Thirty-three years ago, Mother Teresa of Calcutta came to Miami to put her merciful motto of love into action: “To serve the poorest of the poor.”
Since then, each morning a group of sisters of the congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, donning their distinctive white blue-bordered saris, passes through the gates of their beloved Overtown convent — where they live without air conditioning, washing machines or television — and cross the street to enter the world of the poor: a soup kitchen founded by Mother Teresa.
On a recent morning, following the Liturgy of the Hours prayer inside a tiny chapel with the image of Our Lady of Fatima, the sisters, accustomed to listening to candid words from grateful men, woman and children, found a notice of violation with a potential property lien from a City of Miami Code Enforcement inspector posted on an electrical pole.
Apparently the sisters had never obtained a permit for feeding — for free and without using public funds — hundreds of homeless who see in their eyes the universal symbol of compassion and dignity represented by Mother Teresa.
“What kind of violation are we doing?” asked convent superior Lima Marie. “Taking care of the homeless and feeding them is a violation?”
The sisters felt intimidated because the notice ends with a threat: operating “a business without all required licenses is illegal under state and city law and is punishable by criminal arrest and/or closing the business.”
With such aggressive language, it is obvious that city government shows no respect toward these religiously devoted women and lacks the basic sensitivity to differentiate between a business without a license and charity work.
“We are not doing any ‘business’ here. We are in ‘business’ of the good,” the sister superior told me in a rare interview. The missionaries shy from the public and the press because they have taken vows of humility and poverty.
“For us,” she continued, “the only mission is to quench the thirst of Jesus on the cross by laboring for the salvation and sanctification of the soul.”
Sitting at the table were 300 homeless people who enter the soup kitchen daily in three morning shifts. They listen to the day’s reading of the Gospel and reflections on the scriptures both in English and Spanish. Immediately afterwards, an army of volunteers serves them a full meal, each person receiving a plate of food.
Lima Marie recalled that “Mother” — as about 5,000 missionaries around the world call the founder of their order — “used to say that the real hunger is the hunger of the soul.”
The city’s threat officially marks a confrontation with the sisters that has been going on unofficially for some time — due to the disorganized crowds of the homeless on the streets surrounding the convent adjacent to the University of Miami/Jackson Medical Center complex. Three blocks north is the new UM Life Science &Technology Park. The school says the facility will “transform Miami into a hub for biotechnology and leading-edge translational science”.
The dispute also illustrates a broader problem. Like downtown businesses and residents, no one wants people experiencing homelessness as neighbors because of the social problems brought about by one of the most marginalized segments of our society. Miami does not have enough beds at shelters to accommodate all of our homeless population, and some men say they are on a waiting list. Others refuse to accept the help that is offered.
City officials — who did not return my calls for comment — are trying to stop street-feeding programs. Due to zoning restrictions imposed by the city, the relocated Camillus House, also near Jackson, is no longer able to feed people who just knock on the door unless they are registered clients.
That leaves the homeless with basically two options to eat: the Miami Rescue Mission, whose numbers of diners has doubled, and the Missionaries of Charity, besides a handful of churches that host random feeding programs.
Thomas Greer, a blond, blue-eyed cook from Arkansas, is one of the regular diners at the convent. He ended up on the streets five years ago after a divorce and loss of employment. He suffers from depression and acknowledges he just does not know how to move on with his life.
“This place has kept me alive for five years,” said Greer, 58. “I don’t have to steal food or eat from a trash can.”
He said that finding a bed under a roof is not as easy as it seems. At Camillus House, there is a waiting list now and it only has a few shelter beds to begin with. The Homeless Assistance Center (HAC) is almost always full. Homeless people also don’t want to leave Miami because of the weather, therefore county and city officials should work collaboratively to address the issue of sufficient shelter beds and appropriate feeding programs.
The nuns’ convent, which also serves as a shelter for women with children, is one of 710 centers administered by the Missionaries of Charity in 130 countries. It was on a train ride in 1946 from Calcutta to Darjeeling, that Gonxha Bojaxhiu, the future Mother Teresa, received her inspiration to work for the needy, which she later described as a “call within a call.” Four years later, the Society of the Missionaries of Charity was officially established.
She was a living witness to the love of God, and millions of people in the world have felt touched by her, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity.
Exactly one day before the Miami inspector issued the violation notice to the sisters, Pope Francis marked the beginning of his pontifical commission calling on society to work especially with the poor.
Miami politicians should listen to the pope and, instead of harassing Mother Teresa’s ambassadors, help them.