Living And Working With The Missionaries Of Charity

Mother Teresa has been both sainted and vilified for her life’s work and legacy. A vivid and honest portrayal of one of the world’s most controversial organizations.



other Teresa. The words alone conjure an image of a tiny woman, hunchbacked and wrinkled, wearing a white and blue sari while walking through the streets rescuing the poor. We see her huddled at one of her famous homes for the dying, embracing lepers, cradling starving children. She was everything we are not, an idealized vision of goodness. No longer a person as much as a personification of our collective imaginings.

While on a train in India, Mother Teresa heard a call from God, prompting her to “leave the convent and help the poor while living among them.” Her resulting legacy, the order of the Missionaries of Charity, was started in 1950 and now includes more than 4,500 sisters and over a million laypeople in at least 133 countries. Her work with orphans, prisoners, sex workers, the sick, the dying, the disabled—the unwanted—garnered her international acclaim, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971, the Nehru prize in 1972, and the Nobel prize 1979. She was canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church in 2003, despite many people questioning her practices.

It was this image of Mother Teresa that led me to explore joining the Missionaries of Charity. In 2007, I finally had the opportunity to leave my life behind and move to Calcutta, the epicenter of her world-famous order of nuns. I joined the ranks of thousands of volunteers who journey to the City of Joy every year, and I worked off and on with the sisters in various ways for seven years. As a teacher, I was assigned a position instructing boys at an orphanage for special needs children, which also provided basic medical care to anyone who asked for it.

I met Mother Teresa for the first time when I was 7 years old. She came to me in the form of a gifted Catholic prayer book, embossed gold and blue with the words “Come be my light.” Inside were prayer cards under plastic featuring airbrushed pictures of her, holding swaddled starving babies, or looking up at the heavens clutching a rosary. She seemed so holy and pure, different than the adults I knew. Different too, than my 7-year-old self, who stole candy from the 7-Eleven and never went to church.

I wanted to be like her, to rise above my utterly chaotic and abusive family life and be something different. Selfless. While other children dreamt of becoming astronauts or ballet dancers, I daydreamed about becoming a member of her order, the Missionaries of Charity. That dream did not fade. In fact, I almost joined several other religious orders in my 30s, but none measured up to my Mother Teresa daydreams.

What I didn’t know yet was that her order wouldn’t be as good as my daydreams, either.


The orphanage was located down a small, dank lane. On the morning I arrived, the lane was filled with people who were thin limbed, some hacking into bloody rags, legs and arms wrapped in bandages, the smell of festering sores ripe and overwhelming. As I entered the orphanage door, I was quickly grabbed by a nun, handed an apron, and told to help hand out medicines. I protested that I was a teacher and knew nothing about medical conditions. The nun simply pushed me out the side door, where a long table was set up as an impromptu dispensary. My job was to count pills and wrap them in small squares of newspaper, and while doing so I noted that many of the medicines were old and expired. The nun in charge was young. She spoke softly to the patients, unhurried and calm as she filled out a clipboard with methodic diligence. The patients waited silently as my hands searched among plastic bottles and bags of powders, measuring just enough medicine for one day.

By late morning, emergency cases were filtering into the makeshift clinic to the side of the dispensary, and I was asked if I fainted easily at the sight of blood. I answered that I thought I would not faint, and was moved into the clinic. Here, rows of broken school desks and plastic chairs lined each side of the room, and in every chair sat a waiting patient, with a leg or arm propped up on long benches. Each limb had an open wound, the sort of gash that smells like dead flesh. My job was to first treat the wound with antiseptic—no anesthetic—and then use tweezers to carefully pluck maggots out of each sore and drop them into a bucket. I can’t remember how many legs and arms I touched that morning. I only recall the squirming maggots in the plastic cracked bucket, the snap of new plastic gloves, the heat on my face from my mask, the way each person looked away from my silent questions. My mind churned with confusion: anger and fear, mixed together. Frustrated with myself that I did not have the skills to do the job, and angry that the people had to suffer and were not given medicine to help them with their pain.

Pulled down by a blind teenager, I sat near him as he made guttural sounds and hit his head against the wall.

The morning turned into afternoon, and finally there were no more arms or legs or maggots, but just empty chairs, and it was then that I finally heard the squeals, laughter, and howls of the children. Walking out into the corridor, I found myself suddenly surrounded by 40 or more boys, rocking, running, spinning, and laying on the ground. Pulled down by a blind teenager, I sat near him as he made guttural sounds and hit his head against the wall. The children touched my clothes, my feet, my face, some leaning in close and others promptly running away.

At first, I could see only their bodies. Some boys were folded, like paper bags doubled over. Other boys sat soft and doughy, propped up against the mint green walls. One boy lay on the ground in a puddle of urine, his limbs stiff and bent over his chest, broken. Another child crawled on cupped hands lacking fingers. Faces stretched tight across triangular skulls, eye sockets empty and only holes for noses. One mongoloid child with an enormous head and a tiny body was in a miniature straightjacket, and he stared at me with an expression that frightened me, wild and unruly.

