Shanti Dan and Sheela

“We cannot make you holy. You already are. . . .

If God is all things, God is the one you can’t stand,

the thing about you that you wish were not,

and everyone and all things.”


- page 4, Alchemy



I was that little girl who dawdled on the way home from school smelling every flower and appreciating every stone or pothole. I grew into an adult who was hard-working, scheduled, and in my head all of the time, separated from myself and from knowing the Divine in All.


And then I began to find my way back.


I had been reading the teachings of The Guides through Paul Selig for a few years when the invitation came in 2017 to go to Kolkata, India, for a week. I was to work with the impoverished and suffering at the Missionaries of Charity home for girls, Shanti Dan. Although I didn't quite feel ready to face the suffering I knew existed in India, and especially Kolkata, I trusted that I would be ready by the following March when I was scheduled to go. I knew some greater awakening awaited me there.

All of the homes run by Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa's organization, care for the poorest of the poor in India entirely through donations and volunteers. In my case, for one week in March, my volunteer group was to work with girls from 8 - 35 years old with severe mental heath issues, blindness, or cerebral palsy. If the girls could speak, they spoke Hindi, and I don't, so any communication would be non-verbal.


I'd never been to Kolkata before. I had never worked with such disabled and non-verbal individuals before. I'd never changed an adult's clothes, never toileted an adult, brushed another adult's teeth, helped with physiotherapy, or fed someone like this before. I had hung clothes on a clothesline. I had taught English. I had changed sheets. But all of these tasks came with a steep learning curve in a place with 70 cots in one sleeping room, only fans for air, and no washing machines—which meant volunteers hand washed the clothes two times per day. Along with the language barrier, all this was unsettling and daunting.


Beyond any of these tasks for the visiting volunteers, simply being with the girls was the most important task of all. "Being with" could mean holding a resident's hand, singing to her, walking with her, pushing her wheelchair from one room to another, making faces, or simply sitting beside her. I was both frightened and excited about the prospect of connecting with these girls in this way.


It was mid-morning on day three and all the girls had just finished having their hair brushed by various volunteers. I was looking for another way to help when Sheela stood up and grabbed my hand. My heart froze with fear. What was I supposed to do? Sheela, a woman about 30 years old, was clearly on heavy medication—probably for schizophrenia. Her eyes were cloudy and unfocused, she rocked back and forth constantly while seated, and could have angry outbursts.


Suddenly we were walking together. Sheela led the way, staring angrily at the ground in front of her as we walked around the open air plaza. The space was small, and one walk-about didn’t take long. By the third time, I had determined that I would make this troubled soul beside me smile, somehow or other. I clasped her hand with determination and began leading and singing rhythms. Pretty soon I was playing a game with Sheela,"Fast. Slow. Fast. Slow." Upon each new word I would change our pace and she would follow.


Sheela loved it. Pretty soon she smiled. Then she began to lead me, deciding to go faster or slower so that we could do it together and she could hear the words, "Fast. Slow." She squeezed my hand, lifted her gaze, looked me straight in the eye, and smiled. Her cloudy grey eyes just for a little while literally cleared up and she was lucid and present with me. We had a true connection. The Guides often speak of Knowing something experientially. This was such a moment.


In this moment I Knew the Divine in Sheela. Hers was a soul experiencing itself in this form—one of the poorest of the poor in Kolkata—entirely dependent for everything (and I mean everything) to be provided for her through the loving-kindness of others. Hers was a tormented body, lost in a severe mental illness that created a confused sense of identity. Her vulnerable body was kept on mind-numbing drugs to control erratic angry outbursts. Yet here she was, a precious, lovely, loving Soul holding my hand and smiling with clear eyes. Here she was, teaching me something so fundamental about what it is to be human. I knew who she was. I knew what she was. I knew how she served. I knew her in Love, Love, Love. I knew her in her Divinity.


No. I Know her in her Divinity.


I'd like to share two post scripts here. First, a year later I had the great privilege to return to Shanti Dan. Sheela and all the girls were still there. Again I walked with Sheela playing our "fast-slow" game. She remembered and lit up with joy. Second, the following year, our third trip was cancelled due to Covid-19. I doubt that I shall have another opportunity to return to Kolkata or to Shanti Dan. I truly pray for the safety of all the girls there who are at the mercy of support from volunteers in a time of Covid-19 spreading in India with little hope for medical care on the scale needed.


Photos copyright © Brenda Brayko 2020. All rights reserved.


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