Dave Risher could not believe what he heard that afternoon at a country orphanage outside Calcutta.
The speaker was Mother Teresa at a retreat for workers at her missions for the destitute and dying. She told the foreign volunteers there that when they returned home, they should look for the "little Calcuttas" in their own countries.
"We said there was nothing at home this bad," said Risher, a bearded, heavy-set social worker in Long Beach.
After all, to him, the Indian metropolis was "surrealistic." Snake charmers and fire eaters ply their trade as millions beg for food or money and live on the streets, in caves or in grand but decaying imperial buildings--ghosts of the British rule that ended 40 years ago.
"Before I went, I knew. I'd read the books," said Risher, who spent October working with destitute people in one of Mother Teresa's many Calcutta centers. "But the reality of it hits all your senses: the sights, the smells, the noise."
People on the streets offer guns, drugs and their own bodies for sale, he said. Some maim themselves or their children to increase their success at begging. Street gangs, claiming the sidewalks as their territory, prey on the homeless who sleep there.
"It was awful, terrible. I cried," Risher said. "It was too much seeing people bathe in water they had just urinated in, people lying dead on the street."
Such things in California? Little Calcuttas?
When the Torrance resident and the handful of other foreigners--an Austrian, a Russian and an Irishman--protested, Mother Teresa insisted that "the symptoms, the hates and the hurts exist in each of your countries, so look for them," Risher recalled.
"She believes people are poor because others don't want to share. They walk away.
"She told us to look for people and help those in society who are not being helped, or who society won't help.
"I thought about that all the way home, and now I can see little Calcuttas in Los Angeles, Torrance and Long Beach."
Risher said he sees little Calcuttas when a 14-year-old Mexican girl taps on the window of his office at the Lutheran Social Services agency in Long Beach, where he is one of four social workers who help more than 8,000 people a month get food, clothing and jobs and cope with alcoholism and drug abuse.
"She comes and says, 'My mother wants me to find food,' " Risher said. "Her mother works seven days a week sewing in a sweatshop. The little girl doesn't go to school because she cares for five other children who are smaller. She has an old woman's eyes in a young woman's face."
Risher said he sees little Calcuttas in the faces of increasing numbers of homeless people, and in the eyes of lonely old people in convalescent homes. "They are waiting for their children to come to see them, looking for love and never finding it," he said.
"The poverty here may not be as bad, but the emotional pain is just as great."
The 37-year-old Risher went to India after nearly 80 people helped raise the money by taking part in a 2-weekend bowl-a-thon in Redondo Beach held by the Lutheran Brotherhood's South Bay branch. The lay group's president, Jean Meinholtz, said $5,000 of the proceeds went to Risher while an additional $1,000 went to help support a trailer shelter for homeless families at Loving Shepherd Lutheran Church in Gardena.
Risher said he used $2,000 for the India trip. The remainder is being used to fix up the 13-year-old yellow-and-white van he uses to collect donated food and clothing from 49 Lutheran churches that support the Long Beach agency where he works. Risher also takes the van to Baja California on periodic trips to distribute food to jails and poor neighborhoods.
Tons of Food
"The van carried 26 tons of food this year, and it ruined the brake system and broke the frame."
In an interview before his Calcutta trip, Risher said he wanted to avoid becoming a "robot social worker" by "tapping into" the spirituality of Mother Teresa--the slight, stooped 78-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner who has been called a living saint for the care she gives to lost people.
"The most vivid memory I have of her is seeing her at Mass every morning, in the back, on the floor," he said. "It is a small, simple chapel, with no pews. Being in her presence, you could feel something special about her. The power she has is the love of Christ around her, like an aura."
He said Mother Teresa "goes, goes all the time" despite a serious heart ailment. "She looks tired but acts like she has all the energy in the world."
Risher said there were 240 men and women--"destitute, dying, mentally retarded, handicapped, some with TB"--at a center called Pre Dam, where he worked with the three other foreign volunteers. "I worked with the men, bathing them in the morning, shaving them, giving haircuts--I got pretty good at that--and feeding them."
Asked About America
A few spoke rudimentary English, Risher said and "asked me about America, which they knew was a rich place."