May 2006 was my first trip to Kolkata, India. I went with my now alma mater, Anderson University. I did not have a clue what I was walking into when I signed up for the trip, but it was love at first sight for Kolkata and me. I worked with the Sisters of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, in a home called Shanti Dan meaning “to give peace” in English. Working with mentally challenged older adult women was a huge stretch for me at my 19 years of age, but those two weeks of my life served the catalyst for a revolution in my world view. I came back an entirely changed person and my family witnessed my less than graceful transformation in an up close and personal way. I begged my family to return with me, but the only person who was crazy enough to entertain this idea was my youngest sister Sidney, who was 11 at the time.
During my senior year of college (2009), I returned to Kolkata with a group of near and dear friends and my—at the time—fiancé Davo. I had the pleasure of bringing 4 of my closest friends with me and experienced the city and Shanti Dan for the second time through my wiser, more-traveled eyes. My love for the city and Shanti Dan only grew, and I knew that I would never grow tired of returning. Kolkata would be a lifelong home for me.
Still fresh off the plane and jet lagged, I am writing about my third experience. As I have grown and developed in the past 4-and-a-half years, so too has Kolkata. This was apparent upon arrival at the airport. The airport has been remodeled since 2009, and what was once an extremely hot, un-air-conditioned, crowded and outdated mess of a space is now orderly, cool, and modern. Before arriving, I instructed my sister to run from the airport to the taxi without engaging with any of the mass quantities of beggars. I realized these instructions were laughable when we exited the airport. No chaos, no hordes of people, no beggars. We arrived at Hotel Circular to find it newly painted hot pink and purple (although much to my relief the lobby was still eerily dark, damp and green.) I slept well in great anticipation of being able to return to Shanti Dan the next morning.
Saying the Morning Prayer with my sister and husband at the Mother House before volunteering gave me an incredible sense of peace and belonging. In some ways it felt like a homecoming. Upon arrival at Shanti Dan that morning, I immediately had goose bumps. It was all so familiar but different at the same time. Some of the women were the same; many were different, but love and light radiated from the place the same as I remember. I was overjoyed to be back.
One woman whose face and spirit was most etched in my mind heart was still there. I named her “granny” because until this trip I did not know how to ask her name in Bengali. Although smaller, older and slightly more frail, her face lit up when she saw me. She immediately greeted me with the same greeting I remember so well: one “Namaste,” one kiss on the hand, one kiss on each of my cheeks, and a back rub. It is up for debate whether or not she remembered me among the endless cycle of volunteer faces; however my sister swears—and I agree—that she did interact differently with me. I relished the time I got to spend with her over the week and received one incredibly soft back rub from her tiny frail hands each day.
This extraordinary women and her back rubs are a small story that parallels the larger narrative when working in the homes. Thousands of volunteers flood in every year with great hopes of “serving” and bringing Jesus’ light and love to these people. Yet every time I am reminded that Jesus is in fact already very present, and the light and love is already there. While at Shanti Dan I receive a level of joy unmatched by any other experience. Even though I am the person who makes beds, does laundry and feeds people lunch, the women at Shanti Dan serve me. With the women I am able to be fully present, engaged, joyful, and at peace. When I am at Shanti Dan, I am receiving a back rub and am refreshed by the beautifully simple things in life like doing laundry by hand. I am the one who receives and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful.
The city of Kolkata appeared to be modernizing at a rapid pace. What was once a city thick with children and adults begging around every corner, people sleeping on every surface imaginable, and obtrusive grinding poverty is now a much more orderly and manageable city. I was shocked to find Park Street has many air-conditioned fancy restaurants and even an Au Bon Pain cafe. I am hopeful that this is positive development and that there has been social change for the better, however in the back of my mind, I am fearful that the streets have merely been swept and the poor are hidden away somewhere or maybe incarcerated.
Overall our time in Kolkata was incredibly meaningful. It was a shorter trip, which was difficult, however we all know we will be back. This is what makes leaving bearable. Shanti Dan is not going anywhere, life will continue on at its rapid pace, but I can always return for refreshment. I eagerly anticipate the growth that will occur between now and my next visit. Each time I visit there are new lessons to be learned and each time I am further molded by the “City of God.”