10/27/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

Mother Teresa's Legacy


"The very fact that God has placed a certain soul in your way is a sign that God wants you to do something for them," Mother Teresa said. Her order, The Missionaries of Charity, was founded on this truth. I am one of those who can testify to its power.

I had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa in 1985 when she was in Washington for the opening of one of her homes. I had some vague notion of helping her raise money for her work. To my surprise she didn't seem at all interested in what I could do for her. Without exaggeration, I can say that one meeting changed my life.

But my contact with Mother Teresa was incidental compared to that of Bob Macauley, founder of AmeriCares. Bob worked with her on many occasions.

On one of these occasions a few years before she died, Bob was on a plane with her on the way to visit one of her homes in South America. They were seated side by side in the coach section of a regional jet, this powerful, but small lady and a massive man -- Bob was 6' 4" -- with about 100 other passengers.

Shortly after the flight took off, the cabin attendants began meal service. When the attendant came to Mother Teresa she held up her hand.

"How much does this meal cost?" she asked.

The attendant said she didn't know exactly, but probably about $5 American.

Mother said, "If I don't eat the meal, can I have the $5 for the poor?"

The attendant did not know how to respond. She said she would have to ask someone. Dutifully, she went forward and reported Mother Teresa's request to the pilot who then contacted the company representative on the ground.

In a few minutes, the attendant returned with the happy news. "Yes, Mother, you may have the money for the poor."

Mother Teresa smiled and returned her tray. Bob immediately followed her example and handed his tray back, as well. In short order, everyone on the plane followed suit.

"I thought we had done pretty well," Bob said, "until we got off the plane. Then Mother Teresa turned to me and said, "Get the food, Bob."

When Bob asked her what she meant, she said, "The airline can't use it now. Get the food and we will take it to the poor."

Bob found the airline's representative and repeated Mother Teresa's request. In a few minutes, he returned with the news they had agreed to let her have the unused food as well.

"Now get the trucks, Bob," Mother Teresa said.

When he looked puzzled, she explained, "We can't deliver the food without trucks. Ask if we can use their trucks to deliver the food to the poor."

Bob often told this story to illustrate how focused and relentless Mother was in her service to the poor. "We create poverty," she said, "because we will not share."

"The greatest challenge of the day," Dorothy Day wrote, "is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us." Mother Teresa understood that challenge and sought in her quiet way to spark that effort.

There can only be one Mother Teresa, but her truth speaks to us all. God has given each of us the capacity to achieve some end necessary to others. Each of us has the power to increase the sum of the world's happiness.

Every little deed counts. Peace begins with a smile. Salvation can be found in the simple act of extending a hand. The humblest among us can, by shear act of will, help create heaven on earth.