e-mail us

Christmas 2002

In year of discord: ‘how good it is to be here’

Every Christmas, we at NCR, as well as many others, receive a letter from Maryknoll Fr. Bob McCahill, who many years ago decided his life’s ministry would be the simple act of being present to the people of Bangladesh. He arrives in a village, makes friends, helps the locals when they allow it, but his main objective is simply being there. This is his letter for 2002:

Dear Friends,

All my neighbors are Muslims. The compound where I live with 40 rickshaw drivers and two families consists of two long tin sheds, a hand-operated water pump and one toilet.

News of the catastrophe on Sept. 11, 2001, reached us within hours. For several weeks most Bangladeshis could think only sympathetically of the victims. However, when the victimized nation began to retaliate, the perception of my acquaintances was that now the Afghan poor persons, who had already suffered too much, had become the newest targets of vengeance. My neighbors saw, and see, no justification for killing anyone besides the evildoers.

On a Friday after bombs began to fall on Afghanistan, I went to the pond to bathe. Nearby an officer of the mosque, with microphone in hand, was calling the faithful to community prayer. He was also giving them the lowdown on Americans, exhorting Muslims to remember: “America is a Christian country. They have refused to accept Islam and, therefore, they kill Muslims.” I asked myself: Should I go over there, cite facts and use logic to explain another side of the story? Prudence answered me: No crowd coming out of the mosque after prayer is hoping to hear your views. Finish your bath and go home.

Bangladeshis like to use amplifiers, stationary or mounted on rickshaws, to popularize their causes. On the main street of the town it puzzles no one to behold an excited critic excoriate “the killers of innocent Muslims” while not far away a hawker offers printed forms for sale which, when filled out and posted to Washington, may make the applicants eligible “to live in the United States of America.”

On a visit to Barisal town I met with Kamrul, a successful teacher and tutorial school owner whom I had befriended 25 years ago. Kamrul has always been most cordial toward me. Yet as we shared rice and curry in his home he could not repress the urge to rebuke what he perceives as American arrogance. “Why is it that the U.S. government will not show us the alleged proof of bin Laden’s guilt?”

Educated Muslims condemn the Sept. 11 attacks. Intellectually they deplore the killing of blameless persons. But on the gut level, it seems to me, many of them admire the man and the organization that finally captured American attention. Their Islamic community throughout the world harbors grievances. America’s resolute siding with Israel against Palestine and sanctions against Iraq, which they view as depriving children of food and medicine, are two of them. Thus, they do not bemoan actions that humiliate America. Humiliating the superpowers is what they like about Sept. 11, and not the stark bloodiness of that day -- as if one could ignore the gore while relishing the dashed invulnerability of the world’s mightiest nation.

Two doctor friends, who have been helpful to me and the sick poor whom I serve, gave me counsel. Tarek was pessimistic about both the world and local situations since Sept. 11 and wanted me to be extra careful. Hanif had knowledge of Bangladeshi students of religion who had received training in Afghanistan, and he advised me frankly: “Take a three-months leave in the U.S.A. until things cool off here.” They know how easy it would be for someone to erase a lone foreigner and how little would be done about it afterwards.

Days before receiving their advice, I was bicycling through villages west of Feni town, I was was taunted and sneered at. At a village doctor’s office I was received more coolly that on a previous affable visit. “Americans are killing ordinary people, people without fault,” he sternly reminded me. In another village, one in which I had never been, a youth led me through a crowd that had gathered to inspect me. “Where is he from?” someone asked knowingly. My guide lied without hesitation: “He is Japanese,” to protect me.

Occasionally I meet someone who is so intrigued by my purpose to live as Jesus did that he accompanies me in order to explain to his fellow Muslims, thereby helping them to understand and trust me. It happened again a few months ago in Elahiganjo village. A welder named Bahar joined me on his bicycle to search for persons in need of surgical attention. In every home or bazaar Bahar broke the ice for me. After explaining to them that I live with poor people and stay in Bangladesh to be useful to persons in need, he answered people’s queries about me, sometimes accurately. The essential points, however, he never missed: service and simplicity.

Someone wrote from America to tell me he thinks I am “soft on Islam.” What is it, I ask myself, that inspires benevolent thoughts in a Christian missioner toward the Muslims of Bangladesh? The manifest goodness of so many persons fuels my respect for them. For the most part they are tolerant, hospitable and attuned to the Compassionate One. Even if I had never read a book about Islam, I would have noticed these characteristics in Bengali Muslims. In fact, in my view, reading others’ descriptions of Islam is not the preferred way to learn about Muslims. Why not simply meet Muslims? The reason I respect Islam and admire many Muslims is because I have gotten to know them during more than a quarter of a century and they are good.

Another letter from America reached me early this year seeking understanding of Muslims. “In your experience are Muslims eager to cooperate with other religious groups or do you get the feeling they want to eliminate all but Islamic believers?” I replied: Neither of the above. The Muslims I know are not eager to engage in interreligious dialogue or to cooperate with non-Muslim believers. Muslims think their religion is totally adequate. They also suspect that Christians may try to use togetherness with Muslims as the first step in a process of converting Muslims. So, they think: Why expose ourselves? We don’t need phony togetherness. On the other hand, I do not get the impression that many Muslims want to eliminate Christians. The sort of person who belittles and blasts Christians, using microphone and amplifier to stir hatred in the hearts of fellow Muslims, might wish for the elimination of Christians. But their number is small. (And does anyone doubt there are Christians who wish Islam were eliminated?) The prophet of Islam instructed Muslims to look after the safety of believers in other faiths wherever Muslims are in the majority. In the spirit of that teaching, Bangladeshi Muslims permit Christian missioners to live in their midst and witness to Jesus in deeds and words. I consider that it has never been truer than now to say: “How good it is for us to be here.”



Fr. McCahill’s address is P.O. Box 2399, Dhaka – 1000, Bangladesh.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002