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A letter from Bangladesh

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 and helps the locals when they allow it, but his main objective is simply being there. Following is his letter for 1999:

Dear Friends,

Missioners frequently claim that they receive more from the people they have come to serve than they give to them. That claim, it seems to me, is not exaggerated.

After living four months in a new town, Gaffargaon, I was finally invited by a poor family to build a dwelling on the northern side of their tiny property. When Subhan and I had finished constructing a bamboo hut, his wife invited Jolil Munshi to read the Quran inside my new abode and to invoke an Islamic blessing upon it. People living nearby all allowed that I, the first Christian they had ever met, would also read from the Bible and offer a Christian blessing. Thus, the hut is doubly blessed by the Best Protector. In addition, I feel fortunate to have neighbors who, though illiterate and impoverished, are generally open-minded, restrain their anti-Christian prejudices and accept me as a man.

On the railroad station platform I met a turbaned man, baggily clothed in wrinkled white cottons and wearing rings on every finger. His cloth shoulder bag had patched-on patches. Mannan conversed enthusiastically about the myriad tombs of Muslim saints to which he goes on pilgrimage. This pilgrim’s heart is with Allah and the saints. While the people of this town can hardly satisfy their curiosity about my purpose among them, I consider Mannan’s lifestyle equally as fascinating. One day I learned why Mannan had never invited me to his home. I saw my friend curled up and asleep on the grass. Mannan has no home and no special place to lay his head.

A blind 25-year-old man, his wife, their infant daughter and I made the chilly 6:30 a.m. rail journey into the city. Kashem, the unseeing one, received no encouragement from the doctors for the recovery of his sight. As we left the hospital together, Kashem made a single request of me: “Please give me a sweater to relieve my shivering.” Gladly I gave it. Not many persons in this world would settle for a garment to assuage their loss of vision.

When the train reached the station, my friends were nowhere in sight. Standing nearby, a complete stranger grasped that I was holding tickets for the soon-to-be-departed train and that I could still recover my expenses by selling them quickly to people crowded around the ticket window. He did not want to see me lose 60 takas ($1.20) in unused tickets. I am grateful for people who give unsolicited good advice.

The deep tube well from which my neighbors and I must draw water is quite inconvenient. This source of water can only be reached by moving cautiously along 60 yards of narrow, uneven, slippery ridge that would try a goat’s skill. Farida, mother of Shanu, has been bringing a potful of the precious fluid each day to my door. Allah bless her. When she arrived one day, lugging the water pot on her hip, she was wet and muddy. “I slipped!” she admitted with laughter. I deduce that Farida is my better. In similar circumstances I would not even grin.

Without notifying my friends, I appeared in Tangail for a twice-yearly visit. After borrowing Mukut’s bicycle I rode to Halim and Nilima’s house to see about a place to stay overnight. But they were away, so I proceeded to the quarters of Mofiz. How impressive was his family’s reception.

After treating me exuberantly to the evening meal they had prepared for themselves, Mofiz’s four daughters fed their brother, and only after that did they eat, sharing what the men had left. These folks are happier to offer hospitality than to fill their own stomachs. They amaze and humble me.

When I went to view the corpse of Farook, I said a few words to his grieving father. But when I came to Shereen, his 23-year-old widow, I was at a loss for words. Finally, I mumbled a dumb question: “How are you?”

She replied, using the acceptable formula, “By the grace of Allah I am well.” I wish I had not stumbled into asking that inept question, for the bereaved woman surely did not feel well. But she did know how to return a genteel answer even when the inquirer put a witless question.

Sharifa, a 12-year-old girl who was scalped when her long, braided hair got caught in a rice milling motor, came looking for me while I was away. She told the neighbors she had no place to stay on the night before accompanying me to the hospital. Thus, they invited her to stay with them. Lovely initiative. I much admire that sort of sharing: a safe shelter with a mat and a pillow offered by the poor to the poor.

Renu, a slight, dark, pretty 16-year-old girl had cirrhosis of the liver. She was pleased whenever I would visit and gently slap my baseball cap on her head. One day I found her in pain, lying outdoors with an old umbrella shading her rapidly aging face.

“I’ve never had a sharee of my own,” the dying lass declared.

“Would you rather have more medicine or a sharee?” I asked.

“A sharee!” she shot back. “A pink sharee,” she added with a smile. After I had been to 10 sharee shops, I found an entirely pink one. Renu got up from her mat and let women drape her with her first sharee. I took some photos; she posed good-naturedly. Renu accepted that she would die within a fortnight. Frailty is no bar to bravery.

On several occasions I had instructed Ali to pick up medicines that I had purchased for his daughter, Renu. Ali failed every time. Thus, when we chanced to meet on the street I scolded him straightaway.

Finally, when he could get a word in edgewise, Ali told me with tears: “Renu died three days ago.” As I was kicking myself for rashly complaining, Ali graciously insisted that I go to their hut on the morrow to eat a meal. Ali forgave and forgot my rashness.

The rickshaw puller I hired to convey me to the rail station was in distress. His swollen, ulcerated right foot had been run over, he told me. The man needed hospitalization and, I suspected, a skin graft. Meanwhile, he pumped that cycle with all his strength and hoped that the foot would get better spontaneously. Surely the poor depend on God more than I do.

Anoara, mother of three, told me something nice. “I dreamed last night about Bidya and Amiyo.” Those two major seminarians had each spent several weeks living with me and befriending Muslims earlier this year. I must remember to tell the young Christian men that they are so highly esteemed. Muslims are also our family, and future priests should feel that kinship.

Every day I experience encounters with goodness such as the above. The Author of all Goodness works through Muslims and awakens in me awareness of their virtues. The church instructs me not only to acknowledge the spiritual and moral goodness of Muslims, but also to preserve and promote it.

Sincere affirmation of the beauty in Muslims’ lives gives witness to the Truth, that is, to Jesus, the One who came among us not to condemn but to save.

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

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999