One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed. ~Proverbs 19:17
We were members of Loma Linda University’s Students for International Mission Service (SIMS). I was the early 1990s, and we had come to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa. It was an amazing opportunity, and we were excited. However, having ultimately arrived, we faced the reality of what it meant to serve those she called “the poorest of the poor.” The reality was overwhelming.
As we raced through the crowded streets in our taxis, heading to the compound, the sights of extreme poverty were everywhere. The odor of raw sewage filled our nostrils. The blaring of car horns and an endless mass of people going about their daily lives deafened our ears. We arrived and hustled into the safety (and sanity) of the four walls of the compound. We sat together in shock from the reality of Calcutta. I wondered how I/we would ever survive an entire month here, and whether we could endure the duration of our time sequestered in the compound.
Fortunately, Richard Hart, LLUSM class of 1970, arrived on the scene. A veteran of the mission field, he told us we were going for a walk. We exited the compound and walked together through the streets of Calcutta.
Eventually, we arrived at The Home for the Sick and Dying. This was where Mother Teresa began her mission. People who were sick came or were brought there. There were no doctors, no nurses, no medications. People were cared for in the most basic way: fed, hydrated, cleaned, and comforted. Some recovered and left. Many died, but died knowing someone cared about them.
When our group arrived, we were each given a task. My assignment was to feed an old, blind man. I sat next to him and served him spoonfuls of fish and rice. I hope that he found what I did for him helpful. I know that what he did for me changed my entire experience of Calcutta-and has continued to shape and sustain me in my practice as a physician. In caring for that one man, I found purpose.
Mother Teresa told us to return home and care for those in need in our own communities. “There is need everywhere,” she said.
I became a psychiatrist and made it my mission to care for those suffering from mental illness. And, when I feel overwhelmed by so many who suffer psychiatric illnesses, I remember that old, blind man-and that my mission is to help that person sitting right in front of me.
– Kevin Buchanan, LLUSM class of 1994, PhD, is medical director at Clara Martin Center, a community mental health center with various locations throughout Vermont.