e were staying at an old Anglican guesthouse on a busy street in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. It was hot and humid, with the nightly city noises competing with the steady hum of overhead fans and the whine of hungry mosquitoes. I had an unusually large group of Loma Linda University students with me, drawn by the chance to work with Mother Teresa in her home city. They were already struggling with culture shock while still keeping alive their desire to learn and serve in this strange place.
I don’t usually get to go on SIMS trips. LLU uses this campus organization—Students for International Mission Service—to coordinate the many trips that our students take to other countries. It may be the monthly weekend clinic in Mexico, or summer trips to other countries. It may be a single student, several together, or a larger group, usually basing at one of our Adventist hospitals to engage in the care of patients and community service. SIMS has become one of our defining activities at LLU as we pursue the challenge of exposing each of our students to our core values.
Even I, who have had the privilege of living and traveling under difficult circumstances, had to agree that living in Kolkata was not going to be easy. Crowded sleeping conditions, strange food, limited communication home, and the ever-present human tragedies always waiting outside the gate kept a somber tone in all our discussions. I could see some of the students withdrawing, struggling with the meaning of it all, and slipping into a classic case of culture shock.
The 30 students with me in Kolkata were from various disciplines, mostly medical students, fulfilling their lifelong dream of connecting with the world’s needs. I had assigned them to numerous projects around Kolkata: working in the orphanages, helping at the clinics, and caring for patients in Mother Teresa’s famous houses of refuge for the dying. Each morning Mother Teresa’s staff would spread across Kolkata’s alleys, searching for the homeless and neglected who had been relegated to the sidewalks and gutters for their final moments on earth. They were brought to these Homes for the Dying, where they were fed, cared for, treated, and provided some dignity during their last hours or days on this earth.
The last day I could be with the students I gradually made my way around the city, visiting the various rotation sites. Most students had settled into a kind of routine, finding something meaningful they could engage with. My last stop was at a Home for the Dying, an old building that had been modified to care for perhaps 50 people in the last stages of life. I lingered in the background, watching our students offer compassion to their charges while struggling with their own feelings of helplessness.
Kevin, a senior medical student, had spent the entire day caring for an elderly Indian man. He had bathed him, fed him, cared for all his bodily needs, and was now getting ready to say goodbye. They both sensed that tomorrow might not come for this man, who had been deeply moved by the care he had received that day.
As he sensed the time for separation had come, the man slowly bent over and grasped Kevin’s feet in his hands, a gesture of utmost respect in the Hindi religion. Then he gradually straightened, wrapping his bony arms around Kevin. They held each other close, each whispering in a language the other could not understand, but completely knowing each other’s heart.
With tears in his eyes, it was clear that Kevin understood the impact of compassion. He could see that this power of love was greater than any antibiotic, any surgery, any other form of human intervention. And I was convinced, once again, of the value in creating teachable moments, the confluence of human emotions that focuses our values and brings us face-to-face with our own vulnerability as well as the glorious opportunity to be Christ’s servant on this earth.
Richard H. Hart, M.D., Dr.Ph., is president of Loma Linda University. Prior to assuming these duties in March 2008, Hart served as LLU’s chancellor and chief executive officer. This article was published April 22, 2010.