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A Christmas Letter

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. The following is his letter for 2000.

Dear Friends,

Twenty-seven months ago when I moved to Gaffargaon town I prayed that God would quickly insert me here among the poor. In the beginning I lived with two middle-class families. At Maeen Uddin’s I had a room for one month, and for the next three months I stayed at Farhat’s. Then after four months of searching for a poor family that would welcome me, I finally received an invitation to build a small house in the compound of Subhaan and his wife, Korful, and their extended family.

Before I could accept Subhaan’s offer I had to caution him. I am here to serve the seriously sick and disabled poor, I explained. Allah’s blessing is the only reward I receive for this service. Allah’s blessing -- but no other material benefits -- I will share with you in return for your hospitality. Subhaan agreed with my proposal even though, at that early date in our acquaintance, he may have imagined that I would bring to him more than mere spiritual gain. His family knows, of course, that one day I shall leave Gaffargaon and at that time the house I paid for will become theirs. By that time, however, the bamboo hut for which I paid $58 will probably require $50 worth of repairs. Bamboo rots. The poor have no lasting homes.

Promptly I learned to respect Subhaan’s skill as a professional builder of houses. The way he wove strands of bamboo, using toes and fingers to hold the weave, fascinated me. His self-assured use of the short-handled scythe-like dao to smooth, chop and notch the posts and braces was more than deft. It startled me to observe the dangerous tool in his fast, competent hands. He does all things well.

Subhaan (his name, in Arabic, means “glorifying”) stutters when excited. Thus, I was amazed one day when a young man urgently sought him because of a snakebite he had suffered. Subhaan swung into action using herbs and twine, but most of all, incantations. During 20 minutes Subhaan, the snakebite healer, prayed a blue streak over the frightened fellow, and not once did his voice falter. It was as if he had put on another personality; he spoke with authority.

Early in our relationship, we had a clash about the outhouse. The extended family, that is, people from five houses, all share the same privy. When I arrived I contributed money to hire a man who would empty the pit, and for the repair of its dilapidated walls. Nevertheless, soon afterwards, Subhaan was after me to contribute again for the same purpose. We were at an impasse. Meanwhile, the hopper was overflowing. I insisted that I had done my share, and finally he relented. There had been shouting between us, but we had taken each other’s measure. Because he is a Bengali, he had to test the limits of my openhandedness.

Subhaan works whenever he can get it, even at nighttime. Weaving bamboo by the light of a wick dipped into a wee can of kerosene has weakened his 46-years-old eyes. He asked me to help him. At the eye hospital in Mymensingh, 25 miles away, an eye exam costs 20 takas (40 cents U.S.) and the spectacles we bought cost 140 takas ($2.80). It made me happy to assist Subhaan in a way that will lengthen his work life. Two months later, he asked me to buy him another pair. The original pair had been stolen. I was less happy this time, but eventually relented.

In a village five miles away, a 20-year-old man had fallen out of a tree and “broke his back,” according to the local parlance. I took the youth and his father to the finest center for spinal injuries in all of Bangladesh. Three or four months of rehabilitation would be needed. Five days later the father came to complain to me. The treatment was taking too long; he wanted to bring his son home now. I tried to dissuade him. He retaliated by reporting me to the police. Not finding me at home, the police hauled in Subhaan to interrogate him about his foreign guest. Perhaps, they suggested, this stranger who poses as a missionary is a kidnapper. Subhaan did not feed their suspicions.

Subhaan and I worked together again after the termites destroyed the original walls of my hut. I had not counted on the presence of these critters because I had not encountered them previously, while building bamboo huts in four other towns. However, I had never lived in a place as muddy as Gaffargaon. So, we marched side by side to the bamboo market and bought several hard, heavy, 20-foot lengths of the world’s most useful grass. Subhaan, who is 5 foot 3 and weighs 100 pounds, led as we walked back home, half a kilometer away. The fat end of the bamboo rested squarely on his head. I followed, 12 feet behind, shouldering a light load. Even as he bore the awkward burden, his bearing, as usual, was dignified.

Whenever Subhaan is out of work and worried about how he will feed Shah Alom and Fulsum, their youngest son and daughter, he walks to the town’s bazaar to look at the things he wishes he could buy. On rare occasions when he has an extra taka in the pocket of his blue shirt, he stops to savor a cup of tea and to observe foot traffic in the bazaar. There is not a better show in town even though there are three cinema halls. He loves to hold Milon, his granddaughter, and ask her “Where is your grandpa?” All his pleasures are simple.

Subhaan can neither read nor write but already he has accomplished in life some of the essential deeds by which a Muslim Bengali is judged by his peers. Three years ago, he “gave away” their eldest daughter, Rokeya, by providing her with a dowry. The young man he found for her is a decent provider. Recently he arranged for the circumcision of Shah Alom, age 12. That ceremony is best performed when the boy is 8, but not all fathers can afford a festive meal at the best time. Bengali Muslims say it is through the ceremony of circumcision that mere boys become Muslim boys, and it is the father’s obligation to assure that it happens. By fulfilling that obligation, Subhaan favored their son with the choicest gifts: Islamic faith and solidarity with Muslims everywhere.

Not long ago a great African statesman died. His death sparked an outpouring of favorable comments from his missioner friends. That occurrence caused me to reflect that every single life is remarkable. Missioners are privileged to live among, serve and be edified by the poor. We should have an aptitude for seeing and noting dignity and greatness in the lives of the deprived.

Subhaan and Korful, the poor, unschooled Muslim couple who accepted me into their compound nearly two years ago, gave me the opening that I needed in order to share, to a limited extent, in their lives. I apply to them the words from John’s Gospel: “He who accepts anyone I send accepts me, and in accepting me accepts him who sent me.” By receiving me into their lives, it seems clear from this passage, my closest neighbors, who remain proudly Muslims, accept Jesus and the One who sent him. Wouldn’t you say so, too?

Bob McCahill

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

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000