Finding Calcutta

One of my favorite quotes of all time was said by Mother Teresa.  She said “Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see.  Find your Calcutta.”

Calcutta, now known as Kolkata, is the place in India where Mother Teresa spent many years of her life serving the poorest of the poor.  Calcutta possesses a crippling poverty beyond what most of us can comprehend—the sick and the starving literally dying in the streets.  It is a place where the suffering and inequity of the world are put on center stage, where the need for intervention and help are glaringly obvious and when put into practice, easily observed.  So when I hear this quote what I think Mother Teresa is saying is that you don’t have to go to the most destitute ends of our world to live with compassion, to serve, to make a difference.  Calcutta is everywhere and anywhere if you have the eyes to see.

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My first Calcutta was a community in inner-city Fresno, California, living in a small apartment unit off of Bond Street, in what many of my peers referred to as “the hood.”  Located off of Belmont, where drug deals and prostitution ran rampant, my neighborhood was full of immigrants, diversity, culture, addiction, untreated mental health issues, violence, and poverty.  And it was beautiful.  While the years that I spent on Bond Street did include me participating in structured programs such as tutoring for the neighborhood kids, leading summer camps and field trips, working at a thrift store, and helping to lead Bible Club, the most impactful and significant moments came outside of these experiences.  These moments came in being invited and attending the birthday of our adorable two year old neighbor, of engaging in conversation and ultimately friendship with the owner of the corner store as I went to buy my daily Diet Coke, of weekly community meals where we were able to share laughter and tears, of playing games of pickup basketball with our neighbors across the street.  I loved my Calcutta.  I could experience my purpose in a tangible way.

My next Calcutta was in Desamparados, Costa Rica.  But more specifically it was in the small barrio of Las Fuentes. I spent the first year and a half of my time in Costa Rica working in Las Fuentes in a small community center that we called the “Casa Verde” (the Green House), but that most of the neighborhood children called “a donde los gringos” (where the gringos are).  In the Casa Verde we would do arts and crafts, workshops, sports, Zumba, English classes, and so much more.  It was here that I fell in love with Costa Rica, its culture, its people.  It was here that I met the children who would forever change, and break, my heart.  I eventually moved to Las Fuentes, yearning the community and relationships that I thought only intentional living could bring.  The best part of my day was driving in and out of the barrio, chatting with the kids about what was new, asking why they were fighting with their siblings, telling them yes I would give them a piece of my “chicle fino” (my “fancy” gum).  I loved my Calcutta.   I could experience my purpose in a tangible way.

My Calcutta now is the most intimidating, testing, and most difficult of all of the Calcuttas that I have ever experienced.  I have never felt more like an outsider—not even as a six foot gringa in Central America.  I have never felt more confused and unable to translate—even though English is my first language.

My Calcutta is in Reno, Nevada.  Pursuing my MBA at the University of Nevada Reno.  And to be honest, that terrifies me.  And motivates me.  And makes me feel things that I have not been able to process enough to articulate.  What I can articulate is that being around people whose main focus is the bottom line makes me uncomfortable.  That while I understand the importance of money and finance and management (that’s why I am getting my MBA—that stuff is important!) I feel like an imposter.  That when poverty and oppression are not as blatant nor visible, it is hard for my eyes to see.  That at this moment I do not love my Calcutta.  I cannot experience my purpose in a tangible way.

But as I type this blog and reflect on my own words and emotions and struggle, I am realizing that this is exactly what (I think) Mother Teresa was saying.  Living in communities and areas where poverty is so all-encompassing is in many ways much easier than living in a mid-income apartment in Reno will ever be for me.  In my previous settings, in inner-city Fresno and the barrio in Costa Rica, my Calcutta was obvious—any eyes could see the poverty and oppression and brokenness.  But now, my Calcutta is subtle, hidden, separate.  And finding it is much more difficult, but just as necessary.  May I have eyes to see.

Tonight, I would like to challenge you to find your Calcutta.  The place and the people whom you can serve, engage, get to know, advocate for, laugh and cry with.  The place and the people who you impact, and who end up forever changing you in ways you never could have imagined.  May we all have eyes to see.

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