e-mail us


Follower of Jesus, servant of Allah

Every year, Maryknoll Fr. Bob McCahill writes a letter to his friends from his adopted home in Bangladesh. NCR, in keeping with tradition, publishes his 1996 letter below.


Bangladeshi Muslims hardly know what to think of me during my first year in a new town. They see me going around on a bicycle and have heard that I go long distances on it. Rumor has it that I am willing to help seriously afflicted persons and that I live in a hut. They know I am a foreigner by my complexion. It does not add up. For them, foreigners are those who have autos to drive and who are, in fact, usually driven here and there by their hired local drivers. Besides, foreigners live among themselves, generally in houses surrounded by walls. Thus, a missioner living among Muslims, for service to their disabled ones, arouses suspicion.

What does it mean to say they are suspicious of me? Recently we passed the first year anniversary of my coming to Sherpur town. Here is a brief review of the peoples' expressed perceptions of this newly arrived outsider. Five names have been given to me, more than others.

"He is a reporter." This is not said in admiration. Many Bangladeshis imagine that the country's international reputation is at least partly owed to foreign reporters who critically observe and tattle to the world about the nation's insufficiencies. It does not make them happy to be presented to the world as poor. Unfortunately, I have the unusual but necessary custom of carrying a ballpoint pen and scrap paper in my pocket at all times -- mainly because my memory has leaks in it and I must stop to jot down thoughts that occur to me whenever they strike, whether on the road or in the bazaar.

This penchant to jot does not alleviate suspicion. Just the opposite. "What is he writing?" they want to know as they hasten to my side in the bazaar or surround my bike on the trail.

"He is a spy." This is a variation of the above mentioned perception. Those who voice it are educated men who want everyone to know that they are aware of the spying profession and too sophisticated to be tricked by a foreign agent. This misidentification reaches my ears through third parties, for example: "They say you are a spy".

"He is a police." It is mostly children who declare this perception. For instance, they are playing on the village path or in the fields alongside when I travel through. Their young eyes balloon, jaws sag. Surrendering to the impulse to identify the passerby, one daringly blurts "Police!"

These good people have a strong sense of control over village paths and public roads. A bicyclist journeying along "their" path, far from his own home, customarily rides slowly, that is, humbly. I, like a policeman, probably give them the impression of a person in authority, that is, unafraid. When they label me police it is no compliment, for police are feared. (The military, on the other hand, is trusted and respected. Bright young men eagerly join it. I am not compared with the soldiers.)

Incidentally, it would tickle me if someone would say, in recognition of frequent and strenuous bicycle trips, "He is an athlete." But I have not heard that during these 21 years in Bangladesh. What I have heard from the bus drivers and conductors with whom I often cross paths is considerably less flattering: "He is a machine." That is what expending lots of energy gets for me during year one in Sherpur.

"He is a doctor." Anyone in this country who works for the cure of the sick is regarded as a doctor. No medical degree is required to win this designation; involvement with the afflicted is everything. Doctors are respected. In fact, in the minds of villagers, it may be the most respected profession, on a par with teaching and much ahead of business. Still, people are unaccustomed to doctors who make house calls afar and baffled by one who will pedal for hours to seek out a sufferer. Besides, they wonder what sort of doctor it is who is unashamed to arrive wearing sweat-soaked clothes. Hence, when they call me doctor, suspicion remains.

"He is a missionary." There are some who, from the very beginning, suspect it. In their view, a missionary is even more harmful than a reporter or spy and more threatening than a policeman. Their concept of a missionary is so negative that they need re-education. They think it means a preacher whose sole purpose is to convert them to another religion.

That is why I explicitly and unfailingly introduce myself as a missionary and then, always, explain its meaning in terms they had not associated with mission: follower, servant, helper, lover, brother.

A conspicuous feature of Bengalis -- a characteristic that makes the missioner's life easier, it seems to me -- is their unabashed curiosity. They inquire quite directly; they want to know what I have to say about myself. Thus, they often call for me to stop. "What are doing here?" they ask without hesitation.

I reply that I am a Christian missionary, a follower of Jesus, a servant of Allah. Allah's servant has concern for the sick or disabled who have no one else. The Compassionate One loves us all. Allah loves me and I love Allah. My involvement with those who suffer is an act of love for Allah. I am your brother. We can all be brothers and sisters if we want it.

Others there are who cannot overlook a defect in my physical appearance. Again, it is mostly children who stare intently upon my missing tooth (a lateral incisor), point to it, and call my disfigurement to the attention of their cohort. Occasionally they taunt "the guy with the missing tooth." They do not know that I own a false tooth attached to a partial denture, or that when I insert the denture I can scarcely pronounce their Bengali language. Thus, since 1975 I have refrained from using that mouthpiece. Like many missioners I know, I'd rather look funny than sound funny.

A salutary saying urges Christians: We must not only be good but, also, be perceived as good. After spending one year in Sherpur I am not yet generally perceived to be good. However, suspicions are melting. Perhaps in a while more persons will perceive me to be a missionary in the sense best suited for Christians living among Bangladeshi Muslims during the final years of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, although they do not so perceive me, I am indeed their brother. As Jesus, my model in life, was mistaken for a glutton and drunkard, I should not let people's initial misperceptions derail me.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 1996