Finding Calcutta 1 (RJS)

Finding Calcutta 1 (RJS) September 15, 2011

I have a new book (well OK – the book is a couple of years old, but it is new to me) I am reading in preparation for a Veritas Forum event to be held this fall, Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service by Mary Poplin. This is not a science and faith book – and it a welcome respite from the non-ending questions of scripture, creation, and Adam and Eve. This book is relevant to the Chrisitan life – and to Christian life in the academy in particular. Mary Poplin is a Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University, one of the Claremont Colleges, and an institution dedicated entirely to graduate education. She writes from the perspective of one at home in the academy, and aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the environment.

The publisher’s description (InterVarsity Press):

“Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are. . . . You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.” –Mother Teresa

Lifelong educator Mary Poplin, after experiencing a newfound awakening to faith, sent a letter to Calcutta asking if she could visit Mother Teresa and volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity. She received a response saying, “You are welcome to share in our works of love for the poorest of the poor.” So in the spring of 1996, Poplin spent two months in Calcutta as a volunteer. There she observed Mother Teresa’s life of work and service to the poor, participating in the community’s commitments to simplicity and mercy. Mother Teresa’s unabashedly religious work stands in countercultural contrast to the limitations of our secular age.

Poplin’s journey gives us an inside glimpse into one of the most influential lives of the twentieth century and the lessons Mother Teresa continues to offer. Upon Poplin’s return, she soon discovered that God was calling her to serve the university world with the same kind of holistic service with which Mother Teresa served Calcutta.

Not everyone can go to Calcutta. But all of us can find our own meaningful work and service. Come and answer the call to find your Calcutta!

Quite a challenge – and one not limited to Dr. Poplin, Mother Teresa, or a select few specially chosen individuals. This is for all of us … A call to serve our communities with the same kind of holistic service with which Mother Teresa served Calcutta.

What does it mean to serve our communities with holistic service?

Is this really our calling?

I am going to put up some posts on this book over the next few weeks.  To get us started, here are a few links to brief video excerpts, a couple of minutes each, from presentations by Mary Poplin.

And about secular humanism:

You can also find a couple of complete talks on YouTube, including this one held at Pepperdine University last fall, Oct. 5 2010 (This one is almost 90 minutes, and I have not watched it in its entirety yet):

Like Dr. Poplin, my community is the university world, but more particularly it includes the scientific community, students, faculty, scholars, within that university world. How to best serve this community, and the people in this community, is a question that has driven much of my thinking and studying over the last several years. In fact in my case, although it may annoy some of Scot’s readers, addressing and wrestling with the science and faith questions is a part of that call.

If interested, get the book or watch the videos, or both and join in.

Where do you find your Calcutta? What does this mean to you?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

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  • Diane

    “Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are.”

    The lonely are everywhere in our society. See the face of Christ in that person in your office, university, church who is a little different and a little despised and be humbled and honored to be their friend.

  • “Where do you find your Calcutta?”

    Jesus said, anything we ask for, our Father will grant it! What if we each asked God to open our eyes to the Calcutta’s that are all around us? And to give us the wisdom and courage to humbly serve the broken in Jesus’ name?

    Come, Holy Spirit, come!

  • T

    I liked the ‘analysis of poverty’ by Mother Theresa that she described:

    “God does not create poverty. Man does, because he won’t share.”

    Amen. I think too often we quote Jesus’ statement that we will always have the poor among us, as if people being in need is not merely permitted by God (in the way that other wrongs are permitted to exist for now), but ordained and preferred. But Jesus didn’t say that we should always have the poor with us, but only that we would. There’s a big difference.

  • “Give until it hurts.” I absolutely loved that. It is amazing how such simple words can give so much meaning. If it doesn’t hurt, there isn’t much of a sacrifice.

  • Amos Paul

    A major point I like to make when it comes to ‘serving’ your community is that the goal is for it to be organic. Helping and serving others right in front of us can and should be compatible with living an overall, healthy life in a community of people.

    I say this because many people think, “I can’t do that. I have a job. I can’t become an ascetic, NPO volunteer,” or whatever.” But, IMO, while some are particularly crafted for those roles–many others should merely use dramatic service and charity as launching point to get that attitude ingrained in their lives. Holistic service to a community should be, I think natural to each our present conditions if we tune ourselves into charity through the Spirit.

