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Ron Belgau

October 1997

"I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians, for they are so unlike your Christ."

-- Mahatma Gandhi

A Wonderful Life

On Friday, September 5, 1997, the world lost a hero. She was too humble to consider herself a hero, but I looked up to and took inspiration from Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Like Ghandi who chose poverty and peace to seek social and political freedom for the Indian people, Mother Teresa gave up all to serve the poor in hunger, pain and death. And she won the hearts of the Indian people because she was like her Christ.

I'm an affluent gay American who grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. My admiration of her says a lot for just how many people she could touch with her love and her compassion. I hope that somehow, I can pay some tribute to this woman who has so touched my life.

I don't pretend to understand either how she managed to be so generous, or how she managed to be so self-sacrificing. I feel neither the strength she drew on to affirm life, nor the strength she drew on to surrender her own. But I do know that her life touched mine, and so rather than trying to explain her (an impossible task), I will try to explain how she touched my life. And to explain how she touched my life, I must tell something of its condition before I began to learn about her.

I grew up in relative affluence, in a small-town middle-class white Protestant family. By the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to fall in love with a man. I don't suppose my church mentioned homosexuality that much -- why bring up something so distasteful? But I suffered through the times when it was mentioned, for it was always mentioned as the worst level of sinful degradation possible.

I hated AIDS and AIDS activists and AIDS victims when I was growing up. In my small hometown, it seemed to everyone that AIDS was a gay disease and gay people had AIDS. AIDS became an excuse for a lot of prejudice. Irrationally, I hoped that without AIDS, people could accept gays. And so whenever I saw gay activists on TV or in the news talking about AIDS, I wished they'd shut up. I wished all the AIDS patients would disappear. I didn't want to hear about sickness and death, and I didn't want conservatives to hate me because of them. I felt very lonely and isolated. The conservative Christians I grew up with attacked gays, and I was gay. But I didn't feel that I could relate to the gays I saw in the media, either.

College came as a partial relief. I made new friends, and found Christians more accepting than those I'd grown up with. But I still felt quite isolated, unable either to fit into the Christian world or to reject it, and unable to either fit into the gay world or reject it. Fortunately, I did have friends like Matt I could talk to, who would listen supportively.

I really began to look at Mother Teresa through new eyes when Matt's fiancee went to India for four months to volunteer with the Sisters of Charity. Because I was close to Matt and Julie, curiosity drove me to learn more about Mother Teresa.

I remember, too, sitting in the Chapel at Seattle University, listening as a successful downtown lawyer told of his visit to the Mother House in Calcutta. A partner in one of Seattle's most successful law firms, he, too, had taken four months off to go to India to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity. I sat with a couple of dozen other University students -- all of us leaders in our classes, smart, motivated, successful. The carved wood and stained glass of the chapel contrasted sharply with the stories he told as he read to us from his diary. He told of his first day at the Mother House. A nun asked him to bathe a dying leper, but he couldn't, because he was too disgusted by the filth. But as he saw the nuns' compassion in action, he began to look past the filth to see the human being. He told of holding a dying man on the street -- the man was covered with the mud of the streets and his own excrement; but somehow this powerful American lawyer squatted beside him, and held him in his arms until he died.

I have two conflicting impulses within me. I see a homeless person begging for money, and I want to help. But usually I don't, because another voice says, "be careful," "don't get involved," or " there's nothing you can do anyway."

I grew up around comfort at home, at church, and at school. We associated with people more or less like ourselves who dressed more or less like ourselves and who thought more or less like ourselves. Sometimes that small town middle-class culture seemed suffocating. But it was also comfortable. To step outside that comfort was not easy for me.

As I had sat listening to the lawyer read from his diary, I had felt like I wanted to help. But when I saw a homeless person lying in the street, I didn't help. I began to read about Mother Teresa. She once said, "I see God in every human being. When I wash the leper's wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?"

I read this, but when I saw a suffering person, all I saw was a suffering person. But as I read on, I found another clue. Mother Teresa's "business" cards are inscribed with what she called "The Simple Path" --

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.

It surprised me to learn that Mother Teresa spent several hours each day praying -- I had thought that she would have spent all her time out helping the poor. But Prayer was deeply important to her. She once asked, "Pray for me that I not loosen my grip on the hands of Jesus even under the guise of ministering to the poor."

If, somehow, Mother Teresa sees Jesus in every person she meets, I began to see how her love might work. If I saw my best friend begging on the street, no amount of poverty or dirtiness would prevent me from helping him. If I saw him dying of AIDS, I would feel no hesitation about holding him, giving him any comfort I could. And I suppose that Teresa's quiet meditations have made it possible for her to feel that for every poor person she meets. The words of Jesus were real to her: "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

I've tried in my own halting way to understand this, but I still don't really get it. I still have a hard time looking past suffering to see a person. But even if I don't really understand how she feels, the result in her life is easy enough to see. She left a relatively comfortable life as a teacher to live in poverty in the slums. During the 1980's, while Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuals, Mother Teresa built homes to care for those dying of AIDS, and held them in her own arms as they died.

