“Drunk Town, USA”. It’s a nickname that will make most residents of Gallup, New Mexico cringe, or roll their eyes, or shrug sadly. They didn’t ask for it, but the name, given to the town by passing motorists in the 1980s, still lingers.
You see, Gallup still has a problem: the presence of homeless, vagrant or wandering people, mostly Native American, nearly all struggling with addiction and alcoholism. Every year, the deaths from exposure, cold, and street injuries reach into double digits. And no one seems to have a concrete solution.
From the day Gallup received its nickname to the present day, the debate carries on. And in the meantime, you see them on the streets, alone or in groups, each and every day. Often, you can’t run an errand without being approached and given the typical line: “Can you help me out with some change?”
But how to truly respond to the human problem presented by addiction? One group of nuns, unconcerned with the greater debate, has been opening their doors daily to the homeless of Gallup for nearly three decades.
The Missionaries of Charity are instantly recognizable, even to non-Catholics. First founded by Mother Teresa in the slums of India, they wear simple white saris, in the tradition of their native country, with signature blue stripes. Mother Teresa personally founded many of the homes that are now spread in countries across the globe, and came to visit Gallup in the 1980s in order to start a soup kitchen and overnight shelter.
Recently renovated, this shelter, Casa san Martin, serves daily hot meals, provides showers, and has a room with five beds for women and another, larger room with over 40 beds for men. One sign on the wall instructs visitors that no weapons, alcohol or drugs are permitted on the premises, among other hand-drawn signs on cardboard expressing various Catholic prayers. A large crucifix, flanked with the words “I Thirst”, completes the decorations in the dining hall.
There are six sisters here. Most of them are camera-shy, but after a little encouragement, two of the them sit down to be interviewed.
Sister Maria Auxilia is from a small village in northern India – in fact, each of the sisters currently in Gallup come from either India or Bangladesh. Was it hard for her, coming halfway across the world to a country with a different language, culture, sights and smells?
“No, I had so much enthusiasm to go for my mission!” Sr. Auxilia assures me. “Wherever God sends me, I am happy to come!” She laughs, and continues to laugh, or grin, throughout the interview. This is not a nervous reaction, but her true personality, laid bare and unassuming. All of the sisters here are continually smiling, lightly teasing each other.
I ask if I can take their picture. Excitedly, they line themselves up. But before I can press the shutter, they call out “Wait, wait!” and begin to adjust the hems of their saris, making sure they are straight. When they catch sight of each other, prepping for the camera, they dissolve into laughter.
Their simple joy is infectious, and at first glance, might seem implausible. Like the people they serve, they have no possessions, save the clothes on their back, sandals on their feet, and one or two small religious items, such as a rosary or Bible. Reportedly, they do not even have mirrors in their convents. But with the materialism of the world thus stripped away, they are free to fill their lives with prayer, the company of one another, and the needs of the poor.
Sister Auxilia found this joy when she was allowed to join the order, soon after her schooling was completed.
“I was in 6th grade. Mother [Teresa] was not then that famous. And what happened, I got Mother’s picture, like a stamp, and the picture said ‘token of love’, and she’s holding a little baby on her hand. And I had no idea what is the token of love. But I wanted to do what Mother is doing. So my desire increased…one of the sisters came, and she told me ‘I want to take you.’ And I did not tell her anything about my vocation or anything, but she said ‘I want to take you, would you like to come?’ I said, ‘Yes, Sister, I want to come with you.’ On the way she asked me ‘do you want to be a sister?’ I said ‘Yes, I have long desired to be a sister. But I don’t know how to do it.’ And she took me to the Missionaries’ house.
“So I was so happy, really happy about my vocation, because God gave that sister to read my mind, and that sister took me.”
Now, on one Tuesday evening, Sr. Auxilia and the other Missionaries prepare Casa San Martin for the evening meal, as they do each day. The food they serve is donated or funded by various stores and agencies in the area, and the sisters try to make each serving as generous and nutritious as possible. Tonight’s menu is roast beef, broccoli, pasta salad, and bread. As several sisters busy themselves in the kitchen, two more go to the front door. First, a moment is taken to say a prayer before a statue of St. Joseph, and then the door is opened.
One sister prepares to search bags for contraband, and the other instructs the crowd gathered outside the door.
“Women first, then the men!” she says.