I heard screams coming from a long walkway, and I went to see if someone was hurt. Instead I saw workers pushing a group of children into a room and locking the door. Through the grating I could see a half dozen boys in a basic cement stall, squat toilets lined up in rows. Suddenly one boy threw himself against the grating, his white albino skin smeared with excrement. I moved quickly from the scene and felt something on my hands. Looking down, I saw a teenaged boy scratching them, gnashing his teeth and laughing.

Hands bleeding, I ran to the front entrance to leave, but it was locked. A nun hurried out to unlock the door for me.

“Are you alright?” she asked. I was not alright. I asked her about the children locked in the toilet.

“Don’t judge us. Don’t judge us until you’ve been here for three months. Come back tomorrow.”


The orphanage was called Daya Dan. Many people have criticized this home for special needs children, and one of the most important voices for change was Donal MacIntyre, who worked undercover there in 2005. He reported inhumane treatment, including children being tied to beds, force fed, ill clothed, and malnourished. MacIntyre’s exposé opened the Missionaries of Charity and the orphanage to public scrutiny. It also brought to light the backwards ideas the order had practiced in caring for disabled children. For example, the sisters had defended tying up children as being both taken out of context and appropriate at times, “something that would not be done without a reason,” as well as “educational.”

I had read these accounts long before I arrived at Daya Dan. I’d also read glowing accounts by volunteers who talked about their love for the children and the positive experience Daya Dan had been for them, such as Denise Hudson’s account of her long-term volunteering.

I wanted to find the good, and so I went back to Daya Dan the next day. And the next day, and the day after that. My first day of working at the dispensary and the clinic was never repeated. Instead, I was given the job of teaching a few of the boys. Soon a few weeks had gone by, and I opened, somehow. Opened to the children, opened to the people lined up in the alleyway being more than their wounds, opened to ignoring the fetid smell of illness, opened to not seeing the urine and feces that occasionally ended up on the floor or on me. Opened to the meaning of the screams and sounds, which were actually calls of greeting, replacing words.

And it was in this wide-openness that I fell in love with those kids. I began to understand them. The wild-eyed boy in the straightjacket was pleading to have it taken off. The laughing hand scratcher could not talk and targeted hands of volunteers when he was frustrated. The bow-legged grinning boy needed something to spin each morning. The blind rocking boy would stop hitting his head against the wall if I sang to him.


he children themselves came from all sorts of backgrounds. Their life stories varied wildly from unknown to the darkest side of human nature. One boy was discovered on a pile of trash at age 2, barely alive and in need of surgery that would allow his body to process waste. Another was adopted from an orphanage for “normal” children, but returned after he got meningitis that left him with brain damage. Still another was simply left in the park by his family. Some were abandoned at the tomb of Mother Teresa or on the steps of the orphanage. One boy was found with his limbs broken by his mother, so that he could make a living as a beggar.

Volunteers showed up daily, sent over from Motherhouse, which served as living quarters, chapel, and command central for the sisters. After a daily mass, a free breakfast of white bread and bananas, and camaraderie, volunteers boarded buses and tuk tuk taxis for homes all over the city. Sometimes they came for just a day, and after four hours of doing laundry or changing beds, they posed for selfies with the children. Other times, they stayed for months, becoming part of a devoted community that was almost worshipful of the sisters, even cult-like. Many volunteers, like myself, not only returned year after year, but remained in contact with one another, a network.


The clinic at Daya Dan lacked basic modern facilities, such as refrigeration and hot water.

Volunteers with some medical training or interest were immediately sent to the clinic or dispensary, while the rest of us spent time with the children or cleaned. Most volunteers did not have any special skills, and had to be trained how to do everything. The tasks were daunting: physical therapy with delicate children whose bodies could easily break, endless changing of diapers and bedding, feeding bodies that rejected food. Some volunteers became upset and frustrated by the inefficiency of what they had to do, paired with the sisters’ seeming lack of willingness to make modern improvements. Mother Teresa had established the order based on simplicity, so refrigerators, washing machines, hot water, modern equipment, and therapies were used only sporadically, if at all.

While the days of tying children to the beds were long since over, I often had to do things I was not comfortable with. I put a severely mentally disturbed child in a padlocked room to keep him from hurting himself and others. I watched helplessly as an epileptic child went crazy from seizures that were not properly monitored. Over and over, I taught children lessons they were not really capable of understanding. I spoon fed children that should have had feeding tubes. I kept children from having physical contact with each other or masturbating, due to the constant fear that they would be removed from the orphanage and sent to one of the men’s homes.

