“Build my children a house”
February 2, 1989. Her skin was tanned and wrinkled. Her hands were large and rough. Despite her short stature, Mother Teresa managed to hush an arena of 15,000 by simply standing up and preparing herself to speak. “Governor,” she said plainly, with authority, ” I want you to build my children a house.”
The only shelter the Missionaries of Charity offered at that time was a gutted gymnasium with folding tables and metal chairs that singed your skin when you sat on them in the 110-degree Arizona summer. Everything in that shelter was either broken or in poor condition.
Her “children” were my “sisters” that previous
summer. I volunteered at a Summer Bible Camp, an opportunity for the children of inner city Phoenix to have afternoons of safe fun, full meals, and an experience of unconditional love.
One of the girls was 9 years old, and the daughter of a prostitute. She was quiet, angry, and hungry for attention. She called me at home one afternoon because her mother had a “friend” over, and she wanted to get away. I was only 16 at the time and my mother wouldn’t let me drive to that part of town. I don’t remember the girl’s name anymore, but I remember how her voice sounded, begging me to come get her.
Mother’s children needed a house all right. They needed homes. Real homes.
Mother and the governor
Governor Rose Moffard was in office at that time, temporarily filling in for her ousted predecessor. She was in a vulnerable position politically, as the Coliseum, and the whole state of Arizona, awaited her response. All 15,000 of us were breathless at the nerve of the little old woman who made the demand. Mother Teresa of Calcutta stood patiently, waiting for an answer.
So old Rose Moffard stood up, smoothed out her tasteful wool skirt, put on her best smile, and nodded her big beehive hairdo in the affirmative saying, “Yes, Mother. I will build your children a home.” The place went wild and the tears of joy welled up not only in my eyes but also in the eyes of the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity…and all who had set foot in the horrible place that had been called “shelter.”
A promise kept
The house was built. It was a wonderful building with big bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, two dorm style bedrooms, and a chapel. Nothing fancy—no carpeting, no plush furniture. Just a simple dwelling where the poorest of the poor could be fed, cleaned, clothed, and have a safe place to sleep.
I didn’t work with the kids that next summer. I cooked and cleaned for the homeless adult guests instead. They too were Teresa’s children. I never saw my 9-year-old friend again. She would be 23 now.
Those two summers I realized that while I had material wealth, I am also poor. Mother Teresa used to say that the West had a poverty that she could not easily care for. The poverty of spirit—loneliness, isolation, alienation, and being “possessed by all of our possessions”—that could not be solved by a hot meal, medicine, or warm clothes.
During those two summers I began to know my own poverty of spirit and now, many years later, I am able to be more compassionate with those who share this poverty with me.
Ask and you will receive
The truth is, if we have the grace, courage, and confidence to ask God and one another for help, the resources we need will come. Mother Teresa’s example of asking for a house reminded me that we do not need grand schemes of coercion or manipulation to get what we need. Just ask! If we trust in God’s generosity, we will not be disappointed.
photo of Mother Teresa courtesy of Missionaries of Charity.