Columnists > Judgment Calls

Easter in Calcutta

Finding hope in a city of poverty and death

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

Poverty-wracked Calcutta slapped us full in the face the moment we stepped from our hotel into the city's churning streets. My wife Nancy and I arrived the day before Easter 1999, determined to see beauty, to look beyond stereotypes, to see where Christ was at work, to find the joy in the "City of Joy." It didn't take long to puncture our optimism. April 3: We hadn't expected Calcutta to feel so oppressive. Cacophony filled the streets in sedimentary layers. At ground level lay the entreaties of beggars. Above that, the haggling of vendors, and still higher, the ominous, frenetic cawing of crows. Much higher and larger, carrion birds wheeled in watchful arcs. Here, they never wait long for a meal. Wherever we walked, a quasi-ambulatory sideshow of human deformity followed us, pleading. Blind, missing limbs, dressed in scraps of cloth, and limping, crawling, or dragging, they called out eagerly at our approach. The words were unintelligible but the tones were unmistakable: Wheedling quickly changed to cursing as we passed, and open hands became shaking fists. Beggars here were more persistent than American panhandlers, and far more needy. The nightmarish streets wore period costume. Nearly every building lining the dingy streets dated to the 19th century. We watched some of the million street dwellers make camp for the night. The city is not as poor as Port-au-Prince, for example, where shantytowns stretch for miles, unbroken by modern structures. But in Haiti, mountains and sea provide natural relief. In Calcutta we found none. April 4-5: The next day was Easter Sunday, the day of Resurrection. We knew Christ's resurrection was real, but it seemed so far from this miserable place. No lilies or trumpet fanfare here. Searching for a place to worship, we took a cab to St. Andrew's Kirk, the old Scottish church in Dalhousie Square. The ride was terrifying. The driver knew only two speeds-breakneck or brakes locked-and two moods: sullen or angry. He had no idea where the church was. After a series of near-crashes, we skidded to a stop in the midst of a cricket game in a major intersection. On Monday, our spirits hit bottom. We could still find no hope in the city and we desperately craved someone to help us interpret what we were seeing here. As it turned out, Moti, a guide we found through a local travel agency, was our answer to prayer. He loved his city in a way that was contagious. Over the following days, he revealed to us Calcutta's hidden beauty. April 6-7: Moti drove us to the Children's Home, a Christian orphanage where he, though Hindu, was a regular volunteer. The facility is one of several in Calcutta operated by the Sisters of Charity, the religious order Mother Teresa founded in 1948. In a ward for the handicapped, small children quickly encircled us with happy shouts, reaching up to us and holding onto our knees. We held a beaming little boy whose face had been badly burned, and a girl of about 4 with delicate features and shining eyes, her legs withered by polio. As we talked with one of the nuns, I realized Mother Teresa had it right. "I never look at the masses as my responsibility," she once told an interviewer: "I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. Just one, one, one ... So you begin ... I begin. I picked up one person." I looked again at the little girl I was holding. She was only one person. But she was also one of countless thousands whose lives had been changed by the tiny woman who simply began by picking up one. Mother Teresa died in 1997, but her legacy continues in the lives of thousands of volunteers who today minister in over 120 countries. We saw much more of Calcutta in the next two days: We visited flower markets bursting with marigolds in great orange garlands, dominating a profusion of blooms in lavender, rose, and cream. At dawn, we watched thousands stream from the ghats into the River Hooghly to bathe and welcome the new day. It was an ancient ritual, a sunrise service utterly foreign. April 8: On our last night in Calcutta, I watched people filling their water containers at the standpipes in the street, rickshaw-pullers sleeping in their vehicles, and families settling onto the sidewalk for the night. Calcutta was still a city of poverty and death, but I knew that some were facing it with compassion and the love of Christ. God was at work here, reaching out-to one at a time.

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