mary johnson with mother teresa
Courtesy of Mary Johnson


The cardboard box on the rack above my bus seat held what was left of my possessions. In a few hours they would belong to God, and so would I.



I watched the street outside, mesmerized as cars wove through eight lanes of traffic. On a billboard, an electric blonde suddenly morphed into a giant banana flaunting a reed skirt and long, dark eyelashes.



"You been to the city before?" A man in a black T-shirt sitting next to me brushed my arm with his too-broad gesture.



"Yes, I was here in January." It was now summer of the same year: 1977.



"You look like you never seen a city before. Where you from?"



I shifted in the seat. Was it supposed to be this personal between passengers on buses in New York?



"Texas."



"Texas? What's a kid from Texas doing in New York?"



I wasn't a kid. I had just finished a year at the University of Texas at Austin. I didn't see why I should have to explain that the only thing I'd been thinking of for the past year and a half was coming to this city to give myself to God. But not answering would have been rude. "I came to see some sisters."



"Oh, you got family here."



"Not those kind of sisters. Catholic sisters. Nuns."



"You're coming to New York City to see nuns?"



"To become a nun."



The man then whistled as his eyes traveled my body, perhaps looking for some sort of deformity, or maybe, if he was Catholic, a halo. I didn't expect him to understand. Even my family didn't understand.



My sister Kathy had cried most of the night before I left. She'd said, "Mary, you're wasting your life." Mom had tried to insist that I at least finish college. I explained that when God calls, you don't put him on hold.



In January, when I'd sat with Dad waiting for the plane that would take me to New York for the preliminary week the sisters called "come and see," he'd put his hand on my knee without saying anything. When tears began to puddle in his eyes, he left without a word or a glance.



Now the bus jerked to a halt. I reached for the rack, but the man in the black T-shirt lifted the box before I could and placed it in my hands. "Best of luck, kid," he said, then added under his breath, "Pray for me, okay?"



The sisters had sent directions, and I'd memorized them: bus, then the number 5 train, then a five-block walk. God, I prayed, lead me through this scurrying city. Lead me to you. I made my way through a maze of tunnels and stairs. When the train pulled up, I found a seat and cradled my box. A suitcase would have been easier, but the sisters had said they didn't use them, or purses, either. I'm going to live free, I told myself, like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.



A week earlier, my friends had thrown a "penguin party" on the beach—"black-and-white dress required in honor of Mary's new wardrobe." These public school classmates of mine didn't know that the sisters I was about to join, the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, wore white saris trimmed in blue. Still, they debated the odds of my perseverance. My classmates had voted me "most likely to succeed," but I doubted they knew how little I was moved by conventional ideas of success. They didn't know the secret thrill I felt on the streets when, watching couples walk hand in hand, I savored my relationship with the creator of the universe. I knew that, to me, living the gospel of poverty and love with God constituted real success.



When I got off the train at Third Avenue and 149th Street, pulsing Latin music pushed away thoughts of home. I walked past a fruit seller hawking mangoes and papayas. Boys in front of an electronics shop eyed me, and I shifted my box nervously from hand to hand. God, keep me safe, I prayed. I'm working for you now. Finally, I spotted a three-story building behind a high brick wall, barbed wire coiled at the top, a small sign to the left of the gate: Missionaries of Charity. I opened the gate, stood before the door, swallowed, and rang the bell. Suddenly the door swung open, and a short, dark woman with a blue apron over her white sari smiled at me. "Welcome," she said.

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