Now, to be clear, I have traveled a lot. At that point in my life, I had seen poverty in the border towns of Mexico (thanks to high school missions trips); I had backpacked solo in Europe for 6 weeks; I had traveled to Iran for crying out loud. I was no travel virgin; I'd seen a lot of crazy stuff.
Still, I am hard pressed to describe the intensity of my trip to India. Anyone who has been there can probably relate to the sheer overwhelming-ness of the place. Every sense of mine was assaulted from the moment the plane touched down in Calcutta. The stench! Seriously, I have never smelled anything so awful, before or since. It's a horrible combination of human and animal waste, exacerbated by the humidity and constant dampness of typhoon season. The masses! The population density is unbelievable in Calcutta. I've never seen anything like it. The streets! Cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, and cows all vying for real estate. Only in Iran have I feared for my life on the streets as much as I did in Calcutta - I kept looking the wrong way to cross the street, only to have an angry rickshaw driver shout something at me in Hindi as he barreled past.
Still, all of that paled in comparison to the work I did with poor, sick, and diseased women and orphans. Our first day there we worked at Kalighat, the home for the dying and I believe Mother Teresa's first home/center in Calcutta. The place is separated into a men's wing and a women's wing. In the women's wing, the patients are in two different rows of beds: on the lower row are women who are expected to eventually recover. On the upper row? Women who were dying and for whom there is no hope of a medical cure. Most of Kalighat's residents were found on the street, the dying destitute who were often kicked out of their homes and shunned by their families when it was learned that they had, for example, leprosy.
I can't quite put into words what the experience was like. The Missionaries of Charity nuns were these amazing examples of love. They saw their job as being present to these dying men and women, literally becoming Jesus' hands, demonstrating Jesus' love to people who were denied that love from their own families. The nuns knew they couldn't save many of these men and women, and they didn't try.
I realized later in the day that I couldn't handle working at Kalighat: the other woman in our foursome had assisted the doctor on duty with cleaning a new patient's leg wound, which was filled with maggots; the two men in our foursome had already been pressed into service carrying the bodies of dead men to the crematory. I had gotten off relatively easy, but this was way more than I could handle.
So I decided to work at one of the orphanages also run by the Missionaries of Charity. The particular orphanage I worked at had a "healthy" ward of children and a "sick" ward. The healthy ward was woefully understaffed, and we spent all of our time trying to play with and love toddlers who were in constant need of diaper changes, food, and drink. These poor kids were so starved for attention that if you sat on the floor to play with one child, four more would try to climb in your lap. It was challenging, but nothing like working in the sick ward, where there was this unspoken assumption that these kids would never be adopted and would likely live out their entire lives in the orphanage. Working on this side absolutely broke my heart.
Two kids stand out in my memory on the sick side: one girl who must have been 7 or 8 years old, with spina bifida. Her spine was so crooked that she she was effectively immobile. She laid on her side in a bed near the second floor entrance and followed you with her eyes - the only part of her body she could really move.
Like on the healthy side of the orphanage, the sick ward was understaffed and so this poor girl was often overlooked in favor of the mobile kids who were shouting for attention. When I did sit with her, or feed her some gruel, I felt there wasn't much else I could do to comfort her or show her love. She couldn't understand me, and couldn't speak to me. Apart from such small gestures as feeding her or holding her hand, I felt incredibly helpless and totally heartbroken. Spina bifida is correctible with surgery, but of course it was too late for surgery for her, and given the lack of resources in India and with the Missionaries of Charity, she would likely never benefit from other medical treatments either.
The other child I remember vividly from the sick ward had had some kind of operation - a colonoscopy? - in which she had to have one of those bags attached to her intestines to evacuate her bowels. She must have been 3 or 4 years old. Well. Somehow in her crib the bag had gotten disconnected from her body, and she was positively covered from head to foot in her own waste. I think it was meal time or something, as everyone else was preoccupied. I must have been the first person to notice what had happened to her. If memory serves, I cleaned her up as best I could, and then found a nurse because clearly she needed medical attention.
So much more stuff happened on that trip, but hopefully I've painted enough of a picture to explain why the experience shook me to the core, and led to a debilitating depression that lasted for over a year once I went back home.
While I was thrilled to be back home and able to wash my clothes in a real washing machine, I was also immediately overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. Why did I get to have such luxuries at my fingertips? Why are all of my basic human needs more than adequately met? Why did I have almost no obstacles or barriers to pursuing my life dreams? Why was I was born into an affluent, full-of-opportunity, white family in the United States?
It seemed unfair that I had such an easy life, while the adults and children I worked with in India led such excruciating, painful, lonely, suffering lives. And yet, if I believed what the Bible said, it was actually no accident of fate that I was born into my circumstances and they into theirs. I mean, God has numbered the hairs on my head, and is supposedly in control of everything, right?
So if God is in control of everything, and he has given me so much, then obviously he expects much from me. But what, exactly? Should I sell all my possessions and live like a pauper? Should I become a full-time missionary? Should I move into the inner city and live in solidarity with the poor?
I prayed, and prayed, and prayed for direction. But what I got back wasn't really direction. I started to feel a weight of obligation descend upon me. I couldn't discern whether the obligation was God's leading, or if it was me getting legalistic and thinking I had to make either a radical change or none at all. I started to feel guilty and selfish and, no matter what I decided to do, not good enough. I felt like I would fail God no matter what because I knew I still carried around a lot of selfishness.
I also felt confused at how God could allow such suffering to exist. It was all well and good for the nuns to be Jesus' hands and show Jesus' love to dying people... but I had to wonder: is that all there is? Is that all Jesus can offer these people? The cynic in me wondered why Jesus said that the poor would always be with us: is that because God had already decided not to help them out? That God knows we're going to fail miserably at it too? That, no matter how much we as individual sacrifice of ourselves to try to better someone else's life, that it's still only going to be a drop in the bucket?
During this period someone said to me that what I was going through was actually really good: that I was learning to be heartbroken by the things that broke Jesus' heart. I remember eventually thinking - screw that! I'm heartbroken because I can't actually solve these huge problems. But Jesus can, can't he? So why the hell doesn't he?