National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Voices of Christmas
Issue Date:  December 19, 2003

A letter from Bangladesh

Every Christmas, Maryknoll Fr. Bob McCahill shares with family and friends, including NCR, a reflection on his ministry among the Muslim people of Bangladesh. Many years ago he decided his ministry would be the simple act of being present. He arrives in a village, makes friends and helps the locals when they allow it. But his main objective is simply being there. Many people engage in interfaith dialogue at the level of conversation. McCahill practices it. His 2003 letter follows.

Dear Friends,

Bicycling in an alley of Feni town I encountered a large, black-bearded man, piously dressed and wearing a severe expression. After he stared at me awhile his face suddenly softened. He smiled broadly, gestured expansively and declared, “Thank you!” I did not know the man or why he felt friendly toward me. Maybe he had heard that I have helped numerous Muslim children who are disabled. His frank appreciation for someone outside his own religious, ethnic and cultural communities is basic to building peace. I think of him as a creator of harmony between Muslims and Christians.

Fr. Bob McCahill carries Mojid Ali, a young man suffering from cancer and too weak to walk, at the hospital in Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
-- Jim Daniels

Several seminarians have come to dwell in Feni for a fortnight each, assigned by their superiors to live with me among Muslims, up close. One of the young men, Dominic, is a competent cyclist but unaccustomed to riding long distances. For his sake I almost regretted one day that we rode 20 miles to perform tasks that could have been done in 10. I consoled him with the fact that even when we merely ride, and are apparently only exercising, we actually never waste time while going around. “So then,” he reasons, “if we would ride motorbikes we could go farther and see even more people.” True, I argued, but bicycles are a simpler technology, more suited to showing our oneness with the poor. To the Muslims our exertions give witness to Allah’s mercy, a concept about which they have heard much from their Islamic faith.

Another seminarian, Pradip, was with me when several men stopped us in the bazaar. They had lots of questions for us about lifestyle, such as celibacy, living among the poor and cooking for ourselves. The men could hardly believe what they heard us say about service to the poor being sufficient cause for our happiness in this life. What sort of spirituality is this, they seemed to be thinking, that makes what you do for others the measure of your happiness?

A fire was burning in the earthen stove where rice was being cooked for the 50 rickshaw drivers with whom I share this compound. Thus, I carried waste papers from my room to the cooking shed to feed to the flames. Normally this act of neighborliness is welcomed. Not, however, this time. Noor Islam, a rickshaw driver, spied among the papers I was tossing out a small empty carton having familiar writing on it. “Arabic,” he announced, “the Quran.” (In fact, the script was Urdu, which looks familiar.) “The writing you see is merely about the spices that once filled this carton.” I explained. Nevertheless, I quietly withdrew the carton. My closest Muslim neighbors are mostly illiterate. They have been taught that Arabic is a holy script, not fit to be consigned to the fire, especially by a Christian.

During Ramadan, the month of fasting and special attention to prayer, numerous men of this neighborhood are glad for my presence because they like to have someone on whom to exercise their piety. They enjoy instructing me not to wash my clothes or bathe at the pond beside the mosque because the noise disrupts their prayer -- plenty of time to wash clothing and take a bath before their prayers. Zeal for prayer consumes them.

One evening as I walked slowly along the unlighted road in front of our compound, a rickshaw pulled alongside. The driver, from another compound and unknown to me, sternly informed me of the displeasure he feels whenever he sees me: “Your countrymen are killing Muslims!”

Bangladeshi Muslims, as Muslims of many nations, have a consciousness that they belong to a worldwide community. When one part of the community is grievously hurt, all suffer, like a body. I was not disappointed when the complainer disappeared into the darkness after getting off his chest that which readily inflames his emotions.

At noontime soon after the invasion of Iraq, I was cursed and mocked. I was returning to my own neighborhood after biking afar all morning. Someone shouted “Haramjada!”-- a term of abuse like “scoundrel,” or worse. Shortly afterwards while I bathed in the pond another sneered loudly, “Bob Bush!” At neither of the detractors did I look. They knew I had heard them and that I was not ignoring them, but rather was absorbing their disgust.

Whenever I can, I try to remain silent under abuse. That way the initiative remains with the abusers; any escalation of incivility will have to be theirs. Moreover, I trust in their decency not to overdo the abuse.

In a letter, a friend from America implored me to come home. “If you are harmed now it is surely political, not about faith.” The statement illustrates that my friend does not share the Bengali Muslims’ mentality. For to these Muslims, politics and faith are intertwined. Naturally, they imagine that Americans feel the same way. Bengali Muslims say and think “Americans are Christians.” Thus, what is done to Americans is perceived as done to Christians.

Imam Hossain, a disabled shoe repairman, stood up hastily when he saw me drawing near. “Brother! I have two patients for you. One child has a cleft lip. The other child has a bloated leg. Can you help them?” We arranged for the two children, from distant villages, to meet me on a Thursday. “Brother,” Imam continued, “let me give you tea. You helped my son, now I want to treat you.” I assured Imam that his searching for others to help was all the reward I want. “Now, Imam, you and I are partners striving together for others.” How marvelous it is when persons of vastly different backgrounds unite to relieve others of their burdens.

Bob McCahill, MM
Feni, Bangladesh

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003

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