Sharing the Strength of Presence
A glimpse into volunteering with Mother Teresa’s sisters.
By: Angela Burrin
When Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, she said she would use the money to “make homes” for many people who had no home.
“Because I believe that love begins at home,” she said, “and if we can create a home for the poor—I think that more and more love will spread.”
I started volunteering at one of these homes soon after it opened in 1986. The Gift of Peace house in Washington, DC, was Mother’s response to the AIDS epidemic. A sprawling building located atop green hills, it has been a long-term home and final resting place for hundreds of street people. For me, it started as a place to “spread love” during long summer holidays as a teacher. Over the years, it has become a place where I also receive love—just as Mother Teresa envisioned.
All for Jesus. Working alongside Mother’s sisters, volunteers like me get a glimpse into the saint herself. We set aside our identities as teachers, computer consultants, or homemakers and become collaborators in the Missionaries of Charity vocation—to serve the poorest of the poor with love.
There is a joy that can be felt at Gift of Peace. Through open chapel doors, you can see Jesus in the tabernacle as you go about your work. Maybe that’s why we don’t see scowls on the faces of the sisters. They have said yes to Jesus’ invitation to be his hands and feet, and he gives them strength.
Many residents attend daily Mass at 7 a.m. They have rough pasts, but here they are family—a family that eats, works, and prays together. In the morning, the sisters pray the Rosary with residents. No one has to participate, but over the years, many have. Some are moved so deeply by the prayers and the sisters’ love that they join the Catholic Church. Others grow in their faith and find new life in their relationship with Jesus.
When I come into the kitchen and hear the sisters praying the Rosary—even as they chop onions—my spirits are lifted. Praying out loud as I work has taught me that I can fill my day, mundane as it may be, with thoughts of God. At Gift of Peace, it’s a little easier because reminders of Jesus are all over the convent. If I’m distracted, I just have to look up at a picture of the Sacred Heart on one wall—or a crucifix on another—and repeat the sisters’ mantra, “All for you, Jesus.”
A Family That Shares Gifts. With sincere attention to detail, Mother Teresa’s sisters strive to share God’s love with one another. One sister told me she was never inclined to do kitchen work before coming to the convent. Now she addresses residents’ dietary challenges with thoughtful preparation. If someone needs his chicken boiled instead of fried, she prepares it separately. The sisters also make sure residents get new clothes periodically. They keep floors clean, walls freshly painted, and outdoor gardens tended.
In a large family, lots of jobs need to be done. Able-bodied residents at Gift of Peace take their place in the family by helping out. One elderly resident I know used to take pride in mopping the floors. Less vigorous now, he folds laundry. Meticulously buttoning each shirt, he folds it and puts it away. With what energy remains, he removes labels from medicine bottles so that they can be recycled. This man is fully integrated into a new family that appreciates his gifts.
The same resident has blessed me personally by praying for a prison outreach I am involved with. He knows what prison is like, having spent decades in one himself. He always tells me, “Give my greetings to the ladies in prison.” I deliver the message, and the women are happy to receive it. They don’t get a lot of love or outside contact. Through this man’s remembrance, they realize that there are people on the outside who care for them. In this way, the sisters’ reach—as well as the spreading of love—extends far beyond Gift of Peace’s walls.
Stirred by the Spirit. The residents’ many needs provide opportunities for laypeople to love as Jesus did. When we volunteers turn our talents toward the less fortunate, the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts. I’ll give you an example.
A young girl accompanies her mother to Gift of Peace. Together they groom the ladies in the women’s wing, brushing their hair and painting their toenails. This teenager could be out with her friends or watching television, but instead, she is bringing the love of Christ to many who feel unloved. This isn’t just a noble sacrifice. She is saying yes to Jesus, who has invited her to give up her plans for the day. So with her hands, she is painting toenails. But with her heart, she is lavishing the residents with attention, acceptance, and joy.
No matter a volunteer’s age or background, the sisters soon find their strengths and put them to use. One man comes regularly to cut the male residents’ hair, setting up shop in the men’s bathroom. Another takes the sisters and residents fishing. They then return and cook the fish for dinner!
I myself feel at home in the kitchen, so that’s where they put me. Specifically, the sisters asked me to make Sunday breakfast: ninety pancakes and ten pounds of bacon, prepared in just over an hour! It seemed impossible at first, but now I’m an expert at flipping twelve pancakes in quick succession. After cooking, I bring the food to the dining area and serve some of the residents. I’ve come to learn who likes extra syrup and who needs their pancakes cut up. I know I need to tell a blind resident, “The bacon is at six o’clock on your plate.” And I fill another man’s glass only three-quarters full because that’s how he likes it.
Caring for the sick and dying is sometimes as simple as getting the bacon crispy, not burned. Other times it’s more challenging. I may not want to get up early on Sunday. Or there may be language barriers with some of the residents. Sometimes I’m at a loss about how to help a resident who is in pain or troubled. That’s when I have to go back to Jesus for a moment and ask him for guidance.
The Strength of Presence. This unfolding process of giving and receiving love keeps me coming back to Gift of Peace. I’ve learned how to offer small but unique acts of love. And without looking for it, I’ve become the recipient of a few myself. It’s such a pleasure when a sister sets out bananas for me because she knows they’re my favorite—that’s the gift of being known. She is not my blood sister, but she cares for me just as naturally.
Mother Teresa called this exchange of people caring for each other in her homes the “strength of presence.” She believed it was the most powerful tool for overcoming evil. The power, of course, is from Jesus, who lives in each of his followers: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). It is Christ’s strength that infuses our presence. It is his strength that fills me when I look up at the large crucifix on the wall and say, “All for you, Jesus. Help me not to burn the bacon.”
Angela Burrin is the director of the ministry to prisoners and college students at The Word Among Us Partners and volunteers every Sunday at Gift of Peace.