    *Full Disclosure: Preaching ideas here and not, necessarily, experience ;).

  • rjs

    Amos Paul,

    I think this is the key – service should be an ingrained attitude in our lives.

  • Who is my neighbor? “My neighbor is anyone whose need i know, whose need I can meet.” –Haddon Robinson

    There is a widow next door. Is she lonely?
    There is a Muslim next door. Do they feel threatened?
    There is a fatherless boy two houses down and two more three houses down? Are they feeling abandoned and adrift?
    There is house with open soffits. Are they feeling overwhelmed?

    “Calcutta” is everywhere around us. Our ministry needs to become intensely and fiercely local so that our passion for the entire world is fanned into a flame and the gospel becomes our clarion call.

    Mother Theresa was flawed. Her theology was flawed. But some am I and mine. But her life teaches us much about how to make a difference for Christ.

  • That last paragraph should read:

    Mother Theresa was flawed. Her theology was flawed. But so am I and mine. But her life teaches us much about how to make a difference for Christ.

  • I think holistic living in any community is exactly that… living holistically amongst a people in need. Incarnating the kingdom of God, bringing Jesus to the people. Truthfully, hanging out within academic circles is not living holistically. I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind while he was walking throughout Jerusalem and Capernaum, healing people, feeding people, and casting demons from people. No. Holistic living involves living amongst the poor, the widows, orphans, the sick, and those whose basic needs are not met. Those who are unwanted, unloved, and cannot fend for themselves.

    Mother Theresa also once said, “First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise amongst the poor.” You’re not going to find him amongst the privileged, wealthy, businessmen or academicians. No. You’re only going to find him in the places where no man dare tread lest he seeks Jesus.

    “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’(Matthew 25:40)

  • Rodney

    Thanks, RJS, for posting (esp. these videos–the last one was so arresting I had to watch it entirely).

  • rjs


    So are you suggesting that those of us who are professors should quit and go do something else?

    Don’t you think we need people to live holistically in a wide variety of situations and places?

    I ask these questions because I would like to try to understand exactly what you do mean.

  • Georges Boujakly

    I’m puzzled by this: “You’re not going to find him amongst the privileged, wealthy, businessmen or academicians.”

    Why not? He frequented wealthy people’s homes (Zacchaeus). Would he not keep the company of the men and women who bankrolled his ministry? Did Jesus shun the rich young ruler?

    I fail to see how the social or economical status of people preclude them from the company of Jesus. Did I misunderstand your point?

  • Diane

    Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had. He told people not to hoard (Sermon on the Mount). He went among the rich not to validate them in their wealth but to urge them to give away their riches–to the poor. The miracle of the loaves and the fishes indicates that he didn’t need any rich person to “bankroll” his ministry.

  • @12 Georges – Thanks Diane. I was actually going to respond similarly. There is also a misnomer that wealthy people bankrolled Jesus’ ministry. Look carefully at who sacrificed their money to help support Jesus and His ministry:

    “Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.” (Luke 8:3)

    And, there is no indication that Zacchaeus was “wealthy”. He was indeed a tax collector, but the Bible is silent about the nature his wealth. Even so, were he wealthy Jesus was not found encouraging his lifestyle, instead encouraging him to leave his life and enter into the kingdom of God.

  • @ #11 RJS – First, I say this with humility and please know I am not judging you. My comments are not meant for you personally, but is a general comment relevant to all. So, here it goes:

    If you are a professor, but also serve others then this is a good thing. But, sitting comfortably within the world of academia with an abundance of head knowledge, but have no love and service toward others is meaningless. Always teaching but never serving, is a vain attempt at living holistically. There must come a time in the Christian’s life when they cross the threshold from ever-learning to living what they learned. Knowing Jesus is one thing. Living out the Kingdom incarnationally is another.

    I know of one professor who teaches regularly, but spends a good amount of time on short term missions trips to various parts of the world. Yet, I know of another professor who has never went on a mission trip or volunteered with a single charitable project. Which one do you think is living incarnationally for the kingdom of God?

