famous Home for the Dying, while Annie, Nathan, and Joani went to Daya Dan, a home for disabled children. In the afternoon, I joined Nathan at Daya Dan, while Olivia, Annie, and Joani went to Shushi Bhavan, a home for young children.
Every night for the three days we served, we eagerly shared what we saw and experienced. I was surprised that the children even fought each other to share their feelings.
“It was intense,” I got to share first. “I knew I might have to bath them and to help them go to the toilet. I usually like to try new things. But on the first day, I actually stepped back quite a few time because I knew I couldn’t handle it. There was a new person who arrived at the Home for the Dying. Besides the raw and infested smell of his body, his foot was swollen and rotting from a large cut. Maggots were crawling in the wound. It was obvious that he lived on the street. The volunteer Raphael shaved the person’s hair and washed his body and the wound. I went in and had to come out after few seconds.”
I continued, “I saw a man whose skull was bashed in such that the right side was concave. Later, another person waved at me and lifted up his arm straight towards me. He couldn’t speak but I sensed he wanted me to massage his arms. so I did. He was the first Indian hand arm that I held who was not a tourist hawker that tried to drag me somewhere to buy something. He came to the Home for the Dying a month ago with large bulging back and chest, severely deformed. His skin was dry and flaky, not so pleasant to touch. When I massaged him, starting with the fingers, he closed his eyes peacefully seemingly enjoying this rare touch from another human being. Touching is powerful. I tried to picture Jesus on his face. Then I thought of my grandfather who also enjoyed massage to ease the numbness from his back tumor. As I massaged this possibly dying person in front of me, I felt as if I was massaging my grandfather again. I felt a special connection. I massaged him on the second day as well. On the third day, when I looked for him, he was not at where he usually sat. I panicked. A sinking feeling came upon me. Did he pass away during the night just like the other person who died the day before I arrived? I looked and looked. I finally found him lying on a bed. I felt a great sense of relief. I was surprised how quickly I had formed such a connection to a total stranger.”
Olivia also agreed, “I also felt that connection. There is a verse that says, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink…I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers, you did unto me.’ When I was serving them I didn’t really feel that but I would think about it. But when I looked into their eyes, that’s when I really felt I was looking at Jesus. That’s when my business become something different. When I stared into their eyes, then I felt like I was serving God, not them.”
“When I went with Joani to look for Olivia, I saw this girl who was strapped to the chair and gazing into empty space. So I thought she was blind. However, the moment I looked at her and had eye contact, her eyes opened up and came alive. She held Joani’s hand and my hand.” Annie added.
“At Shishu Bhavan, I was making the beds and a baby looked at me and smiled at me. Also, the toddlers would come and help me with making the bed. It felt really nice to see them remembering me,” Joani also shared her experiences. “At Daya Dan, there is this girl called Sonia who is 22 years old. She always sits at the corner doing nothing. So I would talk to her and she would touch my hand. Sometimes when I smile she would smile back. Then I was looking at the children’s descriptions on the wall and I saw her name. It said that she is usually quiet and get left out by the volunteers. So I just spent more time with her.”
As we shared and eat and shared, we all were surprised at how quickly in three short days, we got into a good routine and how quickly we built bonds with the adults and children we serve and the volunteers we serve with.
Olivia started the sharing, “You can build relationship so fast. We were only there for three days but it seems like we know the people for a long time.”
Nathan continued, “One thing that really touched me was when I was helping to change the bedsheets, the elderly Japanese lady came over and said, ‘You come.’ It was interesting that I have only been there few days but they already expected me to do this and that. It only took a few times to learn what to do. It’s really fun to help the children to roll on the ball for physical therapy. It’s cool to think that after the children do this many years, eventually they will be able to walk.”
“The same! I noticed the more days I volunteered there, the more work the Sisters entrusted me to do. On my first day, I washed clothes and dishes and hand fed those who are paralyzed. On my third day, I couldn’t believe that I felt a sense of honor to be asked to change their urine bag, carry them to the toilet, wash their bodies or clean their poop. And that day it was non-stop!” I said excitedly.
“For me, when I first arrived at the Home for the Dying, none of the grandma smiled at me. Now everyone knows me and smiles at me. When I said good morning, half of the grandma would say good morning back. The grandma I messaged yesterday wanted me to message her again, just as long. So I did. But the grandma besides her was getting really annoyed waiting. I was singing as I massage, sort of saying goodbye, because I probably won’t see her again…In three days, I felt the same as saying goodbye to home,” Olivia also shared. “There is one thing that is really inspiring. You go there, you know nothing. Nobody tells you anything. You just have to start doing it. The more you start doing, the more you know what to do. Somehow by the third day, you will know how to do half of the things. When you see a grandma that is lonely, you go and talk to her. When you see a crying baby on the floor, you go and pick him up. Sometimes you just have to do it. You do it wrong, they will tell you. You do it right, keep doing it. This lesson is something I can bring into my own life — just do it.”
