On our last day in Kolkata, we visited two starkly different places. The first was the Queen Victoria Memorial built to honor the British matriarch during the British occupation of India. It was palatial, made of pure white marble. It’s surrounded by sprawling gardens, palm trees and reflection pools – all fit for queen. Next to the Taj Mahal, the Memorial would be the crowning architectural achievement in India.
Our second visit was to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in central Kolkata. After Mother Teresa passed away she was entombed right in the main worship area. The building is understated but immaculate – definitely not like the surrounding area. Her tomb was simple and white with orange flowers neatly spelling out the phrase: Prayer is longing for God.
There were several other pilgrims paying their homage and a sense of solemnity filled the small room where she lay. As I walked through the humble museum of her belongings, her level of sacrifice is unfathomable to me. She said her final goodbyes to her mother and sister at the age of 18, never to see them again in order to serve the poorest of the poor on the streets of Kolkata.
I’ve heard many stories about Mother Teresa, but nothing really sunk in until I saw the place (and the people) she spent years serving. Walking through the city and seeing a 2 year old begging on the street by motioning with their hand to her mouth and saying “food” makes it all very real. It puts into context Mother Teresa’s act of obedience to God and the sacrifice she made to love the poor.
One quote that struck me was from Mother Teresa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
What can we do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family. Around the world, not only in the poor countries, but I found the poverty of the west so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed the hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society – that poverty is so hurtable and so much, and I find that very difficult.
It’s a little bittersweet to bid farewell to Kolkata. What started as shocking became more understandable. What I’ve seen here and the work that has been done through our courageous friends has left an indelible mark on me. Their commitment and selflessness has really put everything into perspective. I’m reminded that clean water, food to eat, even a place to rest my head on are pure luxuries. I’m thankful for my time in Kolkata and look forward to what lies ahead in Trivandrum.
Today we got a chance to catch up and rest. We filmed another video – but this time on the streets of Kolkata. I didn’t quite anticipate how much attention I’d attract! Storeowners, pedestrians, street people all stopped to see if we were doing a local news report. It was a bit daunting to get that much attention since we already get a fair amount of stares for being foreigners. Overall everyone was friendly and just wanted to talk to us or be on camera.
In the afternoon, we went back to Freeset to spend time with a couple of their operations managers. We’re SO blessed by Freeset; they’ve welcomed us with open arms, treated us like their children and shared all their past mistakes and triumphs. It really can’t be overstated how helpful and loving they’ve been.
We met with Sandro who is a native Brazillian and moved to Kolkata just to work with Freeset as their operations manager. He oversees the whole production of the bags from start to finish. He sat down with us, gave his best advice and let us pick every part of his brain. He shared openly about the joys of working at Freeset and the struggles of living in India.
Sandro also told us that a big challenge is the differing standards of quality. What we think is acceptable quality is different than what the women think is acceptable quality. Some of this is cultural. But in the end, it’s still a significant gulf to cross.
Many of the Freeset women have no education and need to learn fine motor skills in order to achieve the tasks that they are given. Even handling a pair of scissors can be a challenge. Kerry and Annie not only provide a job, but they educate their women and love them like their own. Just recently they had to house a young girl who was beaten by her brother and had no where else to go.
To see where they are today is an enormous encouragement. After 10 years of blood, sweat and tears, they’ve been able to create a sustainable business and produce quality products that are sold all over the world. It’s a story of faith and endurance. Their willingness to sacrifice western comforts and intentionally live among the poor has been an inspiration to us.
As we were leaving, Annie (one of the founders), sneakily slipped a card into my purse and said, “This is for you guys.” Later when I opened it up, it contained a very generous gift and the card read, “Please accept this to help as you start-up your business. May His Freedom Reign, Blessings Kerry & Annie.” I am so humbled by their generosity and it’s something that I will carry with me always. Thank you Freeset for paving the path for us.