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From Depression to Transformation in India

Sean McPherson’s summer mission to India truly began in October 2011, when he met a seminarian in Rome

I had been struggling with depression off and on for a few years. I shared this with a seminarian who recommended I read Mother Theresa’s writings, especially Come, Be My Light, a compilation of letters she wrote throughout her life. As I began to read it, I instantly fell in love with Mother Theresa. Everything from her personality to style of prayer was appealing to me.

Right around the time I began to have a devotion to Mother Theresa, Jeff Runyan, the director of FOCUS Missions, began to pester me with emails encouraging me to go to Kolkata, India with him to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity.

At the time, Jeff and I did not know each other very well­—other than a few brief conversations we had at the 2011 FOCUS Conference in Denver.

While the invitation sounded appealing, I didn’t respond to Jeff’s messages because it wasn’t a possibility for me to go to India. It’d be very difficult to get any kind of internship if I was out of the country half the summer, and I knew I needed one in order to get a job after graduating from Notre Dame.

Despite this, I still had a deep desire to go, and I prayed to Mother Theresa that if she wanted me to be in India this summer she would have to find a way to get me there.

When I returned to Denver after finishing my semester abroad in Ireland, I ran into Jeff at a Christmas party. I knew he would talk to me about going to India, so I initially gave him a brief greeting and tried to avoid him the rest of the night until it became more difficult to evade him. He casually asked me about India, and with pithy responses, I refused all of his bids to go.

But, after hearing all of Jeff’s stories and funny accents, my hardened heart began to soften.

“What is holding you back, Sean?” he asked.

I told him that I needed an internship, so there was no way I could go to India.

Jeff immediately asked me to be an intern for FOCUS Missions and even invited me to live in community with FOCUS missionaries at his home for the summer. At this point my heart was immutably moved to say “yes.”

This conversation could not have been more providential. Returning to South Bend, Ind. after my study abroad trip was very difficult. I began to lose interest in my major and felt like I had no concrete direction for my life. This, compounded with other problems, led me into serious depression.

Living each day and performing normal tasks became immensely difficult. While going through this dark time, having concrete plans for the summer and the prospect of going to India gave me hope to get through it all.

The Lord kept on providing for me, removing hurdles and enabling me to make the trip. Because my depression was so deep, I was almost unable to go.

Thankfully, one of the missionaries leading the trip was a full-time mental health counselor, so I was given full permission to participate.

God provided everything.

As we gathered our group in Chicago and headed off to India, the depression still pervaded my life and personality. I was not joyful, and I could hardly utter a prayer. I carried this darkness to Kolkata, where we worked with the Missionaries of Charity sisters at Prem Dan (“Gift of Love” in Hindi).

Prem Dan serves around 100 adult patients—some permanent, others temporary—by providing them with basic human needs like food, water, clothes, medicine and a place to sleep.

Each day of work began with laundry; then, before distributing a snack and tea to the residents, we would perform a variety of tasks. Some days I would hand out water cups, other days I would walk around with Sister Therese and help distribute medicine.

My favorite task, besides sitting and singing with the residents, was shaving them. One of the residents even instructed me to shave his eyebrows!

Some of the most memorable parts of the work came during lunch. A few patients had to be spoon fed, and Christ’s command to feed the hungry became a reality.

After the second day of serving the poorest of the poor at Prem Dan, my depression vanished.

Through the work, prayer and fellowship, my heart was completely vulnerable to God, and he cured me of many festering wounds. I realized once again how valuable life is, and how God calls us in all of our miseries to live an abundant and joyful life.

The Gospel reading at Mass when I came home was the story of Jesus healing a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages (Mk 5: 25-34). She’d spent all of her money seeing physicians who had no success in stopping her perpetual bleeding. After touching Jesus, she was healed.

Similarly, I spent months in counseling and tried several medications, but what actually led to my healing was an encounter with Christ—in the form of the poor in Kolkata.

When I began to shave, feed and bathe the poor, I was touching Christ, and he miraculously removed my depression.

My heart was open to prayer and the Truth of the Gospel as it had not been in years. Every day I grew closer to our Lord during a daily hour of prayer, Mass and group reflection.

We finished the trip with a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis Xavier in Goa. There, Jeff challenged me to pray about where I received the most peace on the trip, and how the Lord might be using it.

This last moment was the ultimate climax to the journey God had led me on during the previous nine months, and I’m excited to continue praying about what God has in store for me!

-Sean McPherson