“This trip we met amazing backpackers. Here, we met amazing humans. Compared with them, I felt so humbled,” I reflected. “Mother House seems to be a magnet that attracted the most incredible people we have met. During our trip so far, we have been mesmerized by quite a few hard core, long term cyclists and backpackers. Here, we met equally if not more astonishing individuals who might not be world travelers but their humble attitude of service is even more inspiring. “
“I agree. When they go back, they don’t even get to bring back photos of what you do and the people you helped (note: the policy at Mother House is that no photographing is allowed inside). You have nothing to show. You might have a photo of the building and a photo of volunteers. That’s it!” Olivia shared. “I was really impressed with the Japanese grandma. She was ‘only’ here for eleven years. She kept saying, ‘only, only eleven years.’ She is like the same age as the people she is serving. She is getting old but she is still there. It is just cool to see that.
“It sounds like she plans to work there until she dies,” Joani interjected.
“I think so,” Olivia agreed.
Indeed, we met so many special volunteers. There was the pilot Tito from Philippines who flies commercial jets after leaving the air force. He wakes up at 3AM every morning to jog to the Mother House then volunteers at the House of the Dying during his time off. When I saw him taking on the dirtiest job in washing, massaging the heads of each grandpa, and washing the poop-covered bodies of the people there, I was so humbled by his attitude of service. Pilots are the most respected staff in an airline. But here, Tito is doing the most menial tasks. There was Raphael from Spain who comes every year for 6 months. He did all the shaving for the men and when a new patient comes, he shaved their flea infested hair and washed their soiled bodies. There was Ezekiel and Stephanie from Argentina who came to Kolkata because it was the cheapest flight. Initially, they were only planning to volunteer for few days. Now, they had already volunteered for three weeks because they have gotten to know and grown to love each person there. There was Eva from China who had traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan as a solo female. This was the second time she came here. There was Elijah from Korea who just finished military service and plans to serve here for 5 months. The list goes on.
Many of them flew to India just to serve “the least of these brothers and sisters” and to serve for months and years. For us, it was very tiring after each day and we only did it for three days. Now that we know what it is like, we admire these volunteers and Sisters even more. But one important lesson we learned is that for many of them, they are doing this not because they are saints, but because they have been loved by God and are serving God out of thanksgiving.
As we sat around the dining table, we just kept sharing and sharing. However, as we needed to catch the train, I asked the children how they had changed from this experience and what they want to take back with them.
Olivia shared, “I knew saying goodbye is coming because it was our last day. And of course I knew what it was going to feel like because Mother House feels like home to me, just like it was hard for me to leave our home in China this time going to college. It was special on our last day when the Sisters asked us to stand in front of all the other volunteers. Then they all sang. ‘We love you, love you, love you from our heart. We thank you, thank you, thank you from our heart. We miss you, miss you, miss you from our heart.”
Olivia continued, ” I really like the poster that hung on the wall of the Home of the Dying: ‘It is not how much you do, it is with how much love you put into what you do.’ It is so human to want to do big things. Here the Sisters and volunteers are learning how to do small things out of love. Working with these volunteers from different countries, I realized that I really love a job where I can bring people from around the world to serve and visit. That would be something I really love doing.”
Then she added at the end, “I definitely want to come back!”
Joani shared next,”At Daya Dan (handicapped children center), sometimes I would ask God, why did He do that? It kind of hurt to see how they are different. They will never grow to have a normal life. Some of the description of the children on the wall say that they can understand English and Bengali even though they can’t talk. To understand two languages is quite impressive. Then I realized that they are still special in their own way.”
Nathan was the last to share after waiting patiently for the sisters to finish, “One thing that left a lasting impression is the eye contact. Similar to Olivia, when I looked into their eyes, I felt like I was serving God, not just serving them. There is one boy who I often bring him off the chair to walk holding on to the side rail. I can tell he really likes it a lot. On the last day, when the children sang the goodbye song to us, he kept looking at me and smiling. That was really special. Another thing I learned was that even if you can’t help yourself, you can always help others. People sometimes suicide because they can’t help themselves, but they never thought about what they can do for others. So I am hoping to bring a little of that love into my daily life to help others. As I was writing my reflection today, I realized that some of the children who can eat on their own is because of thousands of volunteers who helped. You can see the amount of love invested in each child. Even though feeding them is very hard. It takes a lot of patience but I am willing to do it. To feed them first before I feed myself. It really moved me how some of them will never be able to feed themselves, but there’s always someone waiting to love them.”
After hearing the children shared, I told them that I am so proud of them. They worked really hard and with great patience. Not once did they complain about how dirty or how menial are the tasks. They also stayed strong emotionally. Our couchsurfer host from Kolkata told us that one of his guest from Spain who also volunteered here cried every night when she came back each day.
I added, “Another thing I learned was that it takes a lot of patience to love these children with special needs. Supposedly, compare with these children, you three should be much easier to work with…”
“…not really for some reason…” Annie interjected teasingly.
“…It reminded me to bring some of the patience I learned here to my relationship with you. I hope to be better because when you experienced something, then it will change your perspective,” I concluded.
“Hopefully…” Olivia also teased.
“So what was your favorite place in India?” I asked them since we were about to leave India.
“Kolkata,” Olivia said without hesitation.
“Kolkata,” Nathan replied.
“The same,” Joani said as well.
What a miraculous and surprising ending to our 30 days in India!