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Serving in a new, intriguing place

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 2001.

Dear Friends,

Three months ago I informed Bishop Francis Gomes that I would soon leave Mymensingh diocese to witness elsewhere. “The door is always open for you,” Bishop Francis graciously responded, assuring me that I could return at any time to the area in which I had already completed 25 years while living in six districts. A few days later -- thanks to Habib, a man inspired by Allah to find shelter for me -- I inserted myself into another district town, 165 miles to the southeast. Feni town of Feni district is part of Chittagong diocese, to which Bishop Patrick D’Rozario now welcomes me to serve the sick and live among the poor.

Immediately I began to inquire about and make contact with cleft lip children, notifying their families about the free treatment available. I chose to start in the new district by aiding persons with this disfigurement because the results are plain to see and quick. Thus will the people of Feni swiftly understand my intention to be useful to the poor, freely and as a brother.

During these first weeks I am living in a rented room provided by a middle class family, for this is the normal way for me to begin in a totally unfamiliar town. For the time being, therefore, I dwell in a room with a cement floor and an indoor toilet, conveniences that I hope to be delivered from as soon as a poor family will invite me to build a bamboo hut next to theirs.

With me in the room are a bedroll and a mosquito net, a bucket for drinking water, a kerosene stove with a cooking pot, a tin box that shields books and papers from rodents and cockroaches and one toad and a bicycle. By bus I had hauled the bicycle to Feni. Nothing else that I might bring to this place could be more advantageous for the poor. It is a most valuable tool for an apostolate on the highways and byways in search of the infirm and disabled. Whenever people in the countryside or the town ask for the address of my office, I simply point to the two-wheeler and deadpan: “This is my office.”

A missioner expects every new place of abode to be different from its predecessors. Feni is as exceptional as any other town where I have lived. Events and persons can still startle me. During more than a quarter-century, my motives for extending a hand to the poor who are Muslims were initially suspected by most of those whom I came to serve. I would, for example, be in a village inquiring about Abdul Mannan, in order to assist his disabled child. Upon reaching the village, I would inquire: “Where does Mannan live?” People’s customary responses were: “Why do you want to know?” and “What is your connection to him?” Villagers protected one another from mistrusted outsiders. They wanted to be satisfied I wasn’t a collector from the bank. Here in Feni, however, men generally dish out at once the directions I need. They might inquire afterwards about my purpose with Mannan, but they do not make my explanation a condition. In Feni there appears to be a tendency to credit a foreigner with benign intentions. It’s refreshing.

When I returned to my room from the bazaar recently, I noticed a smiling, comely 12-year-old lass directly behind me. She had, it seems, followed me from the alley all the way to my door. “I just want to meet you,” she explained. “My name is Navila.” Saying that, she held out her hand for me to shake. My eyebrows arched. Female-initiated handshakes probably mean that television programs are not only watched, they are studied and imitated.

Shaon, a bright, healthy student of class four, offered me a lighted mosquito coil during my first afternoon in the rented room. “Thank you,” I said. “You are welcome,” he replied, thereby bowling me over. I do not recall the last time I heard those three little words in Bangladesh. In the places I have lived, “thanks” and “you’re welcome” are rarely heard. Rather, a recipient’s debt of gratitude simply perdures and is unremarked. Hence, when I described Shaon’s courtesy to a fellow missioner, he dubbed Feni “cosmopolitan.”

In the vegetable bazaar I selected some potatoes for the attendant to weigh. Indignantly he tossed the spuds back into his basket and gestured for me to take a hike. Mystified by his huffiness, I calmly insisted to know what I did wrong. He instructed me irately: “In this town the storekeeper chooses the vegetables; the customer takes what he gets.” That staggered me. I related to him the custom of the Mymensingh area where for 25 years I observed customers picking out their own potatoes. Unexpectedly, he mellowed and, picking up the two large spuds I had originally chosen, he weighed them and dropped them into my shopping bag. He seemed pleased that I had taken the time to inform him, and to be informed by him. Patience paid off. Occasionally, I restrain my annoyance and thereby surprise myself.

Shajahan, a 20-year-old student of Arabic and Islamics, is an intelligent fellow preparing for a lifetime of religious leadership in the Islamic community. The other day he came looking for me in my room while I was away. He left a note, which I received hours later but which I was unable to decipher. A neighbor made out the atrociously misspelled words for me. “How is it possible,” I marveled out loud, “that a person so highly educated is so feeble in the Begali language?” My neighbor gave a sidelong glance and explained with scorn: “Our religious professionals customarily do not study our language and literature.” How then, I asked myself, can they lead Bengalis, a people enormously proud of their mother tongue?”

During my first week in Feni, I was enlightened by several keen observers of the local scene. Kashem related that “Here, there are no religious fanatics.” He went on, however, to negate that advantage with a statistic. “In the past five years politically motivated violence has claimed the lives of 54 members of one party and 34 members of their rival party.” In other words, here fanaticism is political. Moreover, since having that conversation, the number of slain have grown by 15. Feni, I observe, is referred to in the national press as “the country’s most troubled district.”

Azad coolly summarized his feelings about the place. “Feni is an agitated place. So, Brother Bob, I suggest you move to my district (250 miles northwest of here) where you will have unlimited scope for serving the poor.” It is thoughtful of the man to invite me. He appreciates my purpose. But first let me try to contribute something to this intriguing place.


Bob McCahill
Feni, Bangladesh

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001