Mother Theresa and I: An encounter and lessons
In frustration, Princess Diana then asked if she could be allowed to return to the earth to bring Mother Theresa as a witness. As the story goes, she met Mother Theresa at prayer and explained her predicament. Desperate to help, Mother Theresa left immediately to accompany Princess Diana as a principal witness. Peter had no problem believing Mother Theresa and decided to let Princes Diana into heaven. In excitement, Princess Diana asked if Mother could accompany her to see her apartment in Heaven. As the story ends, Mother Theresa decided to remain and as such, she and her friend have continued to live happily ever after in heaven.
On September 4th, 2016, the entire world stood still and bowed for Mother Theresa, a little unknown girl called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhu born on, August 26th, 1910 in Skopje, Albania and one of three children. Her story is nothing but a miracle and the rest is too well known to require repetition here. A recipient of many Awards, from the prestigious Bharat Rana, Nobel Prize, Templeton Prize, Congressional and Presidential Medals of Freedom among others, and in every sense of the word, a citizen of the world, who needed no visa.
Her canonisation, a historic turning point, was an event filled with lessons for the entire world. It is perhaps one of the greatest expressions of the mysteries of God and how He works, using we mere human instruments. There is also the clear message that it is not enough to be called by God. What is most important is to co-operate with God’s grace in the mission to which we have been chosen. Given the poverty of her birth, it is nothing short of a miracle that she would, at the age of 18, leave her widowed mother and other siblings in Skopje and undertakes a journey by sea to India. In those days, it was at best a journey to eternity.
She lived a clustered life, until almost exactly 50 years ago, September 10th, 1946, when she had a vision of what God was calling her to do. As a cloistered nun, she had had very little to do with the outside world. But, on that train, a journey to a retreat, God had other plans for her. She got a vision that God really wanted her to do something different, to abandon the cloistered life and dedicate her entire life to the poor. With no money, no house, no clothes, she took the most daring leap of faith. The rest is history.
According to her first biographer, the renowned British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mother started her work of teaching children by using a stick and writing on the dust, because she could not afford chalk, a blackboard or any other space on that fateful date. Mr. Muggeridge himself spent time covering Mother Theresa and as an atheistic journalist, his interest was to expose the fact that he believed Mother was a fraud. By the time he ended his time with Mother Theresa, Muggeridge himself converted to the Catholic Church! Then and all through, he was not alone in thinking that Mother was somehow, a fraud.
The local Muslim youths accused her of secret conversions, a charge that would trail her work among some Muslims and Hindus. The Muslim youths reported her to the local Police Chief and demanded that she be arrested and expelled from the area. The Police Chief, himself a Muslim, responded to the call of the youths by sending out his officers, who, in disguise, spent time secretly trailing her and her workers. When they turned in their report declaring her innocent, the Police Chief offered Mother the first house for her work. He summoned the youths and told them that he agreed he would expel Mother Theresa on the grounds that they would bring their Mothers to replace her! End of story.
I have fond memories of an encounter with Mother in 1992. I had gone to Rome to make a case for Nigeria to be re-admitted into the family of International Caritas, the leading Catholic charity for relief agency, which had been banned by the Gowon administration on grounds of its work during the Biafran war.
I had arrived the venue of the meeting just in time for the opening ceremonies of the Conference, which had been billed for 6pm that day. There was a one-hour time difference between Nigeria and Italy. Earlier at lunch, the organisers had announced that we were all to assemble at the main gate of Conference Centre at 5.30pm to receive Mother formally. The main gate was some 100 metres or so down the road.
I woke up at 4pm, but went back to sleep, not knowing that it was already 5pm in Rome. I finally got out of bed at 5pm (6pm), quickly showered and went down stairs with confidence, not knowing everyone had already gone. I went down the steps and discovered that the whole place was quiet. I assumed I had been the first person to wake up and felt proud of myself. As I stepped outside, wondering, lo, and behold, a rather old white Mercedes Benz drove in and stopped almost right in front of me. I looked and saw a crowd at the main gate of the Centre and wanted to run down to the gate to join the others. Just then, the driver turned round, opened the car and Mother Theresa stepped out.