One morning I found myself having to put children in the cement bathroom stall. They pushed against me, some reaching into their pants and trying to smear my clothes with excrement. I barely managed to shut the door. By then I knew more of their story: They were blind, severely mentally disabled, deaf, and had never been potty trained. With 50 boys needing care all at the same time, the active ones who could not follow simple instructions had no other options. There were no personal attendants, no one-on-one caregivers. I had to constantly remind myself that if it were not for these nuns and this orphanage, the odds were that these children would be on the street or dead.

Afternoons were the golden time at the orphanage. The other volunteers were gone, and it was just a handful of workers, the boys, and myself. Sometimes, a musician would come and play music, and all the children would pile in the huge front room and rock in their own private worlds. Other times I’d blow up balloons, 50 or more, and they’d run wildly around, keeping them in the air. On Fridays, some of the nuns would join us for games, pushing the children in go-carts and trikes, habits askew, laughing like children themselves. Or I’d buy treats like fruit and cakes, and they’d messily gorge themselves on buttercream frosting and mangoes. Each afternoon I’d take one boy outside for a walk. Many of them had difficulty with mobility or dealing with unknowns, so we’d simply walk up and down the alleyway as neighbors gave us the sign of peace.

We used spoons to force feed mashed fruits and dhal to boys who had no swallowing reflex.

Despite my trepidation those first months, and all the negative press I had read, I fell in love at Daya Dan. I struggled sometimes with what I was asked to do, yet I saw the great effort put into dressing the children each day, keeping them clean, tutoring, therapy for the blind, organizing assemblies, activities, and outings. The difficult part for me was that the standards for treatment seemed antiquated. The children often crawled around on hands and knees rather than using the wheelchairs that filled a storage room. At feeding time, which was done badly, we used spoons to force feed mashed fruits and dhal to boys who had no swallowing reflex. We occasionally used straightjackets instead of behavioral therapy or medicines. The orphanage had no outdoor space where the children could run and play freely.


The sisters and I began to have relationships. Not friendships, but an understanding based on our mutual love of the children. The nuns were not allowed to have close friendships, and when a friendship began to bloom between myself and another nun, one of head nuns told me that such relationships were not permitted, for they “took away” from the love and concentrated devotion required in their order. I did not agree, but I respected the boundaries of the order and tried to support them however I could. The nuns never discussed with me how they felt about anything, as they were exceedingly private. Yet I could see they were more than an order of sisters—they were a culture, a tribe, and one that sometimes bordered on behavior the outside world might view as cult-like. Without the context of accepted religion, the order has often been described in cult terms, most notably in Christopher Hitchens’s study of the MC’s, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

To become a Missionaries of Charity sister is a heavy task. The process takes nine years once a postulate is accepted as a candidate. Once the nine years are up and she has been accepted into the fold of the MC’s, she then commits to one of the most severely restricted orders in the world. A vow of simple and joyful poverty, a vow of obedience, a giving up of one’s personal freedoms and decision making, a vow of chastity, a separation from family and friends except on rare occasions, and the wearing of pronged chains around the waist for a short periods. She agrees to own few possessions, solely the items issued to her from the order: a few habits, the traditional white sari with blue trim, simple shoes such as flip flops or sandals, a sweater, a rosary, and a small cloth bag with a few essentials. And finally, she agrees to devote her life entirely to the cheerful service of other people, in whatever way is presented to her.

I could see that the order struggled with modernization. They had no contact with the outside world, no ability to see whether or not what they were doing could be improved. The orphanage nuns were dependent on the larger umbrella order, who gave them directives for every aspect of both their lives and the children’s lives. They were unable to use computers, make phone calls, or make decisions on their own. Once, when a spastic teenager was found to have a life threatening infection, they asked me to take him to a hospital along with a young nun. As we dragged the child from hospital to hospital, trying to find one that would accept him and do the surgery but not amputate his legs, it was I who had to give instructions and make phone calls, despite the fact that it took much longer due to a language barrier. The young nun had to stand by helplessly, watching the child crying in pain. The look on the nun’s face was one of abject sorrow, hardly reflective of Mother Teresa’s views on suffering as something which gives joy and should be accepted, as she explains in her private letters shared in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.

The order did not pay for things that would improve the quality of life, extend life, or make life more comfortable.

One of the biggest problems the nuns seemed to face was that of money. They never seemed to have enough of it for the things that the orphanage needed, and despite the efforts of some of them to modernize the facility and include specialized areas for therapy, improve the lighting, and create a welcoming home-like environment, they were not allowed to carry money or make purchases. While they never asked me to buy things, they were dependent on volunteers buying the extras that made the children’s’ lives better: extra underwear, clothes, snacks, school supplies, and paying for outings, as well as bigger things, such as occasional repairs or building improvements.

