30 minutes with Mother Teresa changed me

Mother Teresa is pictured in a 1979 photo. (CNS/KNA)

Mother Teresa is pictured in a 1979 photo. (CNS/KNA)

by Edward N. Eisen

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Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in the Religious Life Special Section of the NCR print issue dated Aug. 26-Sept. 8, 2016. We are providing special access of the full story to you, our online readers. This is a sample of the kind of specialized reporting exclusive to NCR's print subscribers. Subscribe now to our print and Kindle editions.

It was April 1975. The diminutive figure in the white and blue sari was bent and fragile, yet the hand extended was firm and warm. The private meeting on the upper floors of the Philadelphia archdiocese will be forever etched in my memory. Mother Teresa, the beloved Catholic nun from the streets of Calcutta, was having lunch with this Jewish kid from Brooklyn, N.Y.

What an improbable union, a rare moment, a flash in my life that lasted but 30 minutes but dramatically changed me from the inside out.

Moments later, we were sitting in a wood-paneled room with a long table, chatting quietly over a bowl of steaming chicken soup. Mother Teresa had offered grace and now the world-renowned minister to the unwanted, unloved, uncared-for was telling me about her visit to Philadelphia to raise funds for the Missionaries of Charity. She looked tired but as she spoke of the work, I sensed her passion, her singular mission, the earnestness of her appeal.

I could see my father -- a Jewish cantor -- asking: "But, son, what were you doing there? Didn't you feel out of place? Didn't you sense that perhaps this was a job better left for another?"

Pop was from the old school. He had grown up in Poland and immigrated to America as a boy of 11, almost two decades before the Holocaust and the invasion of his country by the Nazis. But he had known persecution.

He had tasted anti-Semitism in this country. Yet when he was hungry and alone on the streets of Detroit, it was a Catholic priest standing at the door of his parish who took him in, fed him and gave him a warm bed for the night. Pop should have understood.

"But, son, what were you doing in such a place?" he asked again. "How did you come to meet such a person?"

What brought Mother Teresa and me together was an odd convergence of circumstances, or perhaps something else.

For many years, I had been a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer and a broadcaster with radio stations up and down the East Coast. In 1975, I left the news business to join one of the city's largest advertising and public relations agencies, Gray & Rogers. The firm was in a national competition to win the Vatican as a client to promote an event called the 41st International Eucharistic Congress. It was held in the Quaker City Aug. 1-8, 1976.

Among those attending were President Gerald Ford, the papal legate who became Pope John Paul II, Grace Kelly of Monaco, some of the church's most outspoken voices against communism, and Mother Teresa. My mission: bring tens of thousands of pilgrims to Philadelphia during the Bicentennial year. The print and broadcast publicity we generated in six languages delivered a million. And all of that in the face of a terrifying disease outbreak: Legionnaires' disease hit the city. Twenty-nine people died and 182 were hospitalized. A hotel was shuttered.

No, I didn't get to kiss the future pope's ring. But I did shake hands a year earlier with Mother Teresa. She knew I was Jewish. "That's wonderful," she said, smiling. "The founder of our faith was also a Jew. As Christians we have much with which to thank our Jewish brothers and sisters."

It was a life-defining moment to hear the nun from Calcutta speak so. And for a moment in time, I imagined a halo about the sun-wrinkled brow. Before she left, Mother Teresa left me these words, words that take on even deeper meaning as she is canonized on Sept. 4: "There are thousands of people in Philadelphia who are forgotten, unwanted. Hungry for love. We pass them by. Love them. Loneliness is the greatest poverty."

[Ed Eisen is 80 now and lives with his wife in Abington, Pa.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 26-Sept 8, 2016 print issue under the headline: 30 minutes changed me.

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