It is a day forever emblazoned in my memory. It was Aug. 5, 1992, and I was serving as president of the American Red Cross. The renowned humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mother Teresa was visiting Baltimore, and a meeting between the two of us had been arranged. I spent much of the hourlong trip from Washington, D.C. reflecting on the remarkable life story of the woman born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in what is now Macedonia on Aug. 26, 1910 — 100 years ago this week.
At 18, Agnes would leave home and embark on a seven-week sea journey that would take her to Calcutta, India, where she joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish-based religious order, and where she would adopt the name "Teresa." While serving as a teacher at a convent school, Teresa was horrified at the poverty and squalor that surrounded her. There, she would embrace her life's mission — assisting individuals she later described as "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers; all those people who feel unwanted, unloved and uncared."
By the time of our 1992 meeting, Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded and led, had expanded far beyond Calcutta and were operating hundreds of homes around the world — including 20 in the United States — where care was provided to the poor, sick, orphaned and dying. To me and to countless others, she was a great inspiration, an awesome and indefatigable force of selflessness, compassion and generosity.
Given my admiration for Mother Teresa, I suspected that meeting her for the first time would be an emotional experience. And sure enough, I burst into tears as she walked to greet me at the Missionaries of Charity house. As many others have testified, to have Mother Teresa take you by the hand is overwhelming, indeed.
Mother Teresa led me to chairs in a corner of the room, where she got right to the point. As the sisters of her order traveled to the United States from their headquarters in Calcutta, they were required to pay a fee for their visas. She passionately expressed her belief that their funds were meant for the "poorest of the poor," and she asked for my help in eliminating the fee. Our conversation continued to other topics, but she returned again and again to the visa issue, making one last fervent appeal as she walked me to my car. A short time later, a hand-written note would arrive in my office, one of several over the years. "Please do all you can to help us," Mother wrote. "I need more Sisters in the U.S. to give tender love and care to our poor. My prayer for you is my thank you to you."
Well before that note arrived — in fact, within minutes of leaving Baltimore — I called my husband, who was Republican leader of the U.S. Senate, and told him what Mother Teresa wanted. Within a few hours, Bob would report to me that it would be difficult to exempt just one group or organization from the fee requirement, but a larger charitable organization exemption might gain consideration. Such an exemption was eventually created, and the fact that charitable workers traveling to the United States to provide assistance to those in need can do so without paying a fee is yet another indication of the profound and positive difference Mother Teresa made for those in the shadows of society.
In this centennial year of her birth, that difference has been celebrated and remembered in ceremonies and commemorations around the world, including the upcoming Sept. 5 dedication of a postage stamp bearing her likeness. There can be no doubt, however, that the best way in which to remember and honor Mother Teresa's life and legacy is to take her words to heart, and to turn them into action.
"At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done," said Mother Teresa. "We will be judged by 'I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in." Mother saw herself as a "little pencil in the hand of a writing God."
When Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, thousands of mourners gathered at her house in Calcutta. Perhaps one weeping man put it best when he said, "She was a source of perpetual joy."
We all face challenges and trials, and helping others surely lightens our own burdens. Let us honor Mother Teresa's centennial by reaching out each and every day to those in need, as we strive to be a source of perpetual joy.