  • rjs


    But that (1) doesn’t apply only to professors and the academy – it applies to almost everyone. (2) Short term mission trips are not the pinnacle of service.

    I think we will get to some of these kinds of issues later in the book, whether Mary Poplin brings them up or not, because it helps to frame many of the things I’ve been thinking through lately (when not side tracked by the question of Adam). But holistic service is a total attitude of life not a set of discrete acts. What is the driving force when we choose what do do and how to do it – where we invest time, money, and energy?

    The demand on the rich young ruler, I think, is a recognition of the primacy of the command to love God and love others – and anything that stands between doing both of these is to be discarded, and in a way that demonstrates love for God and, in the case of the rich young ruler, love for others.

  • Amos Paul


    Short term missions trips tend to serve the missionary more than they serve the people. Someone comes in at a great cost, “Does some work,” and leaves again. Is it really so important to the local people to have the presence of a foreigner amongst them? The travel costs alone could have paid a dozen local workers.

    I’m not saying short term trips are bad. They are good for helping expand the capacity of the missionary to receive and extend grace to those around them.

    And your focus upon the rich young man is, unfortunately, emblematic of many who eschew holistic living in all economic positions. What of the parable of the servants who kept money for their master, teaching us servants to be wise with what we are given? What of the Centurion whom Jesus praised for great faith, while yet being wealthy and powerful? What of Zacheus who Jesus praised for being generous while yet keeping enough to live on and advance the Kingdom more?

    We certainly have Biblical precedent of people giving up personal possessions and considering it holy–but we also have Biblical precedent of people utlizing their possessions wisely to remain personally healthy while advancing the Kingdom of God.

    It seems clear to me that Jesus preached serving God first and foremost while also using money wisely to serve God in those ends. If money is obstacle to you–be rid of it! If not, remain generous still, but money has practical value for the Kingdom whose management and usage can naturally and healthfully flow from our service to God.

    Luke 16:9-13

    I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

    So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

    No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

  • RJS – I agree with your comments in most part. The call to ministry is applicable to all; and short-term missions trips isn’t the sole definition. But, I would suggest if your vocation hinders opportunities to serve others in a tangible way, then I would question the validity of the “ministry”. Is the ministry for self-satisfaction/gratification, or does it sometimes entail getting out of your comfort zone, getting your hands dirty, jumping into the trenches and serving others? I believe holistic ministry must involve action, not just words (teaching, preaching, proclamation, etc). See James 2:17.

  • Amos Paul

    And Five Dills,

    If we all spent 100% our time amongst the poor and widows–who brings the Kingdom to the academians, students, and wealthy?

  • Amos – I wholeheartedly agree. Short-term mission trips are not the answer. But, I do believe they accomplish a great service for the kingdom of God. As a full-time missionary, we appreciate short-termers coming in to help out with huge projects that nobody else wants to do. Furthermore, it is often short-term mission trips that prod some people into full-time ministry. However, I do agree that short-term opportunities are usually inconsequential to the big picture only providing a temporary solution and in most cases making one feel better about himself for doing something good.

    I used short-term mission trips as only one example for someone can stay within his/her full-time vocation while at the same time living holistically for the kingdom of God. Professor by day, short term missionary by night. But, this can also be done in service/outreach projects in the local community. Or, partaking in local events/programs that help those in need.

    Either way, holistic living MUST involve action, not words, not head knowledge… but action. See James 2:17. Peace.

  • rjs


    I appreciate your comment because this is the direction I want to go in at least some of the posts on this book – what it actually means for each of us to live our lives in holistic service, focused on love of God and love of neighbor (not family and not ethic or national affinity – but neighbor, which apparently from the parable of the good Samaritan means those with whom we do not naturally identify).

    I can focus it on myself and my profession – but the question is much bigger than this.

  • Paul Johnston

    People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.
    If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.
    If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway.
    If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway.
    The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
    Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway.
    For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
    ― Mother Teresa

    I love this quote, the essence of discipleship, I think. It is a good quote to contemplate while in prayer. It provokes honest conversation with the Lord. BTW, Jesus tells me I do not pray enough. He tells me not many of us do.