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Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu Lived Her Faith

I strongly disagree with her ideas about the place of women in the world and in the church. Yet she is, for me, a model of what Christ calls each of us to be and do. She lived and breathed the gospel. Every day of her life, no matter where she was or what she was doing, she lived her faith.

Yet this woman has profoundly influenced my understanding of the Christian faith, even though I disagree with much of her theology. I oppose her understanding of salvation. I dislike her simplistic answers to our world’s complex problems, such as population control and world peace.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
I strongly disagree with her ideas about the place of women in the world and in the church. Yet she is, for me, a model of what Christ calls each of us to be and do. She lived and breathed the gospel. Every day of her life, no matter where she was or what she was doing, she lived her faith.
 
My hero’s name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, but we all know her as Mother Teresa.
 
Mother Teresa was born to Albanian parents on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Aug. 26, 1910, in what is now Macedonia but was then part of Yugoslavia. At 18, she went to Dublin, Ireland, to take her vows and become a nun of Loretto, a teaching order that ran convent schools.
 
She stayed in Ireland only three months before being sent to Calcutta, India. She arrived there in January 1929 and taught in a school where most of her students were young girls from wealthy European families. 
 
In 1937, she professed her permanent vows as a nun and took the name “Teresa,” in honor of Saint Teresa of Lisieux. In 1946, while traveling to the Himalayan region of Darjeeling, Teresa experienced a high and holy moment. While praying during that long train ride, she felt God speaking to her.
 
She had already answered the call to be a nun, but this was a new calling that she described as a “call within a call.” Her new calling was to devote herself to “the poorest of the poor” and to live among them. 
 
Two years later, Teresa was granted permission to leave her convent and move to Calcutta’s slum. Several of her former students offered to help her in this new venture, and this small group of women formed the nucleus of what would become a new religious order: the Missionaries of Charity.
 
Mother Teresa started working with those she found first in the slums: abandoned children. She picked them up in a park, taught them basic habits of good hygiene and helped them learn the alphabet.
 
She really had no plan for meeting the children’s needs. She just knew she had to respond to the suffering she saw, and that became the basis of the work of the Missionaries of Charity. Their goal was and is to love and serve the poor. Mother Teresa often said of her work, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
 
One day in 1948, Mother Teresa found a dying woman in the streets of Calcutta. The woman was “half eaten up by maggots and rats.” Mother Teresa took the woman home with her, gave her a soft bed and tried to ease her suffering. She stayed with the woman until she died. 
 
This experience moved Mother Teresa to provide a peaceful and dignified place to die for India’s poor and homeless people. She appealed to authorities for a building and was allocated a hostel. In 1952 she opened the Home for the Dying. For 50 years, Mother Teresa and her nuns picked up more than 60,000 people from the streets of Calcutta and provided for them clean beds, encouraging words and the love of Christ.
 
Mother Teresa next reached out to the children of those men and women in the Home for the Dying. Most of these children were homeless, and they would soon be orphans. So Mother Teresa opened her first children’s home, followed by homes for lepers, people with AIDS, and unwed mothers. 
 
Mother Teresa went wherever people needed comfort, and her territory soon expanded outside Calcutta and India. She comforted the hungry in Ethiopia, the radiation victims at Chernobyl, the survivors of Armenia’s earthquake, and the landless outcasts of South Africa. When the walls of Eastern Europe collapsed, Mother Teresa rushed into the communist countries that had shunned her for decades. She became a missionary of love and hope to the entire world.
 
By the time of her death in 1997, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had grown from the 12 original followers to approximately 4,000 nuns, as well as a host of volunteer workers and a male religious order. These committed people have ministered to the needy at 500 centers in the slums of 200 cities.
 
At her funeral, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state, read a papal message which captured the spirit of this great woman:
 
“Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood fully the gospel of love. She understood it with every fiber of her indomitable spirit and every ounce of energy of her frail body. She practiced it with her whole heart and through the daily toil of her hands. She crossed the frontier of religions, cultural and ethnic differences, and she has taught the world this lesson: it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
 
I watched Mother Teresa’s funeral on television in the early morning on Sept.13, 1997, and I remembered why this small Catholic nun had become my hero. 
 
Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.