I suppose I don't understand these things because I am a cheap humanitarian. I don't like to see others suffer, but I am afraid to help them. But Mother Teresa has taught me something about what true love means. It means loving human beings enough to suffer with them, not just to try to end their suffering. Euthanasia is perhaps the most obvious example of this. It seems obvious to our culture that if a person is suffering and has no hope of recovery, that if they want to be 'put out of their misery,' they should be able to do so. It seemed equally obvious to Mother Teresa that she ought to go and hug them, sharing in their misery, letting them know that their life was infinitely precious to her and to God. Mother Teresa's charity did not just relieve suffering -- somehow or other, she brought meaning to suffering.

There is a lot of evil in the world -- poverty, war, injustice, sickness, and death. The church I grew up in tried to escape from those evils by ignoring those who suffered. I tried to do the same thing. But somehow, by willingly embracing these things, Mother Teresa took away their sting. Her poverty was an act of pure love: she became poor so that she could share her life completely with the poor. With her, there was no injustice because she loved everyone equally. She did not divide people into groups, but saw them all as children of God, desperately in need of love and compassion. When she saw injustice, she rushed to distribute love to all. Even sickness and death became opportunities for her to show her love as she ministered to the sick and held their hands as they died.

I've known about Jesus dying on a cross for the world's sin since I was a toddler. But it seemed pretty meaningless and arbitrary back then. Although it is still a mystery, it makes more sense to me now. The Bible says death entered the world because of sin. The death of Jesus was an act of loving self-sacrifice. I don't understand it. But Mother Teresa's life helps me, because she demonstrates self-sacrifice, and shows how powerful it can be. Mother Teresa used to say, "He's done this for me. I'll do this for Him." Somehow, she saw meaning in His sacrifice which enabled her to give her life.

All these reflections are not abstract to me -- they affect my everyday life. This fall, I'm getting trained to be an AIDS caregiver. When I come in contact with a person suffering with AIDS, will I be able to sit with them for hours, talking to them, comforting them? Or will I treat them quickly, give them painkillers, and move on to the next person? It would be easy for me to help them physically and move quickly on. But that's not how I would treat my best friend. I would sit with him, cherishing every moment of life that remained. Mother Teresa is an inspiration to me because she shows that this kind of love is possible. She gave hope to the hopeless. She touched the untouchables. She loved the unlovable.

Mother Teresa demonstrated that pain did not exclude love or meaning. She embraced pain and suffering -- her own and others' -- as an opportunity for self-sacrifice and love. She was a living demonstration of the quote I learned in Sunday School: "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purposes." The evil things in the world became opportunities for Mother Teresa to show God's love. Her God loves people infinitely -- and out of his infinite love comes her infinite service. Evil itself became nothing but an opportunity for Good to shine brighter.

I don't know how my life will turn out -- what opportunities I will have to help others, and how many of those opportunities I will take advantage of. But I do know that Mother Teresa's life stands like a beacon of hope, inviting me to believe that the fear can be overcome, and love can make a difference. She also shows me that service and love come from knowing God. I know I'm not like Mother Teresa. But if I met her, she would simply encourage me to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love my neighbor by doing something -- like caring for people with AIDS.

Her funeral -- with its richness and pomp -- was criticized by some. But as I watched it, I couldn't agree. St. Francis of Assisi wrote, "Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing you have received, fading symbols of honor, trappings of power, but only what you have given: a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage." The funeral was, no doubt, a display of fading symbols of honor -- but they were symbols of the real glory which Mother Teresa took with her.

The funeral was not a sorrowful occasion, or at least it did not seem so to me. And as I considered the red carpet, the ceremony watched around the world, the tributes paid by the leaders of nations and the great religions, and I could not suppress a strange fancy -- that I was watching a coronation ceremony. Mother Teresa lived in poverty, but she died in abundance. Even the twelve gun salute, militaristic though it was, does not seem out of place for this woman of peace. It is written that God spoke to Job out of a storm; and as Mother Teresa's funeral drew to a close, great thunderclouds gathered in the skies above Calcutta, and Heaven saluted Mother Teresa's life with a tumult no gun could match. But perhaps all this is my own fancy.

Mother Teresa -- you were an inspiration. We will miss you. But we know that you are now in the hands of God, perhaps the only hands in the universe more compassionate than your own. Thank you for your life, and Godspeed in the life to come.

And to Mother Teresa's loving God -- we thank you for giving us a Christian who was like your Christ. Help us to live in imitation of Him and her.

The author can be reached at rbelgau@u.washington.edu

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