Unicef Discovers Mother Teresa

It's always interesting seeing a non-Christian or non-Catholic person, group or organization discovering the wisdom of our tradition-- unbeknownst to them.  A few years ago I met a man (not a Catholic) who told me that he had stumbled upon a fascinating new idea (in a corporate retreat he attended) that he thought I might be interested in: It was called being a "contemplative in action."  In this approach to life, he explained, you would have a meditative stance on even your active life.  Had I ever heard of it?  He seemed a bit annoyed when I told him that the idea did not come from corporate America but from the Christian tradition, and from, among others, St. Ignatius Loyola.  And in fact it was a hallmark of Jesuit spirituality.  Hearing that, his face fell: he seemed horrified to find out that he had been actually appreciating a Christian tradition.

David van Biema, one of the best religion writers around (and former senior religion writer for Time magazine) has just written a new book about Mother Teresa.  (Full disclosure: I contributed a chapter.)  Van Biema has also stumbled upon this curious tidbit, wherein Unicef has realized that serving the "poorest of the poor" is not such a bad idea after all.  It's part of our online Culture coverage, this time under the rubric of "Ideas."  Here's Van Biema:

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Recently, an editorial in the New York Times published the results of a recent study by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), which may have surprised some readers. The study yielded what the newspaper called the "counterintuitive and compelling" conclusion that "providing services to the world's poorest children in the most impoverished communities is not only just, it is also more cost effective than the current policy of mainly helping the less poor in the areas that are easier to reach." The Times expressed the hope that global leaders meeting at the U.N. this week would permit Unicef to target its funds accordingly. 

It's nice to see Unicef, the Times, and for that matter, all of us who reflexively assume that the answers to the worst problems are more complicated than they seem, catching up with Mother Teresa. 

There was nothing "counterintuitive" to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta about directly serving the people you most wanted to help. Starting with her charter for the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded in 1948, she made clear that she intended to minister directly to the "poorest of the poor." She did not adopt this strategy on the strength of statistics. She marched her sisters into Calcutta's most fetid slum because Jesus had directed her to. In a series of locutions and visions that began during a long train ride in 1946, he had challenged her, she later wrote, saying "[T]here are plenty of nuns to look after the rich and well-to-do people. But for my very poor, there are absolutely none. Wilt thou refuse?" 

Explaining that mystical encounter in theological terms, Teresa said that she was bound to serve the "Jesus in his distressing disguise" among the poor. She also parsed it biblically, quoting the Gospel of Matthew (25:40), where Jesus describes the inheritors of his kingdom as the feeders of the hungry, the clothers of the naked and the tenders of the sick: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." She never employed "metrics." As she constantly reminded both critics and supporters, she was not a social worker. Her definition of "good" was not based in efficiency but on fidelity. 

Nevertheless, it now appears that her model was more efficient than the received NGO wisdom. Much more. According to the Times, Unicef, crunching data from 26 countries, "can now document that $1 million helping children 5 years old and younger in the most remote, disadvantaged areas of poor countries would prevent 60 percent more deaths than their current approach." Sixty percent. That would be, again in the Times's words, "a stunningly higher return on investment." 

Read the rest here.

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