Motherhouse provided the budget for only the children’s’ basic needs, and those needs did not include medical care that was not deemed “necessary.” The order did not pay for things that would improve the quality of life, extend life, or make life more comfortable. Therefore many children had diseases that caused them to suffer, or conditions that were treatable. Sometimes volunteers even paid for medical treatment, as was the case with the child found on the pile of refuse in the street who had been born without an anus. It was volunteers who paid for that surgery. Years after my first visit, when I wished to adopt a child from Daya Dan and discovered that he had an enlarged heart that needed immediate attention and surgery, I was told he would not get the surgery. It was not vital to his life, despite the fact that his oxygen was being cut off from his brain, causing brain damage and creating severe behavioral problems. This situation pained me, and although I saw that it deeply disturbed the sisters who knew about it, they did nothing to change it.

The question constantly arose in my mind: With so many volunteers coming to work for free, and often bringing gifts of clothes, money, and equipment—as well as the purported enormous cash donations that the Missionaries of Charity received each year— why could they not use those resources better? Why did they not pay for medical care?

The Missionaries of Charity is the largest organization of its kind in the world, yet its finances are not public. Mother Teresa herself agreed to share financial statements only when legally mandated to do so. Many believe that the money donated goes not to the poor served by the order, but to the Vatican coffers. While this is hearsay, there are no public figures on how much money the order receives, where it goes, or how it is divided among the homes and shelters they run.


omewhere between staying a few months and staying a year, I found myself no longer wanting to be a Missionary of Charity. I moved automatically through the streets of Calcutta to the orphanage, my only desire to be with the children I had come to love. At one point, the sisters were short staffed, and asked me to move into the orphanage. I slept in the physical therapy room each night, and was awakened by the sounds of the boys calling my name as soon as the sun came up.


The author enjoys time with a boy at Daya Dan.

Each morning, the view of the alley changed. Someone would always be waiting for food on the front step of the orphanage. Often crumpled, brown, hollow cheeked, yellow eyed. They would wait patiently for a plate of dhal and rice, and as soon as they had eaten and left, another person took their place. An endless procession. Sometimes it was interrupted by a child left for the sisters. Once, I found a tiny boy tied to the door knob, a long red string around his waist, clothes dirty, legs bowed, silent. Other times, a dead body would be in the street nearby in the morning, suffering finally over. But some things remained constant, unwavering: the clinic, full of people every time it was open. The same wounds on different limbs, the same maggots, the same antiseptic smell. The dispensary line always wrapped around the street, everyone waiting from early morning until well into the afternoon.

I watched children become ill and die, never sent to the hospital. Death, for the sisters, was not necessarily a bad thing; it simply marked the end of suffering. Sometimes I felt crazy at the futility of it all. I wished I could steal the children away and save them, but it was impractical. I knew no hospital would take them, and I’d risk losing the opportunity to volunteer with the children at all. Coming from a culture where life is extended as long as it can be, allowing a child to die—even a sickly one—felt utterly confusing. In the end, I held them as they coughed and sputtered and gasped, and told them that I loved them. It always ended the same way: They always asked if they could call me mother, and I always said yes. In the moment of death, there was an absence of me.

Most of the boys would live the rest of their lives in homes of the Missionaries of Charity order, or with some similar order.

The reality was that most of these boys would either die at the orphanage or move to an adult facility, which would be much worse. Despite the fact that few volunteers were allowed to visit the homes for men, I was able to gain access several times to a men’s home run by Missionaries of Charity Brothers outside of Calcutta. The home was in the middle of an area rife with malaria, yet there were few mosquito nets and no medicines given, so many of the men were feverish and ill. The conditions were abhorrent: short staffed, severe punishments, hundreds of people restrained and tied to chairs and beds, ill fed, often crawling with lice and grouped together on plastic sheeting. The men were kept locked indoors most of the day, and were afraid to talk to me or complain. It was one of the most sorrowful and nightmarish places I’ve ever seen.

It was a constant battle to keep in mind that thriving was a luxury for these children and surviving meant learning the rules and not breaking them. This was one of the hardest things I have ever had to overcome—the understanding that I could not help everyone, and when offering help, I had to think about their place in the society they lived in. In this case, they had no place in society. Most of the boys would live the rest of their lives in homes of the Missionaries of Charity order, or with some similar order. They could not live outside an institutionalized setting, and the choices of such settings were few. Unwanted as boys, they would be even more unwanted as men.

I left the orphanage eventually, only to return many times over the years, for I felt I had left my soul with those boys. I stopped daydreaming about becoming a nun, as my experience of living with the sisters helped me to understand that it is not just a life of service one enters, but a complex and layered culture in itself. A culture that I don’t want to belong to and don’t agree with. I even stopped thinking about Mother Teresa as being pure and holy, for I saw that her humanness was what created her order and its rules—rules that will need to adapt to modern life and ideas if the Missionaries of Charity are going to continue to serve the poorest of the poor.


I’ve worked with the Missionaries of Charity sisters in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Bolivia, Bangladesh, France, England, and America. My experience in Calcutta does not stand alone. Poverty and the lack of human rights are universal. Disabled people and children are marginalized everywhere. Malnutrition, poor health care, and access to birth control choices affect women worldwide.

