How Mother Teresa's work spurred growth of 'voluntourism'

Mother Teresa's Nobel Prize winning mission in India has prompted many people to work short missions and 'voluntourism' into their lives.

Boris Grdanoski/AP
Nuns of Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, and Roman Catholic priests say a prayer beside the Mother's monument in her native town of Skopje, during a ceremony to mark the centennial of her birth, on Thursday, Aug. 26.

When Mother Teresa began her work with the poor of Calcutta, she also opened her doors to drop-in backpackers who wanted to volunteer. One of those was Susan Drees Kadota, an American, who spent 2-1/2 months bathing, feeding, and simply talking with disabled residents.

Ms. Kadota connected with one young woman, who, because of a physical deformity, had been turned out by her family. "You know," she told Kadota, "it’s really nice just to talk to people.”

Kadota took it as a life lesson: “Taking time out of your so-called busy life to be with people is important and useful.”

Mother Teresa may be remembered most today – her 100th birthday anniversary – for her lifelong work with the poor. But she also helped expand the modern notion of going on an overseas mission, encouraging ordinary people taking short breaks and volunteer on vacations.

The new volunteer model

As a young woman, Mother Teresa joined a Roman Catholic religious order that sent her on a mission from her homeland in what is now Macedonia to far-off India. She went on to found the organization Missionaries of Charity to offer palliative care to those cast away and dying on the streets of Calcutta.

She faced criticism over the years from those who said the work did little to address the root causes of grinding poverty.

But she mostly attracted international acclaim, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As her fame grew, she opened her work to the hundreds of annual volunteers of any – or no – faith often coming and going unannounced.

The model shares some similarities with a wave of modern missions abroad, including short-duration service or evangelism trips, Catholic lay missionaries, and even the secular trend of "voluntourism." While there is some unease about the sustainability of and what can be accomplished in shorter-term mission work abroad, proponents point out that it often leads to more substantial volunteerism and has cross-cultural benefits.

“Mother Teresa’s program was a precursor to VolunTourism,” says David Clemmons, founder of, by e-mail. “There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta … they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.”

Voluntourism and short trips: modern missions?

Voluntourism became a buzzword in 2005, says Mr. Clemmons, and polling indicates significant interest. A 2008 poll by the University of California at San Diego found 40 percent of Americans willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, and 13 percent willing to spend an entire year.

Christian missions, meanwhile, have grown over the past 100 years. Data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass., shows the number of missionaries sent in 2010 stands at 400,000, compared with 62,000 in 1910.

“There’s certainly a lot more people who are doing shorter-term missions,” says Bert Hickman, a research associate with the center. “People still go for a lifetime. [But] some people go intending to go for a lifetime, but for whatever reasons they decide to come back to their home country – where that wouldn’t have been an option 100 years ago.”

Within the Catholic Church, missionary work has expanded beyond the clergy to include more lay people. As ordained numbers decline in Western nations, lay missionaries have stepped in to carry forward the work of aging missionary orders.

More than 1 in 5 US Catholic missionaries serving abroad are not ordained, according to the US Catholic Mission Association. Three quarters of these lay missionaries serve for less than a year, according to the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service.

The rise of short-term missions can be traced partly to the decline in lifelong careers generally, according to a 2006 address given by Robert Schreiter, a Catholic priest and academic. “If one starts to look at one’s life in segments of time, some period can be allotted work like mission.”

He notes criticism of short-term mission work, including the damage they may do to the “social ecology” of a place and the little that may be accomplished for the people there.

Gateway to lifetime of service

“The object of evangelization may not be ‘them’ – those whom ‘we’ visit. Perhaps one of the most significant features of short-term mission – even missions lasting up to two years – is how it can change the lives of those who experience it,” he writes. “The fact that so many of the short-term missioners choose the helping professions as their life’s work, rather than simply finding a job which leads to acquiring wealth, is indicative that something like this is going on.”

The stories of Mother Teresa’s drop-in volunteers suggest that short-term work indeed becomes a gateway to a lifetime of service.

Kadota said volunteers she met in Calcutta, including a doctor and nurse couple, sometimes struggled with how much good could be done given the basic facilities and supplies. The dilemma left her later in life seeking “to work for more systemic change.”

She went on to volunteer as a lay missionary for 2-1/2 years in El Salvador, then worked for Catholic Relief Services helping set up a pairing of parishes in the US with those in the developing world.

Paying it forward

Heather Huppert Schwegler, an American, was inspired to go to Calcutta in 1988 after watching a documentary about Mother Teresa. She spent a few weeks working in Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta before traveling to Hong Kong. Once there, she went to volunteer with the local Missionaries of Charity – it became something she tried to do wherever she traveled.

She was cleaning a toilet in the Hong Kong mission when she met Mother Teresa for the first time. “I see you are doing God’s work,” Mother Teresa said to her.

Ms. Schwegler grew up without religion, but at age 21 she felt drawn to Mother Teresa and drawn to Catholicism, so she went back to Calcutta. She spent more weeks volunteering, and then did a two-week “come and see” – a trial period living in the convent for those considering joining the order.

At one point, she thought she might have seriously exposed herself to disease and became very nervous.

That night, Mother Teresa told Schwegler that when she continued volunteering the next day she was to “look into the eyes, and you need to see Jesus in every single one of them.”

Schwegler went back. “I suddenly saw there was such great suffering and nobody was complaining,” she explains, choking up.

She went on to be baptized with Mother Teresa as her godparent, but she didn’t join the order. Her family in America wasn’t supportive.

She returned to New York, spent some volunteering with the sisters there, and eventually got married. She has worked as a nurse, and now runs a day care for children for troubled backgrounds.

“I still have a great passion to work with the poorest of the poor,” says Schwegler.

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