Ministry in a Sari

Winging It: Meditations of a Young Adult (Orbis Books)

A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. -JOSEPH HELLER

I just received an invitation to a wedding in India from a woman I stayed with in Calcutta nearly seven years ago. Her youngest son is getting married, and she said it would mean a lot if I could come.

I chuckle aloud as I open the envelope, because I can’t help but remember that episode from Seinfeld when Elaine is invited to her friend’s wedding in India. She shows up to spite the friend she thinks doesn’t really want her there and discovers that the groom is her former lover.

The image of Elaine, drunk, with the nose ring, reminds me of the photo I took with two petite Indian woman. Towering over them by at least three feet, I looked like an amazon dressed in Indian wear. And no one told me before I left that women who show their teeth are considered loose. There I am with my humongous smile next to two tight-Iipped women staring into the camera lens with no expression.

My whole trip to the subcontinent was bizarre, with enough funny moments and cultural misunderstandings to complete an entire series of Candid Camera episodes. But one element of irony especially points to God’s quirky sense of humor.

I traveled to Calcutta to meet with Mother Teresa and to work with her, and I was very fortunate to do both. However, I felt very useless as a volunteer at the different houses run by the Sisters. By the third day it was difficult to justify my going there. Each mission was crowded with helpers, each more qualified than the next with medical and nursing degrees. I stood around waiting for direction, like the annoying dinner guest who wants to help prepare the meal but instead gets in the way of the cook. So the fourth day I stayed home and went shopping for a sari with the woman who graciously hosted me.

I expected a lot of uncomfortable silence, as I knew her about as well as I did the Delta Airlines pilot who landed the plane at New Delhi. And I didn’t expect to count on our common experience to generate conversation. But I was wrong.

When she made a brief remark about her struggle with depression, I realized I had more in common with her than with my classmates back home in Indiana. Ironically, it was in the plush seat of her automobile, not at the Missionaries of Charity homes for the sick and dying, that I felt I contributed most to the people of Calcutta. Not that I had words of wisdom that would make her struggle disappear into the polluted air of that city. But I listened, which is more than anyone had done in a long time.

We continue to write each other a couple of times a year- once or twice more than the Christmas correspondence. And she helps me as much as I help her. Maybe that is what I forgot at the volunteer site.

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself. – LEVITICUS 19:34

Copyright © 2001 Therese Johnson Borchard. Used by permission of the publisher. The editors wish to thank Therese and Orbis Books.