Mother Teresa's work spurred growth of 'voluntourism'

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When Mother Teresa began her work with the poor of Calcutta, she also opened her doors to drop-in backpackers who wanted to volunteer. One of those was Susan Drees Kadota, an American, who spent 2-1/2 months bathing, feeding and simply talking with disabled residents. Kadota connected with one young woman, who, because of a physical deformity, had been turned out by her family. “You know,” she told Kadota, “it’s really nice just to talk to people.” Kadota took it as a life lesson. “Taking time out of your so-called busy life to be with people is important and useful.”

Nuns of Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, and Roman Catholic priests say a prayer beside the Mother's monument in her native town of Skopje, during a ceremony to mark the centennial of her birth on Aug. 26.

Mother Teresa may be remembered most today — her 100th birthday anniversary was Aug. 26 — for her lifelong work with the poor. But she also helped expand the modern notion of going on an overseas mission, encouraging ordinary people to take short breaks and volunteer on vacations.

The new volunteer model

As a young woman, Mother Teresa joined a Roman Catholic religious order that sent her on a mission from her homeland in what is now Macedonia to far-off India. She went on to found the organization Missionaries of Charity to offer palliative care to those cast away and dying on the streets of Calcutta.

She faced criticism over the years from those who said the work did little to address the root causes of grinding poverty.

But she mostly attracted international acclaim, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As her fame grew, she opened her work to the hundreds of annual volunteers of any — or no — faith often coming and going unannounced.

The model shares some similarities with a wave of modern missions abroad, including short-duration service or evangelism trips, Catholic lay missionaries, and even the secular trend of “voluntourism.” While there is some unease about the sustainability of and what can be accomplished in shorter-term mission work abroad, proponents point out that it often leads to more substantial volunteerism and has cross-cultural benefits.

“Mother Teresa’s program was a precursor to VolunTourism,” David Clemmons, founder of, says by e-mail. “There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta … they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.”

Voluntourism and short trips: modern missions?

Voluntourism became a buzzword in 2005, says Clemmons, and polling indicates significant interest. A 2008 poll by the University of California at San Diego found 40 per cent of Americans willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, and 13 per cent willing to spend an entire year.

Christian missions, meanwhile, have grown over the past 100 years. Data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass., shows the number of missionaries sent in 2010 stands at 400,000, compared with 62,000 in 1910.

“There’s certainly a lot more people who are doing shorter-term missions,” says Bert Hickman, a research associate with the centre. “People still go for a lifetime. (But) some people go intending to go for a lifetime, but for whatever reasons they decide to come back to their home country — where that wouldn’t have been an option 100 years ago.”

Within the Catholic Church, missionary work has expanded beyond the clergy to include more lay people. As ordained numbers decline in Western nations, lay missionaries have stepped in to carry forward the work of aging missionary orders.

More than one in five U.S. Catholic missionaries serving abroad are not ordained, according to the U.S. Catholic Mission Association. Three quarters of these lay missionaries serve for less than a year, according to the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service.

The rise of short-term missions can be traced partly to the decline in lifelong careers generally, according to a 2006 address given by Robert Schreiter, a Catholic priest and academic. “If one starts to look at one’s life in segments of time, some period can be allotted work like mission.”

He notes criticism of short-term mission work, including the damage they may do to the “social ecology” of a place and the little that may be accomplished for the people there.

Gateway to lifetime of service

“The object of evangelization may not be ‘them’ — those whom ‘we’ visit. Perhaps one of the most significant features of short-term mission — even missions lasting up to two years — is how it can change the lives of those who experience it,” Schreiter writes.

“The fact that so many of the short-term missioners choose the helping professions as their life’s work, rather than simply finding a job which leads to acquiring wealth, is indicative that something like this is going on.”

The stories of Mother Teresa’s drop-in volunteers suggest that short-term work indeed becomes a gateway to a lifetime of service.

Kadota said volunteers she met in Calcutta, including a doctor and nurse couple, sometimes struggled with how much good could be done given the basic facilities and supplies. The dilemma left her later in life seeking “to work for more systemic change.”

She went on to volunteer as a lay missionary for 2-1/2 years in El Salvador, then worked for Catholic Relief Services helping set up a pairing of parishes in the U.S. with those in the developing world.

Paying it forward

Heather Huppert Schwegler, an American, was inspired to go to Calcutta in 1988 after watching a documentary about Mother Teresa. She spent a few weeks working in Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta before travelling to Hong Kong. Once there, she went to volunteer with the local Missionaries of Charity — it became something she tried to do wherever she travelled.

She was cleaning a toilet in the Hong Kong mission when she met Mother Teresa for the first time. “I see you are doing God’s work,” Mother Teresa said to her.

Schwegler grew up without religion, but at age 21 she felt drawn to Mother Teresa and drawn to Catholicism, so she went back to Calcutta. She spent more weeks volunteering, and then did a two-week “come and see” — a trial period living in the convent for those considering joining the order.

At one point, she thought she might have seriously exposed herself to disease and became very nervous.

That night, Mother Teresa told Schwegler that when she continued volunteering the next day she was to “look into the eyes, and you need to see Jesus in every single one of them.”

Schwegler went back. “I suddenly saw there was such great suffering and nobody was complaining,” she explains, choking up.

She went on to be baptized with Mother Teresa as her godparent, but she didn’t join the order. Her family in America wasn’t supportive.

She returned to New York, spent some time volunteering with the sisters there, and eventually got married. She has worked as a nurse, and now runs a daycare for children for troubled backgrounds.

“I still have a great passion to work with the poorest of the poor,” Schwegler says.

Organizations: University of California at San Diego, Catholic Church, U.S. Catholic Mission Association Catholic Network of Volunteer Service.The Catholic Relief Services

Geographic location: Calcutta, Macedonia, India Calcutta.She America South Hamilton Western Hong Kong El Salvador New York

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Recent comments

  • Eugene from Town
    August 30, 2010 - 11:15

    Here, here! The celebration of suffering that lies at the root of this "saint's" devotion is not to be emulated. While she is not responsible for the vast suffering in Calcutta, she certainly has contributed to the maintenance of the status quo and worked against empowering women to control their own reproduction ability. The irony of those christians who hope to raise humanity to a higher plain of existence while insisting we still behave like animals (ie. no control over our bodies, slaves to instinct) never ceases to amaze.

  • Keith
    August 30, 2010 - 09:42

    [Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. …Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud… --Christopher Hitchens