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Legacy of Caring

Missions: Mother Teresa's ideal of serving the poor continues to inspire a host of volunteers in food centers and shelters. Both givers and receivers are grateful.

September 05, 1998|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, church workers sweat as they ladle out steaming plates of mixed vegetables and a spicy concoction of chili and pasta to dozens of mostly homeless, destitute young people. As the men--and a few women--gulp down what, for many, is the best meal they've had all week, one sign of the inspiration for this kindness is visible:

Propped up against a statue of the Virgin Mary is a portrait of a woman with gentle eyes and a weathered face wrapped in a white cotton cowl rimmed with blue.

It is the instantly recognizable image of Mother Teresa.

One year after the death of the Catholic nun--the tiny "Saint of the Gutters," whose Nobel Prize-winning work with the poor and afflicted touched millions around the globe--her Southern California missions are thriving. One such place is Nuestro Hogar--"Our Home"--a shelter for homeless young people on Alvarado Terrace near downtown Los Angeles. Here, her ideal of seeing see Christ in the poorest of the poor and serving them wholeheartedly still inspires a host of volunteers and the two orders of sisters and brothers she founded.

"When she looked at you, you knew she saw Jesus in you, and that was an overwhelming feeling of love. All you want to do is reciprocate and give back," said Julie Miles, who met Mother Teresa several times and is volunteering this day with other members of her parish, St. Lawrence Martyr in Redondo Beach.

Every week, about 50 parish members take turns cooking the hot meal and donating other items, such as the watermelons, yogurt, bread, juice, cookies, brownies, tortilla chips and salsa that grace the table. They view their service as a privilege. "She gave us an outlet to thank God," Miles said.

Those on the receiving end are equally grateful. Sheba Warner is a 40-year-old native South African whose life crumbled nearly a decade ago when a relationship went bad, leaving her without a home, job or regular means of support. She comes to Nuestro Hogar not only for hot meals but also for companionship, solace and fun--like the video showing of "Titanic" that absorbed the roomful of mostly Latino men before and after the Wednesday lunch.

"You come here and you don't feel lost. On the streets, you feel so lost," said Warner, who added that she desperately wants a job and is willing to do "anything but clean toilets."

"People come here with a droopy face and leave with a big smile," she said.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will celebrate a memorial Mass for Mother Teresa on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at St. Emydius Church in Lynwood. There, the community of sisters that she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, lives and works, feeding the poor and operating a home for unwed mothers.

Nuestro Hogar is the main service operated in Los Angeles by the Missionary Brothers of Charity. The order was founded by Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1963 after she realized she needed assistance to lift the sick from the streets, bathe men, guide teenage boys and perform other practical tasks, said Brother Chris Magallanes. The Los Angeles branch, established in 1975, is the only one in the United States.

The 10 brothers in Los Angeles offer hot meals at Nuestro Hogar three times a week, along with haircuts, medical checkups and free clothes. They focus on younger men--under the age of 27--to give them a haven from the dangers of skid row, Magallanes said. The brothers and volunteers also walk the streets on weekends distributing food to the poor and ministering to the needy in convalescent homes and prisons.

The brothers and their flock share tough, demanding lives on the precipitous edge of society, and this is the way the Mother, as she is called, wanted it: to have her missionaries not only serve the poor but also live like them.

Jose Flores, a cherub-faced Salvadoran, is struggling to pay $200 in monthly rent on a $75 monthly paycheck, earning as little as $1.25 for two hours of painstaking sewing in the Los Angeles garment district. Magallanes also owns little, notably a few cassettes, and doesn't always take the $6 weekly allowance he is offered.

But Flores aspires to improve his English and job skills and dreams of maybe returning to El Salvador someday to launch a lucrative career as a translator for an American firm. Magallanes, by contrast, has willfully chosen to spend the rest of his life in poverty, chastity, obedience and wholehearted service to the poor--the perpetual vows he made in 1993.

"I see myself on a beautiful journey," said Magallanes, 41, who wears a small crucifix affixed to his simple blue shirt. "There is something about serving the poor that is hard to explain. There's a woman with eight kids I see every weekend. She always gives me a big hug. That's something money can't buy."

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