Most people I talk to about Mother Teresa either love her or hate her. Many of her views were upsetting and divisive, including those on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, birth control, women’s rights, the mentally ill, and politics. Also disturbing were her friendships with “dictators, criminals, and con men,” as well as the fact that her order is not serving the poorest of the poor with an emphasis on quality of life. It’s easy to call her and the sisters into question, and we should. We need to call for change.

But perhaps we should call ourselves into question, too.

Why do we allow the unwanted, the disenfranchised, and the individuals with the least economic value to be taken care of by institutions, many of which are religious?

If we believe institutions are necessary or better than individuals, why do we not have more secular institutions set up that welcome individuals willing to give up their lives to service collectively?

Why do we generally see devoting one’s life to serving the poor or needy as a religious calling and not a secular one?

Why are not more of us called into a life of service that is about meeting the needs of others rather than our own security? Not just a week or a year, but a lifetime?

How can being called into a lifetime of service end poverty and create rights for women, the disabled, and children?

These are the questions I ask myself every day. Although I realize I do not have a calling to be a nun, I still feel the pull of a vocation—the vocation of service. And despite what I’ve come to learn about Mother Teresa, it is the combination of seeing her image in a prayer book when I was 7, my Calcutta experiences, and my own desire to rise above my life story that continues to draw me toward that vocation. I still want to be a light of the world.
Photos courtesy of the author.

Amy Gigi Alexander

Amy Gigi Alexander writes place-based nonfiction, memoir, and magical realism. Her award-winning work has been published by National Geographic India, the BBC, Lonely Planet, Travelers’ Tales, and literary journals around the world. She is the editor-in-chief of the British literary journal Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Join her on Facebook.



  1. I worked for seven years with people living with both severe physical and cognitive disabilities at both a Catholic organization (non-profit) and two secular organizations (profit). I had problems with the management of each organization I worked with, and always wondered why they weren’t being more carefully monitored by outside health officials, human rights workers and the ilk. The easy answer is that the people I worked were were “forgotten,” “unseen,” “unwanted.” The more complicated answer is that not many people are asking why these people are invisible. There often aren’t ways that these organizations help the community get involved. I always found it so frustrating to have the people I worked with primarily cloistered, leaving only for an occasional walk, activity (with other people from their same living situation, not with new people), or meal.

    Similar to your situation, I remember having to learn how people communicated – that ‘Bob’ spun in circles and grabbed my clothing and then sat on me (!) because he was desperate for human interaction and was scared that I would leave him. He was blind, deaf and had cognitive disabilities – I eventually taught him how to sign a few words into my hand (walk, eat, squeeze, water) and learned that what he liked better than anything was to walk and work with water – we then organized car washes where in the hot summer months he used a water hose to spray down cars. His laughter was priceless. I was horrified realizing that for 20 years he hadn’t been able to communicate his love for basic desires, and it made me realize that one of the biggest things stripped from people living with disabilities is their power of voice – there aren’t many protocols in place for learning how to listen to their needs. While some organizations are better at doing this than others, one would think there would be certain systems in place for ensuring that the emotional needs of a person are met.

    Reading your piece, my heart ached – while the idea of not treating people for illnesses makes me angry, I also have a hard time with the idea of not setting up trainings for volunteers on how to move beyond the basic needs of the children.

    I remember thinking – many times – that countries ask their young people to serve their countries by joining the military – but they never demand from their youth to serve their countries by doing, well, service work. It isn’t instilled in our young people to do service work because our governments also aren’t doing enough service work. People living in poverty, children, and people living with disabilities suffer because we allow them to be invisible. How different a world it would be if we asked our young people to work with these demographics rather than train for war.

    Yours is an important piece of writing, Amy. I believe calling the Missionaries of Charity into question is important – and I think that asking why there isn’t more third party/government overview of their work is crucial. I want answers to the question you asked: “Why are not more of us called into a life of service that is about meeting the needs of others rather than our own security? Not just a week or a year, but a lifetime?”

    Thank you for this piece. I’ll be giving the ideas it contains a lot of thought in the days to come.

    1. What you say is true, that these people are no importance to most. Or rather, they are reminders of what is important, and so we hide them away, out of sight..because to include them means a different kind of life, a different kind of society. The issues that face disabled people that I worked are basically these: to find oneself in a home, where one is fed, bathed, clothed. touched, and hopefully taught skills–life skills..this is an extraordinary thing. It is not common. Those are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones don’t have those things, any of them.

      And while we have to raise the bar for their care and inclusion, the care that person gets in United States–even in a home or center, away from family, even institutionalized for life–is a completely different landscape than what is available in many other places.

      I’ve worked all over the world with special needs people, and I’ve been to places for adults which were not run by religious groups but governments..which were nightmarish.

