In my life, I’ve seen a lot of things. Most of them are pretty forgettable, but some are hard to forget. One of those images I have in my head comes from an event that happened several years ago. Mother Teresa was in the United States on a speaking tour celebrating her humanitarian work in India. During one of the dinners, she was speaking and President Bill Clinton was seated to her immediate left. During her remarks, she came to the issue of abortion and without any warning, turned to President Clinton and told him, in the way only a Catholic nun can tell you, that he had to stop abortion in the United States.
Her actions were so forceful and her gestures so direct I’m still surprised the Secret Service agents didn’t take her down.
But no one in the room moved. President Clinton was respectful and kind. The remarks after the dinner were what you would expect. To be sure, there were some pundits who thought Mother Teresa was inappropriate or over the line, but most people just shrugged and said, “Well, that’s just Mother Teresa. She can say what she wants to. She works with the sick and dying in Calcutta.”
The picture was a little odd. Mother Teresa is barely five feet tall and yet, here she was lecturing the powerful men in the world. How did she find herself in that position?
Well, she didn’t start there. Mother Teresa grew up in modern Macedonia and chose to become a nun when she was eighteen. After joining the Sisters of Loretto, she began teaching school in Calcutta. Working in the city, she became aware of the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Leaving her teaching position, she started working with the poor. She started an open air school, clinics, hospices and the ministry she’s most known for, working with dying lepers in the city slums.
As people watched her ministry and the love she shared with those who needed her most, she was elevated in the minds and hearts of the people in Calcutta. She was called an angel. People came from around the world to seek her counsel and have her pray for them. She was recognized as one of the most important people in the world.
Her ministry and work have been analyzed and studied. Her writings and letters have been published and critiqued. People have studied her life trying to find out how you build a life that impacts the world the way hers did. Scholars have written about her leadership style and offered lessons to modern CEOs about how to get things done.
Yet, for all of our studies, we seem to have missed the most important lesson of her ministry. What’s that lesson? Go where no one else wants to go. Do what no one else wants to do. Everyone in Calcutta saw the same problems Mother Teresa did. Everyone saw the same suffering. Yet, no one did anything. More than that, no one wanted to do anything. So, when Mother Teresa started doing the ministry no one else wanted to do, no one opposed her. Before any one could stop her, Mother Teresa was given a place on the world stage. All because she went where no one else wanted to go and did what no one else wanted to do.
What does this have to do with the church in post-modern North America? Think about it. The cultural shift in our nation means the church is no longer engaging culture from a position of power. In years past, politicians would come and speak in local pulpits and sought the endorsements of local pastors. Now, having a connection to a faith community is now seen as a liability. The work of the church is actively opposed in some communities.
More and more, the North American church is being moved to fringes our of our society. Instead of fighting this new reality, Mother Teresa would tell us to embrace it. Throughout church history, the church has struggled when it was the center of cultural and political power. Now, the church is no longer welcome in the power centers of our culture and everyone knows it. Don’t fight it. Embrace it.
And how do you that? By being the good Samaritan. In the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us our neighbor is the next person we meet who needs our help. Look around. My guess, you’ll see countless things that need to be done, should be done and could be done if someone would just do them.
James tells us we sin when we don’t do those things we know are right to do. But when we do them, the church can change the world. We have before. Our history in North America has been starting hospitals and children’s homes, colleges and shelters for the homeless. There are entire swaths of our population who have been disenfranchised, written off, discarded and ignored. Find the opportunity that’s closest to you and engage. Don’t worry about what to do next. The Spirit will be faithful.
There are homeless in your community who need help. Find out their names. Learn their stories.
There are local schools who need volunteers to teach reading and tutor math. There are homebound in your neighborhoods who are lonely and need a visit. There are local jails that need mentors and tutors for the prisoners who’ll soon be released back into society.
Remember, Jesus won’t tell us the second thing to do until we do first thing. So, do the first thing and wait for the Spirit to tell you the next step.
Show up. Get to work. Do what needs to be done. Who knows? Maybe you and I can change the world just as Mother Teresa did simply because we were willing to go where no else wanted to go and do what no one else wants to do.