Believing that I was the Protocol officer or so, he handed Mother Theresa over to me. I welcomed her as we shook hands. I was confused, as I had no idea where to take her or what to do with her. So, we stood there. I introduced myself, told her I was a priest from Nigeria. She commented that I looked rather too young to be a priest, asked what and how Nigeria was and so on. Suddenly, there was a stampede from the gate. Those at the gate suddenly realised that it was Mother who had passed in the vehicle, as they saw us. Apparently, the driver had not been told about our planned welcome or so.
Led by Alexandre Cardinal do Nascimento of Luanda, Angola then, all the other participants started racing back. I handed her over to the Cardinal with everyone wondering how I had ended up with such luck. One thing made me proud: Even with my stature, I was taller than Mother Theresa and when she talked, she had to look up at me. I recalled what the late ramrod, over six foot General Joe Garba had said, when he met the rather smallish Henry Kissinger. As they shook hands, he had silently said: I bet, I am one of the first black men you have been forced to look up to!
In the lecture, Mother Theresa spoke to us about her work and God’s miraculous interventions. She spoke of poverty with such conviction, as if it was a new and higher ambition. She spoke of how the work had grown over time, how the resources had come in and what sustained her. As the Indians began to appreciate her, Muslims, Hindus and people from all walks of life, she said, offered to assist either by volunteering or with their money and other donations. The young girls were joining her Congregation in droves and none seemed to be indifferent to her work.
Money was coming in from different sources, but her big break came, when the Pope visited India in 1964. At the end of his visit, he donated the Limousine, which the American community had purchased for his use to her. The income was her first biggest asset. But she said there would then come donations from individuals, which made a lot of impact on her. She recalled two important ones.
First was a young high caste Hindu couple, who had come to her Covent and sought to see her. When she welcomed them, she said they gave her an envelope with a cheque drawn to her mission. This cheque, they said to her, was a gift for their wedding reception given by their parents. But, they told her, they talked among themselves and had decided to forego a planned wedding party and were making the donation to her for her work!
Second was the case of a five-year-old child, who came to see her with his mother. After she welcomed them, she said the mother told her that it was her son that had asked to see her and that the son had refused to say why he wanted to see her. She then asked the little boy his mission. He whispered something into her ear and then Mother looked at his mother and said: Your son said you should go out, that he wants to see me in private. The young man got up, and took out some rumbled notes, perhaps less than five naira in our money and gave to her saying: Mother, I heard that there is no sugar and I have been fasting from sugar for one week by not taking sugar with my tea in school. Here is my contribution. Please don’t tell my mummy because she does not know! Mother said that at that time, she was feeding almost 10, 000 across India and they had run out of sugar and had made appeals through the media!
Mother has left the world too many lessons. She has taught us that our common humanity is far more important than religious labels. A Muslim philanthropist and son of the founder of what is called the Edhi Foundation, Abdul Sattar Edhi said: We should learn from her. Muslims should adopt the concept of missionary spirit. We have been negligent on many levels, not many people are involved in humanitarian mission… As a Muslim social worker in Pakistan, I thank Missionaries for their kindness and establishment centres that work without any discrimination in our third world country.
As our country bleeds from the blood of religious wars, can you imagine what would happen to our country, if Muslims in Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, heeded this and decided to pull resources together so as to participate in Charitable work with their Christian brethren? This is Mother’s legacy for us. Let those who have ears to hear listen and those who have eyes to see read the writing on the wall. This world is nothing and religion is useless without love and compassion. We can heal our violent world not by power and domination, but by love, service and celebration of our common humanity.
• Kukah, Bishop of the Diocese of Sokoto.
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