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Happiness found doing as Jesus did

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. Following is his letter for 1998:

Dear Friends,

Rasheeda, a 4-year-old girl, had spurned food for a whole week and was starving. I pleaded with her mother to accompany me to the nutrition center where her daughter would recover. The woman refused because of fear for herself of what men in the unknown city might do.

A young lady named Zulekha requested my help for burns she had received 11 years earlier. Now she wants her deformity corrected. It took me a few weeks and a bit of exertion to arrange with an accommodating surgeon for her treatment. On the appointed day, however, Zulekha did not appear.

I mentioned these incidents in letters to friends. They commented, “How depressing it must be to have your efforts rejected. ... It must be frustrating to be able to do so little for the people.”

It is kind of friends to commiserate with me, but depressed and frustrated I am not. The truth is that I am steadily optimistic, because I sense that I am doing with my life what God wants me to do. The Lord puts me in a position to mightily assist the bodily health, and save the lives, of many. Never mind that a mere fraction of the disabled and sick take advantage of my offer to aid them or that numerous others fail to follow through after all has been readied for them. I strive to be helpful. Some folks accept, others refuse.

I have learned to understand that many of the Muslims I want to help are so suspicious of missioners that they are incapable of using me as I wish to be used, that is, for their own welfare. Foreigners are not automatically trustworthy in a country having a colonial history. Also, it is a widely held belief that “Christians only help Muslims in order to convert them to their religion.”

It heartens me that lots of Muslims do, indeed, welcome my willingness to assist them as a brother. Some of them regain their health and begin to live fuller lives. On the other hand, some persons I have “helped” get worse; some die. Critics and other onlookers observe that I persist in trying to help. For them, even my unsuccessful attempts to save instill the lesson that Christians highly value Muslim lives.

A debate continues about the reason for “the vocation crisis” in the church. One opinion is that few persons are drawn to the priesthood because most priests do not adequately proclaim the joy they feel. So, for the record: I’m happy. As a matter of fact, you may not know anyone happier than I am. This happiness has more to do with inner peacefulness than with frequent smiles.

From time to time I ask myself: Why am I so happy? Is it because Maryknoll and the bishop of Mymensigh enable me to restore and save physical lives as the major focus of my work? Or is it because Muslims and Hindus accept this witness of a life lived among and for them with ever growing openness and approval? Is it because I have the freedom to go on all-day bicycle rides to join Muslims in places where they congregate? Or is it possibly because I so relish being a surprise to many people, including some local Christians?

All of these and many other aspects of life in Bangladesh are indeed enjoyable and pep me up. Nevertheless, the prime reason for happiness in this missioner’s life is that I am doing God’s will. I am aware that God uses me for godly, neighborly purposes: to listen and love, to serve and save and teach.

When, on Oct. 31, 1956, (I was a sophomore in college then, and feeling miserable) I first responded to the Attractive One, I envisioned a rather short period of earthly labor to be followed by an eternity of intense happiness. It only dawned on me a few years ago how wonderfully happy I already am. Is one foot already in Paradise? All I can say for sure is that this way of life is full of purpose and, therefore, vastly rewarding. Gratitude is probably the foremost charisma God gives me. Enduring thankfulness to the Attracting One keeps me in mission.

Bengalis habitually question me: “Why do you stay? Is it because Bangladesh is the most beautiful country in the world?”

I reply: “Your country is indeed lovely. However, the reason I stay is, rather, because of the prolific opportunities to relieve hurt. For a Christian, helping persons in distress is a profoundly religious act. Serving the poor as Jesus did is the way Allah wills for me to spend my life.” They dearly love to hear it.

Occasionally I return to visit the five towns where I formerly dwelt. Each time it strikes me that so many faces are new. How quickly a new generation replaces an old one in Bangladesh. It affects me that some young married women have died since my previous visit. I shall try to get to know the new partners of my old friends. Life goes on. In a milieu of need and struggle, a missioner could die without being upset by the prospect. This feeling is beautiful and not at all morbid. The poor and I are essentially equals. I am part of a people, and there is no chasm between us. All of us belong to God.

A volley of greetings met me recently as I began visiting the neighborhood in Kishorganj town, where I lived 10 years ago. Many held out their hands to be shaken. One man accompanied me on the trail. Just before we separated at a fork in the path he voiced an appraisal both plain and piercing: “When you come back here to see us, it is a return to your family.” Nice that he feels that way. So do I. I reckon mission in Bangladesh is about just that: demonstrating that Muslims, Hindus and Christians are one family already and not merely potentially united in the indefinite future.

“The one who saves a person’s life saves all of humankind.” This gem of Jewish wisdom urges me to constantly make a start. Humankind is one. We are all related; we’re family. Here is a chance to save the family. The love of Christ impels us.

Bob McCahill

Fr. McCahill’s address is PO Box 2399, Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998