One man, entering, crosses himself. “Thank you, sisters! God bless you!” he tells them, before finding a seat.
I’m interested in hearing from these people – I want to know why they are here, what circumstances forced them into this hard lifestyle. But it doesn’t go quite the way I planned in my mind. Of the four people I spoke to, only one was able to answer my questions, and that only sporadically. The others, through a combination of years of alcohol abuse or mental illness, can’t seem to carry on a basic conversation.
One lady tells me of her literal visions of Jesus, and a sinister cabal out to ruin her life, tied to what she calls the “New World Order”. Another man breaks my heart. He looks to be in his 70s. He has lost all of his teeth except one, and has only one eye. He also seems to be hard of hearing. When I ask him where he is from and what he needs, he only repeats “I’m a veteran”, and talks about tours in Vietnam and Europe. A third man actually makes me uncomfortable at points. It’s clear that repeated years of alcoholism and homelessness have taken a permanent toll on his body and mind. If I nod at something he says, he might suddenly turn hostile, only to smile again a minute later.
“Jamie”, as he gives his name, is more cognizant than the others. He appears to be transgender, but even after gentle questioning, it is not clear which way he is transitioning. When he first sees me and my camera, his instinct is to duck his head and cover his face with his hands.
“Don’t show my picture!” he says. A short time later he changes his mind, and suddenly gets up and approaches.
“Okay,” he says. “I want to do an interview.” He’s had a hard life, especially since the recent death of his mother and with her, the crumbling of any kind of emotional support. So he comes to the shelter often, describing himself as fiercely protective of Gallup’s homeless population.
“These are my people right here,” he says, gesturing to the room. And the Missionaries of Charity? What does he think of them?
“They’re my sisters!” he says, then laughs. “I see them on the street and I wave to them. And I love [the Virgin] Mary, and Jesus. Jesus is my brother.”
The exact nature of his relationship with the others is a bit hard to figure out, though. At one point during the interview, another man approaches, and Jamie immediately snaps at him, “Get away from the camera, this is my interview!” Soon after, a commotion is heard across the room as two men aggressively step towards one another, shouting obscenities. With no hesitation, one of the sisters rushes over.
“Hey! Hey” she says. “No fighting! Sit down.”
Faced by this small, 5-foot-tall woman, the men step back and take their seats, chagrined. Order is restored.
The situation here is tough to fully comprehend. Many of these people are truly needy, and display gratitude for the kindness they receive from the sisters. Others, however, allow their actions and words to push back against the world. It can be difficult to relate to them with compassion, on a human level. They can be hostile or incomprehensible. Many of them, minds and bodies ravaged by years of neglect and living on the streets, would never be capable of holding any kind of employment, or even living on their own, without constant supervision.
But in each of them, the sisters see the face of Jesus.
“They’re fallen, so somebody has to lift them up, see?” says Sr. Auxilia. “Mother [Teresa] always said ‘we are here for poorest of the poor’, who have no one. Here we have so much [of a] drug problem, alcohol, no? Nobody likes them. For them we are here.”
She’s not simply referring to food and shelter. The Missionaries of Charity view physical needs as secondary next to spiritual needs. Of course, physical needs are not neglected, but the sisters’ true goal is bringing salvation to people cast aside by society.
“We try to lift them up, not only materially, but also spiritually or emotionally, yeah? Because you see, nobody has talked to them,” observes Sr. Auxilia. “But whenever they see us, they always ask us, they always come close to us, always wave to us. They need somebody to help them, see?”
Another sister adds “We are hoping in the future they will come up, by the help of the Holy Spirit, so they can come up from their alcoholism. So that is our future goal, to help them to go to Heaven. That is our main aim, is salvation. Mother Teresa says always, ‘We send them to Heaven’.”
The sisters are, of course, overjoyed that their foundress, who many of them met and knew personally, is now officially recognized as a saint. The canonization is not a surprise to them, however.
“The Church recognizes her higher level, no?” says Sr. Auxilia. “But Mother actually, she doesn’t want to be high, she wants to be humble, see? She wants to stay humble. But it’s not Mother’s intention, but God, and God is raising her up.”
In Gallup, the debate regarding homelessness and alcoholism continues. The sisters who followed Mother Teresa from across the world are not interested in debate. For them, the path forward is clear.
Every day, they open their doors.