I have returned from just over two weeks in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. My written words will in no way be able to describe the thoughts and emotions of this trip. Trying to process the city through western eyes was nearly impossible for me. At first glance Kolkata is city of full of uncontrolled filth, noise, and sheer human masses. This photo represented my thoughts the first few days. I could not make sense of the things I was seeing. India seems to be in a time warp. Women are almost always clothed in sarees, while the men can be found in anything ranging from traditional lungi (cotton plaid material wrapped around the waist), kurtas (a long tailed shirt usually worn with matching or white cotton pants), or even western style clothing. So clothing offers you no reference to a point in time because of the sheer variety of styles. Taxis, are reminiscent of a 1950's era Chevrolet. Buses and trains have no windows or climate control. Motorized, bicycle and human powered rickshaws are all quite common. Construction methods were mainly hand powered and reminded me of the way things might be done in a backyard project or by the American pioneers 100's of year ago. Living conditions vary from tarp shelters on the sidewalk to slum buildings and cramped apartments. Everything is in a general state of disrepair. On the other hand there is a beauty to be found as well. The textiles, including sarees and shawls are beautifully colored and elaborately stitched. Jewelry is also dazzling. But the most beautiful thing is the human spirit.
The mission of our trip was to serve along the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity at homes established by Mother Teresa. There are homes for men, women and children. The men our our group volunteered at Prem Dan a home for mentally and physically handicapped teens and men, as well as the sick and dying. Because we were there for two weeks, we were able to develop relationships with the patients as well as the other volunteers. Volunteers come from all over the world to help at these homes. I met people from Chile, Australia, Japan, France, Spain, Switzerland, Canada and Korea. I expected that the patients would be somewhat detached from the volunteers due to our temporary status, but they are just the opposite. We came to India expecting to show them love and respect and they treated us in kind. The routine at the home is well established. Rather than getting frustrated with new volunteers, the patients are very helpful in training us to help them. If one of our group missed a day due to illness they were quick to ask about them and looked forward to their return. The first day is overwhelming but by the last day I was able to see that we had indeed made a difference at least in a few lives for a few days. The need in Kolkata is great. Mother Teresa has done something special in setting up these homes. The urge to volunteer and help is unquenchable. We met countless people who have returned year after year, spending as much as 6 months at a time at the homes. One man I met was a geography teacher from Canada who began a 2 week vacation in Kolkata, volunteered at Prem Dan on the first day and has been there now for nearly 3 months. He has a plane ticket for the end of the January but couldn't say for sure that he would actually use it. The human spirit in the volunteers and the patients is truly a beautiful thing. We were all there to serve based on Matthew 25:40 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
The need in Kolkata is huge. People are begging to get into Prem Dan or one of the other homes. While the existance there is simple, it surpasses the conditions of the street. The mentally and physically handicapped will be cared for for the entire lives. The sickest spend their last days being compassionately cared for. The future of the sick that will get well is uncertain.
When I got home, one of the first things my wife asked me was "Would you do it again?". I didn't even hesitate and answered "Yes, I definitely would." As confusing and disturbing as the first few days were the trip was ultimately rewarding. Our capacity to help is so simple. A strong back for chores and a warm heart ready with a smile or a hug are all that are required. I pray that I can make myself open to opportunities to help out back here in my own community.