      The question is really why are we comfortable with these people being unwanted? We put this out of our mind, but we know it exists. We act it’s new information when we see on television or the internet, but we know it’s there. Some of us, like you, have seen it. But then we forget about it again. Perhaps it feels to vast of a problem.
      The sisters have done what they thought was right, to the best of their teachings and beliefs. But they are not equipped for this kind of problem, not at all.

      And that’s really where we have to step in ask ourselves the hard questions.

      As for setting up training for volunteers: I think they do that, volunteers teach one another, there were manuals on what to do..but that doesn’t really broach the vast gap between the volunteer and their life experience..and being confronted with those kinds of issues. Since any one can volunteer, this colors what trainings can be provided. Some volunteers do laundry all day. Others teach, Others feed. And this is the best those children will ever get. A facility that accepts volunteers means companionship, attention, love, education. Once men, they will have very little of these things, as there will be few volunteers. The ones at Daya Dan are the lucky ones within a culture that does not value them. If they weren’t at Daya Dan, where would they be? Almost no choices at all, and those that do exist are grim.

      I think the answer, for me, is myself. I have to not simply “do what I can” but ask what I can do.

      So much food for thought in your comment. I thank you for reading. AGA

      1. Sadly, many of us are not equipped to deal with these sorts of problems. This is important writing because neither can we begin to comprehend without it. Bless you, Gigi. And bless those who have the capacity to try and make a difference, against all odds, conditions, and provisions. I have felt hopelessness at times in my own life. Perspective is a beautiful thing to gain here. We often complain in America, and sometimes with good reason. We have desperate conditions, forgotten, starving children in our own backyards. But this is such an important view of the world. I’m going to try to maintain my belief that we can make a difference. And perhaps this stark, honest, beautiful piece will.

        1. I think we do need to figure out how to be equipped to deal with these kinds of problems. It’s the fact that we lean heavily on not being equipped that leaves the tasks no one else wants to do to organizations like the MCs. If we want to change things, we have to take responsibility ourselves and not assume that someone will take care of it (as M. T. Bowman says so well above).
          We have many of the same social problems India does: unwanted people with nowhere to go is one of greatest problems.
          it is about educating yourself, but it’s also about taking action.
          Thanks for your comment Kim. Like you, I do believe things can change.

  2. Amy, my heart ached even as it opened in this magnificent piece. I’m uncharacteristically speechless, I can only cry and say thank you. And bless you.

    1. Gail, thank you so much for your comment. It is a difficult topic to write about, to think includes many themes we are very uncomfortable with. But I think there’s more to it that sorrow and darkness and inadequate facilities or the end, the nuns are people, not saints. They are doing what they can within the context of what they believe, and they have an endless number of people to help. We, as individuals, have a call to action–whether we agree with the nuns or not, are religious are not–we are all MOVED. Like you, I too am moved. I think the important thing is grasp this moment and ask ourselves, “What am I going to do? How will I contribute?” That’s the beauty of writing this piece, was answering that question for myself. Thank you for reading. AGA

  3. We all want to offer (and be) a little light in the world, tho this probing piece explains how close-to-impossible it can be when circumstances are so horrific. I can understand why this was so difficult and painful for Amy to write. I cannot begin to understand how difficult and painful it was to experience. We can only be thankful that people such as Amy walk this earth.

    1. Patricia, it’s interesting that you say “we all want to offer and be a little light in the world”. I’m so not sure. I sometimes meet people who have done any volunteer work or helping work, of any kind. They don’t have any interest in it.

      The interesting thing about the Daya Dan orphanage is that is a nice place, within the context of where it is. As I mentioned, there are not that many options for people that have nowhere to go.

      I love that you understand the almost daily futility, of knowing that no matter how much love I gave, they would be shipped off to a men’s home if they made it..and then fade into a real wretchedness. It made me love them more fiercely, and this is one reason why I never wrote about it.

      The hardest thing about writing this piece was redefining what that love was. To decide that it was more loving for me to question than to be complacent, and to decide that that that love can be carried into service in other ways.

  4. The piece that struck me about this article is something I thought a lot about when writing the first draft of my memoir. Namely, that so many in the world are happy to be spectators (or even look away) while the few who step onto the court are the only ones that foul out. It’s imperfect to help in an imperfect world. It’s traumatizing to help the traumatized. You give voice to this so well.

    1. Deb, I so agree with you. The spectator role is easier for the individual. But it is through being heartbroken that you begin to connect with the larger world. It’s challenging but it is important. I do think the sisters do this: they don’t look away, they love all, unflinchingly. There is no undesirable person to them (unlike to the rest of us). The problem lies in the fact they simply do not have the tools to help long term and deeply. The rest of the world does, but it wont step up the plate.
      It is hard to step on the court, as you say, but I agree: it harder not to take the step at all. I wish more people understood that. AGA

    2. This comment is very important. Anyone dealing with people in need will eventually become the target of criticism because we live in an imperfect world, we have imperfect knowledge, and the resources are never enough. I think that the attitudes of the spectators (who may serve one or two individuals (if any) and think that their experience should speak to all) present an obstacle to more people who would like to reach out but are afraid that they, too, will be targets of criticism. There is a painful grain of truth in the Sister’s plea “Don’t judge”.

