On the eve of the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata, many residents of Los Angeles are remembering how the Albanian nun’s special love for people helped transform lives that had once been hopelessly entrenched in drugs, alcohol and homelessness.
While living on the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Ismael Contreras was addicted to alcohol and drugs as a way of coping with a violent family life. His father was an alcoholic, who would scream at his children and physically abuse his wife. “He never showed us love. He never said he loved us.”
His father elicited so much fear that Contreras remembers starting to shake whenever his father came home from work in the evenings. “When I saw my father, my heart would always jump. And when my father would come home, I would run to the street.”
Contreras was raised in Mexico, but at the age of 14 he decided to escape his unhappy family life by running away to the United States. “I remember it very clearly,” he says. After one week on a cargo train with no food or running water, he and his friend arrived in the U.S.
By his early 20s, Contreras was living on Skid Row, addicted to drugs with no solution on the horizon. “I lived two years on the street. I lived under the bridge, under the freeway in Koreatown.”
Now 50, Contreras says, “It’s so difficult to try to get out of that kind of place. All my friends were using [drugs]. If you don’t have someone to help you, it’s very, very difficult.”
Brother Joseph McLachlan of the Missionaries of Charity met Contreras about this time. Contreras’ friend tried to convince him to go to the brothers’ homeless shelter, but after years of abuse and neglect, Contreras had stopped trusting anyone.
One day, he was so hungry and so sick from the drugs that he agreed to visit the shelter. Brother Joseph was standing out front and welcomed him into the house where many other homeless men were gathered on couches or at tables eating a meal and drinking coffee. The men were able to take a proper shower and watch television. There was medicine for people who were sick.
Slowly, very slowly, Contreras says, he started to trust the brother. He remembers one day especially. It was his birthday and Brother Joseph and about 10 other men came to him with a birthday cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. “It’s emotional for me to remember that moment,” he says, fighting back tears. It was the first time he had been shown that kind of love.
“When Brother Joseph did that for me, I started to believe in him,” he says. “He was always telling me, ‘God has something different in my life for me.’ And I told him, ‘I didn’t believe that.’ I never got anything from anybody.”
Brother Joseph would say, “No, Ismael, God loves you. And you have many people who love you, too.” But it took many repeated acts of kindness for him to believe. “I would say, ‘No, that’s not true.’”
Finally, Contreras agreed to seek treatment for his drug addiction. He started working for the Missionaries of Charity and living with them for about 15 years, eventually becoming the home’s manager. He is now married with three sons. One of his sons just graduated from college, another son joined the Marines and the youngest is 13 and in school.
Many years ago, Brother Joseph had another gift for him. Mother Teresa was visiting and she wanted to meet him. “I said, ‘No, you are kidding,’” he recalls.
Mother Teresa met with Brother Joseph, Contreras and about 10 other men who had been homeless. “She told us, ‘You are precious to God, and God is very generous.’” He adds, “It was a very beautiful moment. She was a very lovely person.”
At the end of the meeting, Mother Teresa asked to give Contreras a hug. “When she was giving me a hug, she told me, ‘This hug is not from me; it comes from your mother.’” Contreras missed his mother who lives in Mexico. “When she told me that I almost cried because for many years I hadn’t seen my mother for a long time.”
Mother Teresa also stressed the power of prayer. “She always said, ‘Pray. Pray — this is the solution.’”
He says, “I never forgot that. I always tell my kids to pray and to try to believe.”
Contreras also has a message to share about the homeless. “When I see the homeless, I always think, ‘These people aren’t bad,’” he says. “This guy or this lady is not a bad person. Something bad happened to them.”
People judge the homeless for their drug use instead of understanding the trauma that causes them to resort to drugs, he says.
Contreras remembers distributing sandwiches with the Missionaries of Charity and his kids. One lady asked for a sandwich and then said, “Can I have a hug?” He hugged her, and she started crying while thanking him for caring. She told him that she had once been a lawyer in Minnesota, but someone had killed her 3-year-old son, which had led her into a depression and eventually to drug abuse.
There are many homeless people who were once professionals, Contreras says. “They were lawyers or a judge, and [now] they live in the streets.”
Contreras says that he knows that drugs aren’t a solution. “Right now I know that I took the wrong way,” he says referring to his history with drugs. He understands how desperate people can feel, but he adds, “Drugs destroy you.”
Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” The Albanian nun, whose love and good works are still felt by Contreras and countless others years after her death, will be especially remembered during her canonization on Sept. 4 in Rome.
Contreras was overjoyed when he learned that Mother Teresa was going to be a saint. “I can’t believe I know someone who will be a saint. I met her. I talked to her and I received a hug from her. That made me very happy. Sometimes I can’t believe it.”