Caring about the poor – social work in India
Other themes: respect for the homeless, peer pressure.
Listen to this story and see what you think at the end.
“Shhh!” whispered Tim. “Don’t wake up Sleeping Beauty over there!”
Adam and Paul looked across at the park bench. A shabbily dressed figure was lying on it, one arm under his head, both feet up on the bench and displaying very holey socks. His shoes were under the bench, side by side.
“It’s old Fred,” murmured Paul.
“Yeah,” said Tim. “The only and only Filthy Fred.”
Adam wasn’t sure they should call Fred that, but he knew his mates meant no harm. They often saw Fred on their way home from school. He’d be shuffling along the road, or just gazing into shop windows. Adam had been told he was harmless, that he’d just had such an unhappy, disturbed childhood and that he’d never been able to settle into a home or a job.
“Let’s play catch,” said Tim.
He crept over to the bench and picked up one of Fred’s shoes between two fingers.
“Urgh!” he shouted, grinning. “I don’t want this. You have it.” And he threw it to Paul.
Paul shrieked. “Urgh, no thanks. It’s horrible. It might bite.”
And back and forth the shoe went.
Fred had woken up by now and was sitting upright. To Adam, he looked miserable and confused.
Then Adam heard, “Here, you have it.” And the shoe fell at his feet.
He picked it up, thought for a moment, “Maybe I should give it back.” But Tim would think that was daft, and anyway, it was only Fred, not anyone important.
Is it true that Fred is “not anyone important”? What do you think Fred’s feelings are as he sees his shoe being thrown around? Should Adam give it back?
(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)
This is the true story of someone who believed the poor are very important. She became famous all over the world, but few would recognize her real name: Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu.
Agnes was born on August 26th, 1910. Her parents were from Albania in southern Europe, but the family now lived in Serbia. Even as a child, Agnes cared for the sick and elderly, visiting them with her mother. She also enjoyed writing poetry and playing the mandolin – and she loved praying. Talking to God and sharing what she had – these were the things that made her happiest.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that she became a nun. She felt God wanted her to join a particular group – the Catholic Loreto nuns who work in northern India.
So when she was 18, she took on a new name, Sister Teresa, and travelled out to Calcutta, one of India’s most crowded cities. She was to live in the convent with its high walls and shady gardens and spend some of her time teaching in the High School in the convent grounds.
But she was also to teach in a little school in the slums.
Nothing had prepared her for what she saw there. It was a different world. She saw people who were starving right there on the streets, looking like little bundles of bones wrapped up in skin. She saw beggars stumbling on legs like long dead twigs, their arms stretched out for help. She saw mothers slouched in doorways, rocking babies too sick or too hungry to cry. She saw people digging into dustbins for food scraps, anything which could be sucked or chewed to keep them going for another day.
But she saw something else too. In the slum school she saw how the faces of the children changed when she smiled at them. She would get the smile back a hundredfold. The children seemed to come to life when they realised someone cared. You see, they were hungry not just for food, but for smiles, for hugs, for love.
The years went by, and Teresa prayed more and more for the people of the slums.
And one day God spoke to her: “You are to leave the convent, Teresa. You are to go out to the poor. You are to live amongst them and care for them.”
This would be a new thing in Calcutta. Many people worked with the poor, but the poor always had to come to them for help – to the hospitals, the schools, and so on. But Teresa was to work in the slums themselves.
It was not easy to get permission to leave the convent.
“Are you sure this is what God wants?” they said.
“It’s too dangerous for a woman by herself,” they said.
“Why not wait?” they said.
Teresa knew they meant it for the best, but she had made her decision. The poor people were on God’s heart, and they were on hers too.
After a long wait permission came, and on August 16th 1948, she changed from her nun’s clothes to the simple sari which Indian women wear, and walked out of the convent gates. She had just a little money and a train ticket to a town called Patna, where there was a hospital willing to train her in basic nursing.
Soon she was back in Calcutta, in one of the worst slum areas, Motijhil.
She sat in a little square, picked up a stick and began to write letters and numbers in the mud. Children gathered round. Teresa’s school had begun! But this was a special school, for Teresa also wanted to teach them how to keep clean, how to avoid disease.
Then she thought: But words are not enough. They need practical help and they need it now. So she called on people she knew and pleaded: “I need soap. And food. And medicines.” She gave away all she collected. And she always remembered to give that something which costs nothing – a smile. The slum children and their families saw not just soap and food and medicine, but they saw love in her smiling eyes.
For Teresa was determined to treat each of them as if they were Jesus himself. So she didn’t turn away when a dying man showed her his wounds crawling with maggots. She dressed the wounds, then sat there giving him comfort, despite the appalling smell. Each person was precious to her. She could see Jesus in each one.
Other nuns saw what she was doing and joined her. The city officials let them have an unused building which they turned into a hospice for dying people, a place where they could pass from this world with someone holding their hand.
The nuns became known as the Missionaries of Charity, with Teresa as their leader, their “mother”. And that is the name by which Agnes became known – Mother Teresa.
Later in her life she met with presidents and prime ministers to plead for the rights of the poor, but whether the people she met were powerful or down-and-out, rich or poor, she kept on giving the kind word, the loving look, the gentle smile. Right up till she died in 1997.
Time of Reflection
Let’s think about our attitude: when we see the poor, the homeless – or just those who can’t do what we do, who don’t have what we have – do we look down on them, poke fun at them, think them less important?
Just a moment’s silence then, so we can think about how we treat people less fortunate than ourselves.
Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink…I was sick and you took care of me…” for, “whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25)
And he said, “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20:35)
The Bible also tells us: “You must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance.” (James 2:1)
Help us, Father God, never ever to look down on another human being. Help us to realise that every single person is special to you. Amen
Variations on a theme
THE PROBLEM story can be acted out by pupils.
Or if there is a project for the poor in your own area, it would be good to mention it – or maybe more than mention it, maybe collect for it. Enquire first about the needs – blankets, tinned food or whatever.
- What made Agnes (or Theresa) happiest when she was young?
- How old was she when she went to India?
- What was the difference between the two schools she taught in?
- Why did she go to Patna?
- How did she begin her own school in the slums?
- She pleaded for three things – one was soap. Tell me one more.
- And the third?
- She treated each poor person as if he were – who?
- One thing she gave cost nothing to give – what was it?
- Why did she meet with presidents and prime ministers?