A Day in the Life of a Volunteer at Mother Teresa’s Missions to the Poor in Calcutta

July-August 1989By Louise L. Reiver

Louise L. Reiver, an Episcopalian, resides in Wilmington, Delaware.

At 5 a.m. a very faint light is seeping into my windowless room from the tiny cretonne-covered window in the adjoining bathroom. The loud puls­ing of the air conditioner has almost obscured the ring of the alarm clock. I step out onto the concrete floor which, along with the walls, seems to be per­manently damp in spite of the labors of the ancient air conditioner. Washing in the tepid, brownish tap water, I dress in one of my all-purpose cotton dress­es, take my vitamins with a few swallows from the thermos of boiled water the hotel provides, and I am as ready as I am going to be for the coming day.

Leaving my room carefully locked, I make my way in the dim light through the hotel dining room, taking care as I move not to step on the bodies of the hotel servants who sleep on the floor of the din­ing room and in the courtyard of the hotel. Once out on the street I look carefully where I walk so as to avoid the twin hazards of stepping on street residents who are sleeping on the sidewalk or stepping into the gutter which is, as usual, filled with garbage and human waste. I am in plenty of time to walk to the chapel at the Mother House for 5:45 a.m. Mass. Nodding to a handful of other volun­teers from the Western world who are coming out of the Salvation Army Hostel across the street, I make my way up Sudder Street and turn right at the Fire Station onto Free School Street. I prefer to walk alone to collect my thoughts before I be­gin another day of work alongside the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity. Calcutta is no longer new to me, and I have fairly successfully managed to keep from judging India in general, and Calcutta in particular, by Western standards. But I often have to pause and say to myself very forcefully that no one sent me here. I am not here under any kind of du­ress. I am here because I choose to be here and work alongside the Sisters of Mother Teresa’s or­der; I want very much to be a part of this quintes­sential Christian endeavor.

The city is just beginning to awaken. The pub­lic pumps are busy as men and boys wash them­selves from head to toe. More men lined up along the deeper gutters are toileting. All these ablutions and functions are done in complete modesty, as each is protected by the all-purpose longhi, which, when wrapped around the waist, is a covering for the body, or a towel, or a blanket for sleeping. It is never easy to walk down the streets, even at that early hour.

The streets are full of potholes and in some instances huge cave-ins where there are forgotten municipal efforts to repair broken water mains. Mostly the broken water mains are left to run, caus­ing the streets to flood with water, floating bits of unidentifiable garbage, and the occasional dead rat. But the sun is coming up and even the bustees (slums) of Calcutta cannot deny the beauty of a dawning day.

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