PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEXANDER BLUM
Alexander Blum, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, is serving at a leprosy center in Titagarh, India, operated by St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEXANDER BLUM Alexander Blum, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, is serving at a leprosy center in Titagarh, India, operated by St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity.
After graduating from Brown University, Alexander Blum, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, Maryland, decided to spend a year serving the poorest of the poor in Titagarh, India. He is living and working at Gandhiji Prem Nivas, which is a center for patients with Hansen’s disease (another name for leprosy), run by brothers of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta. While he is still working on learning the local language, Bengali, he said he has learned that Mother Teresa was correct when she said, “Peace begins with a smile,” because “You can communicate so much just by smiling at someone.”

Blum works with eight brothers at the center, which he said is difficult to label because of the variety of work that is done there. In one sense, it is a hospital, because it admits patients to stay there while they receive medicine and bandage changes, but it also acts as a clinic, providing outpatient services to people who are not staying there. The center also employs many former patients in order to empower them and help with their rehabilitation. They work in the kitchen, the garden, the barbershop, the cobbler shop, and the handloom section, where the saris worn by all 5,000 sisters of the Missionaries of Charity around the world are woven.

He is staying in a small room at the center that is used to house visiting doctors, which would otherwise be empty most of the time. While what he does from day to day varies, Blum spends most of his time in the “dressing rooms,” working with chronic wound care and changing bandages for the patients. He spent a lot of time during his last semester shadowing wound care specialists to learn more about the field, and he said working in Titagarh provides him with the opportunity to apply what he has studied at Brown in a context of service and faith.

Blum had been working at the center for about three months at the time of Mother Teresa’s canonization on Sept. 4. He watched the canonization, which was projected onto a large screen, with the brothers and workers from the center. The next day, on her feast day, there was a Mass at the center, followed by a distribution of sweets to those who attended. Blum said the celebration was “keeping in line with the simplicity that [Mother Teresa] lived and urged others to live.”

Blum said he sees how Mother Teresa lives on through the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and Titagarh, especially through “the totality with which they commit themselves to serving the poor.”

“Many folks, myself included, give from a surplus, whether it is our time, our talent, or our treasure, and there is nothing wrong with that… but Mother Teresa challenged herself, and I think her legacy challenges us, to give to a point that is difficult,” Blum said. He sees the brothers doing this by living and working in the same conditions as the people whom they serve. Blum said it requires a large amount of humility on the part of the brothers, which is “a very genuine lived reality that is striking to encounter and inspiring in nature.”

Christians are a minority in the area where Blum is working, but he says most people have a sense that St. Teresa of Calcutta’s canonization is significant. Blum said she was “concerned with respecting and meeting people where they were,” regardless of what they believed, and the same is true today for him and the brothers.

“Mother Teresa made it very clear that everyone, regardless of race, creed, past or religion deserve to be treated with respect,” Blum said. “So while she was deeply inspired and sustained through her Catholic faith, she sought to express that faith by laboring for the poor, without any expectation that those who she served would change their belief.”

To the patients and those who she served, Blum said, “she was already a saint to them, whether the pope says it or you say it or I say it.”

His time in Titagarh comes with challenges, such as adjusting to the language, culture, noise, dirt, crowds, heat, and lack of proper sanitation that he encounters, but Blum said that all makes it “an exciting challenge.”

“Every day is an exercise in humility and patience,” Blum said. “And I’m very grateful for such a tremendous opportunity to learn from the poor in so many ways.”