  5. As your story so clearly illustrates, the wages of idealism are more than just heartbreak and joy.

    There is one path we travel when we put the ‘unwanted’ out of our minds, a path of double blindness – to the humanity of the unwanted and to the terrifying truth that we have eased our own lives by choosing not to ease another’s. That path is supposed to allow us to think more kindly of ourselves while we avoid suffering. And yet suffering finds us, and our unkindness is ultimately revealed.

    And then there is your path. You allow yourself to touch those who are suffering and be touched by them. You try to bring comfort and relief, and you suffer the frustrations of inadequacy, you suffer from your own limitations and the limitations of others.

    It is your willingness to be heartbroken that calls us out of our darkness.

  6. Thank you for writing and sharing your story, Gigi. As an occupational therapist in mental health I have experienced the challenges, heartbreak, sadness, and joy of working with others to provide a better quality of life. The crux of occupational therapy (OT) is assessing a person’s strengths and weaknesses within the context of their environment and situation, teaching independence, making adaptations as needed, and providing meaningful activities. I’m not sure that I could have been able to work as an OT, let alone a volunteer, in the conditions and limitations that you and many others of the MC have had to deal with. It’s a privilege to have the life of another in one’s care. I strongly believe there must be regular inspections, check-ins, supervision, and accountability to be effective and ethical, especially when providing care to people who are sick, disabled, injured, or are marginalized by society. There are no easy answers. I believe change begins within each of us though. Stories such as this one can help effect change if we’re willing to listen to people, listen to you, share various perspectives based on actual observations and experience. Your story was fair. Humans have the capacity to be lazy, ignorant, and selfish, but thankfully we also have the capacity to empathetic, generous, and create a better quality of life for ourselves and others if we each take responsibility to help and not assume it’s someone else’s problem.

    1. You’re right about you working as an would be difficult, although I’ve known people that did offer that kind expertise and they were put to work. The thing is, you have to let go of the expectation and outcome that you get at home. It’s simply a different culture and a different way of doing things.
      I like how you say it is a privilege to have the life of another in your care. It is.
      I also like how you said that if we don’t assume it’s someone else’s problem, we can change things. Often I only hear about how we need to change the way the sisters do things and not enough about how personally need to change. The fact these are unwanted is a world problem, therefore it is our problem, too. Not to say that change is not in order in the MC world: it is. But we have to change at the same time.
      I think the idea that we have that we cannot work under certain conditions or possibly see certain also antiquated. I often hear from people that they could not do such work, or go somewhere harsh, but we all need to do that in order for change to happen. It must touch you.
      This could be by spending a night a month in your local homeless shelter as the night shift, or local vet hospital. But whatever it is, it must a regular practice, part of your life..not simply a once in awhile occasion. This is how things change for good.

  7. Hi Amy,

    Your article is poignant and beautifully told. While reading it, I recalled many instances in my own experiences that left me shaking my head in affirmation of how you responded to your situation. Having visited elementary schools in Uganda in 2010, and seen what I felt were deplorable situations for children to attempt to learn, I learned that conditions at that time were still better than conditions had been a year before. So, I get it when you explain that context, historical and social, matter when gauging what is acceptable care. I also understand how taking care of this population can be overwhelmingly daunting and sometimes appear to be futile. I have a severely autistic son who cannot speak and in his frustration often lashes out physically. His behavior is controlled with medication, but it still isn’t the perfect remedy. Behaviors are the norm. Taking care of individuals like him is very, very difficult in the best of circumstances. Our family struggled for years with local agencies to get the proper care for him, and it wasn’t until I started a legal fight that I was able to begin to get the services he needed. That is here! In the US! So, I can imagine that taking care of a child or adult in India who is like my son is not even something most feel they can’t take on or won’t, given the countries economic, social and cultural situation and beliefs – and, yes, corruption. Thank you for doing the work you’ve done, and I hope we can bring those with disabilities out of the shadows of society so they can get more of the care they need.

    1. Darlene, you bring up so many points in your comment that I agree with. Your Ugandan experiences sound much like mine. For me, this is paired with the realization that perhaps the way we do things in the West is not better, just different. There is that context as well.
      But when it comes to the disabled, it’s pretty clear that the context is about rights and abilities and creating opportunity. Your situation with your son sounds very difficult, and sadly common. What a difficult decision that must have been for you to come to. I cannot even imagine what that would be like, and to me, that sounds much more difficult than anything I have ever done.
      India is actually one of the most educated and prosperous countries in the world. The real problems they have of corruption and population contribute hugely to the number of unwanted people they have. It is just ..overwhelming..the sheer number of people who are on the street, who are living basic lives.

