My parents are great Catholics, yet they are often unenthused with my “missionary heart”; specifically, the heart that volunteers in “scary” parts of Camden, New Jersey, gets arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience, and feels more at home in a rural community in El Salvador or a soup kitchen in Detroit than almost anywhere else. Ironically, this missionary heart is entirely their fault because they nurtured it with love, great faith, and a book that ended up changing my life.
My parents read to my sisters and me every night before bed. Out of the hundreds of evening reading times, one stands out. My mom held a thin, light blue book; a picture of an old smiling woman in a white veil with blue trim on the cover. The woman’s name was Mother Teresa.
The book began with the story of this old woman as a young girl and her call to become a nun; pretty normal for a book inside a Catholic household. But this story became different. As my mom continued to read, I felt my heart crack open and my stomach tense up. Mother Teresa followed God’s call even though God asked her to leave her family and move across the world. The words cut into my tender heart and they seemed to hit the root of my core. It all came to a climax when this nun saw a woman in a ditch on the side of the road, half-dead and being eaten by ants. Horror filled my insides. But this nun, this Mother Teresa, ran to her, picked her up, carried her home, cleaned her, and stayed by her side until she died.
I ran away.
I hid in the book closet.
It was simultaneously the most horrible and most wonderful thing I had ever heard. My legs felt unstable, and my heart pounded as big tears flooded my eyes. My mom, of course, went looking for me. As I cried she asked, “Are you scared?” I shook my head. I was not afraid, but deeply, profoundly, and intensely moved. Light replaced horror. “It’s okay Tinamarie, that’s the Holy Spirit,” my mom whispered as she pulled me in for a hug.
That night I found a piece of myself I’m still discovering. The story exposed me to a profound truth about living a life with Christ — it cannot be lived outside of justice and service. It cannot be fully embraced without intimacy and relationship with those on the margins.
After that, I couldn’t separate being a Catholic from solidarity with the marginalized and materially poor. I didn’t have the language to put around it, but looking back, Mother Teresa’s example started and solidified the connection between Christ and those who are suffering, hurting, sick, and economically poor. The Holy Spirit unquestionably revealed that God dwells within those the world easily discards. Mother Teresa’s witness uncovered a truth about my calling. I was so young, but I felt the Holy Spirit, and I heard God speaking to my heart after it was cracked open by Mother Teresa’s witness. God said, “You’re called to love, serve, and be in community with those who the world doesn’t care about. Because I care about them.”
I picked Teresa as my Confirmation name. Now, at the time she wasn’t a saint so I technically had to choose another Teresa; two saint book reports later, I knew where I stood. To take on her name meant taking on radical love. It meant seeing all people not only as equals but as Christ himself. Once again, I didn’t have the language but the Holy Spirit’s clarity made words unnecessary.
My missionary heart has developed over the years. It’s why I advocate, protest, and pray for immigration reform and restorative justice. It’s why my senators know me by name (probably not, but I call them a lot). It’s why I coordinate immersion experiences to Los Angeles, Latin America, and the U.S.-Mexico border for the students in my campus ministry. Am I perfect? Absolutely not. Do I try to let my missionary heart create and orchestrate my lifestyle? Yes.
So, the next time my parents roll their eyes at my Facebook posts or are worried about my participation in a protest, I’m going to say, “It’s your fault! You introduced me to Mother Teresa!”