by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Come and see.
Those were the first words Mother Teresa of Calcutta said to Linda Schaefer, a former photojournalist for the Cable News Network (CNN), during a meeting at Hartsfield- Jackson International Airport in Atlanta in 1995.
More than 20 years later, Schaefer, who was on assignment that day for The Georgia Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, continues to spread the message of the woman she knew, who is now a saint.
Schafer will be at Mother Teresa of Calcutta Church in Topeka May 14 to share photos and stories from her book “Come and See: A Photojournalist’s Journey into the World of Mother Teresa.” The evening begins with a taco bar at 5:30 p.m., followed by Schaefer’s presentation from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
“I never thought this would be a lifelong mission,” Schaefer said.
But the single meeting would eventually lead her to crisscross the globe, interviewing and talking with men and women who knew and worked with Mother Teresa.
Schaefer arrived at the airport early that June morning. Along with the late Archbishop John Donohue, Atlanta diocesan newspaper editor Gretchen Kaiser, the former Atlanta mayor and numerous other dignitaries, Schaefer eagerly anticipated the arrival of the nun who was flying from North Carolina to dedicate the Gift of Grace House, a home run by the Missionaries of Charity, the order Mother Teresa founded.
The home opened in the early 1990s as a place for impoverished women suffering from AIDS.
After Mother Teresa disembarked from the plane, she greeted those in attendance. For Schaefer, the experience was almost surreal.
“She looked straight at me and began walking toward me,” Schaefer said. As she took Schaefer’s hands into her own, Schaefer was “transported to another realm.”
Then Mother Teresa invited Schaefer to “come and see” for herself the work being done in India by the Missionaries of Charity.
After spending the whole day in Mother Teresa’s presence, Schaefer, who didn’t belong to any church at the time, admits being changed by the encounter.
“A couple of months later, I was on a plane to India,” she said.
Traveling to India without a plan, Schaefer arrived in Calcutta, not knowing where to go or what to do. She just knew she was supposed to see the work of Mother Teresa firsthand.
After climbing into a rickshaw, Schaefer told the driver she wanted to see the motherhouse of Mother Teresa. He knew the way.
“He drove me to the motherhouse,” she said, where she was later met by Mother Teresa.
For the next six months, Schaefer worked alongside the Sisters and numerous volunteers at an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity. She also developed a friendship with the woman everyone simply called “Mother,” and was given permission to document the work of the Missionaries of Charity.
In fact, she was the last professional photographer given that kind of access to the saint before her death in 1997. Schaefer’s written journals from that time, along with the hundreds of images she captured, eventually led her to publish books about her experiences.
“Everybody loves to hear about Mother Teresa,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer, who became a Catholic in 2004, said Mother Teresa’s message of peace is especially relevant today.
“She was an icon of the good Samaritan. She was completely devoted to Jesus, to the work, and she did it without any self-interest,” Schaefer said.
Another aspect of the saint’s spirituality that continues to inspire Schaefer is that wherever the Missionaries of Charity are found, “volunteers come from all religions, all ethnic groups, all ages — and there is never any conflict.”
It’s a message she wants to help spread, especially in the United States, where there is a lot of divisiveness.
“I just think it’s really important to carry on the message,” she said; this message “of peace, of joy and of love” can heal much of the brokenness in the world today.