Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Time I Almost Met Mother Teresa

More than 30 years ago, I was a young reporter working for a large metropolitan daily newspaper. I covered a small town that had a major medical center located in it, so I occasionally got some medical stories out of it.

A press release turned up on my desk to announce that Mother Teresa, the famed Roman Catholic nun known for her work with some of the world's poorest people in Calcutta, India, was to be the featured speaker at a fundraiser for the center.

I was extremely excited. The event was set to attract many local luminaries, including the governor of the state of Connecticut. And I would perhaps meet this extraordinary woman.

But, alas, this was not meant to be. I was pretty low on the pecking order at the paper, and the metro desk scooped up this plum assignment. I was disappointed, but that's the way the news business works.

Then, something else happened.

Just hours before her scheduled appearance in Connecticut, Mother Teresa cancelled. Already in New York City, she fell ill and felt unable to travel to the hospital's fundraiser. Because it was such short notice, people around her tried to convince her that she had an "obligation" to make the appearance. She declined. She needed to rest and recuperate, so that she could be strong enough for the work God had given her to do  on this earth - minister to the poor. The Connecticut cocktail party was off.

Her single-minded vision was a lesson to me. How many times had a said yes to something that I was unable or unwilling to do? How many times had I put my needs aside because I felt an "obligation" to do something?

Mother Teresa served as a reminder that we cannot fully live our potential if we don't take care of  ourselves. It's like on an airplane, when they tell you that you should put your own oxygen mask on before you try to assist others in an emergency. You can't  serve from an empty vessel.

If I have learned nothing in the past two years of breast cancer treatment, it is the importance of taking care of myself through rest, proper diet, and exercise.

But Mother Teresa was not yet done with me that day three decades ago. The story had changed.

St. Teresa of Calcutta
Because of the last minute cancellation, the food for the party had already been prepared. The medical center decided to donate the bounty to local homeless shelters. I got the assignment to cover this part of the story.

This was the early 1980s and homelessness was on the rise. Many mental health institutions had been emptied out and their clients put on the  streets. The homeless had the reputation as being lazy or crazy. After interviewing hospital officials about the donation, I returned to the bureau to write my story. My bureau chief told me I wasn't finished reporting - he told me to follow the  food.

In the arrogance of youth, I didn't want to hang out with the homeless (it was also Friday evening, and Happy Hour beckoned). My editor insisted, and I called one of the faith-based shelters for men in the city that received a portion of the food to ask if I could come for dinner.

The people I found there were not what I expected. To be sure, there were men there suffering from mental illness, as well as those whose addictions had torn apart the foundation of their lives. But the men who gravitated to me during dinner wanted to tell me their stories. They were not lazy grifters looking for a handout, they were hardworking people who had stumbled and needed a hand up.

Several men I spoke with had families. They had lived paycheck to paycheck, and when that check suddenly disappeared, they were turned out of their apartments. One was working three low-paying jobs in an effort to save money for the security deposit on a new home for him and his family.

They spoke eloquently about the sting of feeling they weren't good providers and the pain of being separated from their loved ones because so-called family shelters didn't allow men.

The donated crudites were added to a hearty soup and the fresh fruit was added to dessert. Over our bowls of soup, we had a laugh about how we were eating food originally intended for some of the most famous and wealthy people in the state. One man remarked about how long it had been since he had eaten a fresh strawberry. I made sure to let them know that it was all Mother Teresa's doing.

I came away from the encounter much smarter and more compassionate. I had a new resolve to tell the stories of those who had no voice or platform. I was less willing to give in to my knee-jerk judgments about people who are different from me. "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise," Mother Teresa said.

The story I wrote that night led the newspaper the next day.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Teresa

I tell this now because I believe we need renewed vigor in caring for each other - particularly the poor and the immigrant. We must follow Mother Teresa's example.

I never got to meet Mother Teresa. She passed away in 1997 and has since been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church She is now known as St. Teresa of Calcutta. Among the requirements of sainthood is to live a life of virtue and have a certified miracle.

Perhaps I witnessed a miracle over a bowl of soup on that warm summer evening. Perhaps I am one.