Twenty years ago I was in Bangladesh involved with an evaluation of Oxfam’s Disaster Preparedness Programme and it was at that time when I was in Dhaka that the news came of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Princess Diana, I believe, admired Mother Teresa and her work and so it was very sad that two iconic women passed away within a few days of each other.
It is very right that the ‘International Day of Charity’ is observed on Sept 5 each year as it is the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa. I realise how very privileged I am to have known and worked with this wonderful and compassionate person, Mother, now Saint, Teresa. Then aged 23, I first met Mother Teresa in 1968 when I went for a short holiday to Kolkata from Gaya, Bihar, in Eastern India, where I was working with the Gandhi Peace Foundation on an Oxfam rural development project, the Oxfam Gramdan Action Programme. Jim Howard, then Oxfam’s Field Director for half of India, based in Delhi, had told me that I must visit Mother Teresa if I could. I had a wonderful meeting with her and some of her Sisters and later visited a number of the places where the Missionaries of Charity worked. Mother Teresa told me how much they thought of Oxfam and Jim, “that big man.” Jim, a solid and tall man, would have towered over the diminutive and saintly figure. Mother Teresa told me that, on an earlier visit, Jim had told her that she needed more space, another building, and that Oxfam would find £ 30,000 for her. She had apparently told Jim that there were many other organisations which needed Oxfam’s help, but for her needs, “God will provide.” And He did, of course, for very soon afterwards, I was told, a rich Bengali in Kolkata left his property to the Missionaries of Charity.
Three years later, I was responsible for the administration of Oxfam’s Bangladesh Refugee Relief Programme and was based in Kolkata with the responsibilities for arranging the supplementary needs of about 600,000 people living in many refugee camps around the border areas between India and Bangladesh. In the early days of the relief work, before Oxfam had set up its own operational programme, we supported some of the work of Mother Teresa’s medically trained Sisters. Nearly every morning at 6.45 a.m., Mother Teresa would phone me and begin the conversation not with “Good Morning” or “Hello”, but with “God Bless you Julian”, and then would proceed to give me a shopping list of supplies her Sisters needed which consisted mostly of medicines but also supplies of things like bleaching powder and high protein food for children. Oxfam’s jeeps or even hired taxis would transport the Sisters with the supplies to the Camps near Kolkata.
One day in June, at Kolkata’s Dum Dum airport, I was having great trouble clearing relief supplies through the Customs, when a soft voice from behind me said, “Julian, come and pray with me. It is better than losing your temper which I fear you are about to do.” Of course, Mother Teresa was correct, because after she had led me through some prayers and I had sung for her the Latin versions of The Lord’s Prayer and Cantate Domino (both learnt at school), Mother Teresa quickly sliced through the red tape – for both of us.
It was very difficult for Mother Teresa to speak ill of anyone, even in those dark days of 1971 when there was so much death and suffering in Bangladesh and the refugee camps. In a message for Oxfam’s ‘Testimony of Sixty’ publication, she said, “This problem is not only India’s problem, it is the world’s problem. The burden must be carried by the world, the answer must be given by the world. For us in India, good has come from the problem because our people have made considerable sacrifices and will continue to make them. I have been working among the refugees for five or six months. I have seen these children, and the adults, dying. That is why I can assure the world how grave the situation is and how urgently it must help. The appeal is to the world – the world must answer.”
Years later, in 1988, having just arrived from Delhi, I was waiting, deep in thought, for my luggage to arrive on the conveyor belt at Kolkata Airport, when a hand touched me and a voice said, “God Bless you, my son, is it Julian?” What an amazing memory and our ensuing chat led to tea with her the next day when I explained the campaigning and other work I was trying to do to support people with disabilities. She warned me that I would face many setbacks along the way but that would make me stronger in the long run. She was absolutely correct, as I found her always. Knowing Mother Teresa, however tenuously, has enriched my life considerably, and helped me, and many others, I am sure, in our attitude to people and to work.
In conclusion, this year, everyone should observe the ‘International Day of Charity’ on Sept 5 by assisting those organisations that are working to ameliorate the suffering of those affected by the Bangladesh floods of 2017 as well as the Myanmar Refugees who have fled and are fleeing from the genocide in Myanmar which for me brings back very clear memories of the genocide I witnessed in 1971 during the birth pangs of Bangladesh.