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Poverty, Squalor and Nuns


As both a non-Catholic and atheist, I have all the creds I need when it comes to doing a number on the granddaddy of organized religions.  As a non-Catholic, I can mock their rituals, I can deplore their history, I can wail in indignation at their sexual molestation scandals, and I can snicker at the Pope’s hat.

And as an atheist I could fly to the moon on the gas created by Catholicism’s medieval hocus-pocus.  People may smirk all they like at Scientology (a religion invented by a pulp fiction writer), but I think the case can be made that if the Pope and L. Ron Hubbard had a pissing contest over which theology was more outlandish, the Pope would win.

But as a former Peace Corps volunteer in Northern India, who saw firsthand the humanitarian contributions made by the Catholic Church, I shall neither mock nor criticize them.  Indeed, the extent to which Catholic nuns were helping needy Indians was awe-inspiring.

Back then, the big, institutional relief agencies in India—the ones whose motorized vehicles constituted practically the only traffic on India’s rural, one-lane highways—were CARE, UNICEF, the Red Cross, OxFam, and the CRS (Catholic Relief Services).  The Peace Corps had a few, scattered outposts in the region, but their missions were more “project-oriented” (e.g. rural manpower, water wells, poultry, etc.) than “relief-oriented.”

Prior to India I had no experience with any of this stuff.  I was 22 years old.  Although I had heard of CARE, UNICEF, OxFam, et al, I had no idea how they operated.  It took me a while to figure out that, despite being dedicated to their jobs, the thing these guys cared most about was career advancement.

And the more I hung out with them, the more obvious this became.  Mind you, I’m not knocking them.  In their position, I would’ve behaved the same way.  These were educated, youngish Americans and Brits.  They were compassionate.  They were honest, diligent workers.  Most of them were working in fairly hostile environments.  And to their credit, they had chosen a career in charity rather than in high finance.

But they were fanatics when it came to promotions.  When you met them socially, say in a hotel bar in New Delhi, all they did was gossip about who was being transferred, who had left, who had moved up, who was hot, who was cold, and which job openings were considered the plums.  It’s doubtful these same topics were being discussed by Indian nuns.

Two impressive things about the nuns.  First, their mission was located in one of the most remote hell-holes you could imagine.  How they even found this spot was a mystery.  The way I found it was completely by chance.  One morning, with an urge to explore, I drove my Suzuki motor-bike deep into the rural scrub brush, miles from the nearest paved road.  What I found was poverty and squalor.  And nuns.

Second, these women were the happiest, most self-fulfilled people I had ever met.  They were doing God’s work—caring for children, feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick.  Speaking perfect English (they spoke Hindi as well), they told me that they’d been at the mission for many years, but couldn’t recall exactly how many.  And how long do you expect to stay here? I asked (Why on earth would I ask that??).  Until we are called back, they answered serenely.

Oddly, when I returned home, the only people who appreciated my nun stories were other Catholics.  While the Protestants grudgingly credited the nuns with helping the poor, they were quick to point out that these ladies were on a recruiting mission—sent to India to convert Hindus into Catholics.  So before we start handing out accolades, they said, we need to remember that these sharp-eyed nuns had a hidden agenda.

I can still recall how proud this display of inter-denominational bullshit and pettiness made me feel about being a Godless atheist.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at




David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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