Layman found Mother Teresa human and saintly

September 13, 1997


Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - John Unger stood on the balcony of a Calcutta church, his camera aimed at the door where he expected the world's most revered woman to emerge.

"I felt this tap on my shoulder and turned around. It was Mother Teresa," he recalled of his first encounter with the mother superior of the Missionaries of Charity.

"Son, quit this nonsense and get in there and pray," were her first words to him.

Unger, 28, president of the West Virginia International Trade Development Council, worked with Mother Teresa's order for six months in 1990. "I was invited by Mother Teresa through the order to come and study her programs in India to see if something like that could be set up in Appalachia," he explained.


The 1979 Nobel Peace Prize winner died last Friday at the age of 87. Her funeral began earlier today in Calcutta.

The Martinsburg native was working with Vietnamese refugees in 1988-89 in Hong Kong when he became acquainted with the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa to work with the poorest of the poor. Before her death, it spread from the slums of Calcutta to serve more that half a million people in scores of countries.

The Missionaries of Charity had concentrated most of their efforts on the destitute of the cities, establishing hospices, orphanages, soup kitchens, hospitals for lepers and others around the world. Seven years ago, according to Unger, Mother Teresa was contemplating missions to serve "The forgotten poor. The rural poor."

The order told him Mother Teresa wanted him to come to India. When he asked the sisters why she wanted him, they told him that she had come to the decision through prayer.

Taking a leave of absence from West Virginia University, Unger spoke at churches throughout the state, collecting offerings for his journey. As the time to leave approached, he found himself about $3,000 short of what he needed.

"I prayed and said, `God, if this truly is Your will, I need Your help," he remembered. That help came in the form of a Time College Achievement Award from the news magazine for $3,000. It was one of 20 awards given by the magazine.

A Lutheran, Unger said he worked with Mother Teresa over the next six months. While there to study her programs, however, she put him to work in the city of Pilkana, devastated by riots between Hindus and Muslims and monsoon floods.

He recalled putting his cot on cinderblocks as black sewage coursed through his room and wrapping himself from head to toe at night to keep rats from gnawing at him. "The smell I could get used to. What I couldn't get used to were the rats," he said.

"One day I was sitting in Mother Teresa's garden and telling her about all these problems. Basically being very negative," he said. She then told him words he has come to live by.

"John, God doesn't call us to do great things. He calls us to do small things with great love. In this pain and suffering, He will show you His glory. Only through the Lord can we find comfort and joy," he recalled her telling him.

There is now a rush to sainthood for Mother Teresa, but Unger said there were moments when she was quite human. One day he accompanied her on a visit to several of her missions and things were not going well.

A woman with a baby in her arms approached Mother Teresa and said, "Mother, in my village there is dying and disease. Can you help?"

Mother Teresa threw out her arms and said, "I'm just one person. How can I help?" He said she regretted what she said and prayed about it that night.

"I came to realize Mother Teresa was quite human. She made a mistake," Unger said.

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