Dan Morain

Jerry Brown’s time with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of Calcutta attends a Mass celebrating the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1997. Mother Teresa is to be canonized at the Vatican on Sunday.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta attends a Mass celebrating the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 1997. Mother Teresa is to be canonized at the Vatican on Sunday. Associated Press file

If only in passing on Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown’s mind surely will wander to the 3 1/2 weeks in 1988 he spent in the fetid slums of Calcutta, back when he was trying to find his way.

The once and future governor was halfway between his failed run for U.S. Senate in 1982 and his ill-fated candidacy for president in 1992.

To sort things out, Brown spent six months studying Zen Buddhism in Kamakura, Japan, then turned to his Catholic roots by traveling to the heavily Hindu and Muslim nation of India. There, he spent time tending to destitute, disabled and dying people at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity home. Mother Teresa will be the focus of the Catholic world on Sunday when Pope Francis canonizes her.

Some people will think of Mother Teresa for her unrelenting work for the poor and sick. Some will think of her willingness to confront authority in pursuit of her calling. Some will recall how the late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens condemned her for the “cult of death and suffering” he claimed she fostered.

Brown remembers her for her leadership, her authority and her commanding presence, perhaps a reflection of who he is and what still interests him.

“She would say, work at the home for the dying, or work at the home for kids with disabilities. It was not like a discussion. She was a person of command,” Brown said the other day. He also recalled her deeds. When she saw the least of humanity on the ground, she would pick the person up: “ ‘What you do to him is what you do to Christ.’ 

A reporter friend of mine, Rone Tempest, was based in New Dehli and got Brown on the phone in 1988. He had been staying in a $15 a night hotel, spending his days comforting and bathing patients, many of whom suffered from malnutrition. He would have witnessed open sewage in the streets, my friend said, and flies, horrible smells, oppressive heat, and legless and armless mendicants.

“I don’t think I understand well enough the suffering that is going on in the world,” Brown told him back then.

Three decades later and 19 years after Mother Teresa’s death, Brown cannot say he thinks of her as he goes about the daily business of running the state, though she does cross his mind whenever he walks past the small statue of the Virgin Mary she gave him; he kept it in his home in Oakland, which he recently sold.

“It may not sound like much, but in comparison to all the hundreds of people I meet, she stands out, in the confidence, the directness, the clarity, the simplicity, of what she was doing, what she was saying, and how she was able to inspire volunteers,” Brown said.

Brown met Mother Teresa in later years, at the Vatican, in San Francisco and in Tijuana. Hers was a strict, orthodox view of Catholicism, one “quite at variance with today’s feminism.” She had a “spiritual resonance” that attracted and inspired followers.

“If you look at churches, they are shadows of what they once were,” Brown said. “Look at the religious orders, the virtual disappearance of the nuns, the diminishment of the Christian brothers … and yet you see the Missionaries of Charity are quite vigorous. That reflects the prophetic spirit of Mother Teresa.”

Brown is, as always, a politician. He understands the need for compromise, and to raise money for his causes. But Catholic principles are evident in much of what Brown does, notes Richie Ross, who like Brown was a seminarian as a young man.

The notion of subsidiarity, that decisions are best made closest to the people, is Catholic. So too is his disregard for the omnipotence of government, and the belief that change must emanate from within.

The governor did not point to instances in which Mother Teresa’s influences affected his decisions. But he has done more than most to give a hand to the people at the lowest rungs, signing bills to raise the minimum wage to $15 and approving California’s version of the earned income tax credit, which puts money into the pockets of low-wage earners.

I’d guess he will sign legislation this year to establish a state program to help workers without retirement plans to save for their old age, and provide overtime for farmworkers, a long-overdue step for people who often must stoop to pick what we eat.

On Nov. 8, in accordance with Catholic tenets, he will vote for Proposition 62, to end the death penalty, and is sponsoring Proposition 57, which would allow some prison inmates who gain skills and education to shorten their sentences. Redemption is possible.

Mother Teresa rose from the humblest of beginnings in Albania to win the Nobel Peace Prize and become a name known worldwide. Her life’s work is a lesson we all should study, though few of us do, myself included.

But it’s worth noting that on this day, the guy deciding which of the hundreds of bills to sign or veto from this year’s legislative session spent a few weeks studying the nature of leadership from a tiny woman who believed it was godly to help the poorest of the poor.