  8. Beautiful story, Gigi, thanks again for sharing your gift for important details. Very moving.

    1. Earthsurfer, thanks for always appreciating my work. The details make the story, I think. Otherwise it’s just a series of heartbeats. I’m glad you were moved. xo AGA

  9. Keeping someone alive is better than dying, but when a child is severely mentally disabled, what kind of quality of life do those kids face in a facility like you worked in Amy? I’m also very troubled by the implied misuse of funds – primarily because there is no transparency and the possibility the money was being funneled primarily to the Vatican. Given their secrecy and treacherousness (as exposed by the child-abuse scandals), someone should be demanding a thorough audit.

    1. Tim, I so hear you. The misuse of funds is more than implied, in the sense there is no tracking of how money is used. In itself–whether it went to the Vatican or not–is huge in terms of how charities are supposed to be run. Zero outside accountability. I mean if there was some of that, these questions wouldn’t even come up.
      I don’t really discuss that in depth in my essay, because I have no personal experience with that so I can’t speak to it..except wihin the framework of noting that there is not an emphasis on quality of life, and noting that donations are not used (ergo wheelchairs).
      But I do agree with you. Yes.

  10. I, too, wanted to join a religious order on several occasions. I don’t hear of people sharing this sentiment often – probably because there are the inevitable unanswerable questions that would follow such a statement.

    Thank you for sharing a beautifully written memoir of your time with the mission. I struggle with my future plan to join an international outreach organization sometimes, not really being sure that I will be able to be of service in the ways I feel called to, but heading in that direction nonetheless.

    I believe that missions such as the one you wrote about can have their origin in a pure and well-intentioned heart, but grow malnourished by the realities of mismanagement and apathy.

    I’m still having a hard time getting past the part you wrote about children asking if they could call you their mother. I just want to take the world home with me and make it all better. . .

    1. Hellow miss jennifer i want peace in my life and i want to work under madar teresa society please reply me how to join if have any contact number please send i am from karnataka if u realy helps me i ll haply

  11. 2014 has been declared by Catholic Church as “Year of the Laity”…your article is something worth pondering for us.laity to think on the basis to putting our faith into action…as Mother Teresa would say…”faith begets love; love begets service… if we Christians profess we have faith and love then we are all capable of “service love” so let’s our do our own part with the grace of God.

    cheers and God bless!
    Christie Gregor.

  12. 2014 has been declared by Catholic Church as “Year of the Laity”…your article is something worth pondering for us.laity to think on the basis to putting our faith into action…as Mother Teresa would say…”faith begets love; love begets service… if we Christians profess we have faith and love of God then we are all capable of “service love” so let’s our do our own part with the grace of God. on Gift-Giving

    cheers and God bless!
    Christie Gregor.

  13. Dear,madam,

    I want to join your organization.i am from south Kolkata,jadavpur.plz give me details.
    Thank you.
    Gargi mitra

    1. Dear
      I want to join your organization. Please give me details.
      Thank you.
      Anindita Jana

  14. i will joining for missioner of charity for kolkata .plz suggested me
    how to join

  15. Respected Madam,
    I want to join your charity in Kolkata. Please give me details. Thanking You.
    With Ragards,
    Sutapa Nath.

  16. Thank you for sharing this story. It puts my own suffering into perspective, and yes, you are right we should all have a calling to serve.

  17. I was very interested in your article. While it is tragic that these people are treated this way, I still admire the fact that Mother Theresa did something. She attracted others also to do “something”. If there were no Missionaries of Charity–then all these people would indeed die horrific deaths. You cannot take that away from them.

  18. Mam I am very much interested in serving these people…. Plz tell me hwto join… And send me details …

  19. Thank you for your beautiful heart, and clarifying so clearly the debate surrounding the Missionaries of Charity. Of course people will not understand an organization that does not base itself on modern technology (because technology carries its own complexity and burdens), nor the workings of money and its use.

    Mother Teresa shows us that it is possible to be successful while abstaining from today’s philosophy; which is based on technology, comfort, and money (it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God that it is for a camel to pass through the eye if a needle). Her aversion to modern thinking is totally understandable considering the filth that has been written to @Pontifex tweet regarding her Canonization today.

    I can only surmise that the sisters are there to provide as much dignity as possible in a person’s life before they are brought back to God. To intercede with prolonging life as you do mention in your work, may not be in a person’s interest. Rather learning respect of God, and others… is far more important.

    Once again, thank you for your heart, your talent to share, and your most deepest thoughts. You are a saint yourself! Don’t ever forget that!

  20. Dear
    I want to join your organization. Please give me details.
    Thank you

  21. Dear
    Mam,I want to join this organisations. …so plz tell me what is required. …nd plz rply me…..

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