Christmas -- Letter from Bangladesh
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Issue Date:  December 24, 2004

Finding a place among the people

Every Christmas, Maryknoll Fr. Bob McCahill shares with family and friends, including those at NCR, a letter reflecting on his ministry of being present to the Muslim 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 2004.

Dear friends,

“You are going to the poorest district in all Bangladesh,” an attendant at the Dhaka bus terminal told me. Although I suspected he was exaggerating, it was reassuring to hear his appraisal of Gaibandha, the district town situated in northwest Bangladesh to which I moved that day.

Four years previously Bishop Moses had invited me to join this diocese. Several months later, while I was still on mission in the nation’s southeastern diocese, a discerning friend named Azad attracted me to the northwest, saying: “You will have greater scope there for service to the poor.” How fortunate for me that when I arrived on Azad’s doorstep, three years after he had enticed me to relocate, he spontaneously offered me shelter. Until the current monsoon season ends and floodwaters recede, I shall be unable to build an abode of my own. Meanwhile, Azad unselfishly shares his house with me.

Immediately upon arriving in Gaibandha, I began going around by bicycle through countless villages, explaining my identity and purpose to many who asked. “I am a Christian missionary. The well-being of your disabled ones is my purpose for coming to you.” Initially my outreach is toward persons with cleft lips. Thus, every Friday night, accompanied by two cleft-lipped children and their parents, we travel to Dhaka where Dr. Khundkar, a splendid plastic surgeon, competently repairs them for no fee. In Gaibandha, a place having neither Christians nor other missionaries, the effort to assist persons having cleft lips is an excellent and quick means to help the community understand that the missioner has come in order to make happier the lives of persons who are neglected.

In the villages I meet and speak with numerous men and boys, frequently as they sit or stand around dingy bamboo tea stalls. Paid professional performers sometimes deliver their lines before smaller crowds. It is so easy to find a listening audience in Bangladesh. All that are needed are a willingness to submit oneself to scrutiny and a grasp of the Bengali language. With those assets a person will normally be received, respected and responded to. The inquisitive nature of the Bengali people fosters dialogue; dialogue, in turn, promotes harmony.

After two months in Gaibandha I had not yet been able to discover a dry plot of land on which to construct a wee house. Thus I was still not cooking my own meals. I took breakfast and supper in restaurants. At the conclusion of supper one day a lone businessman sitting across the aisle taunted me several times: “Al-Qaeda!” He did not say he thought that entity to be good or bad. He merely wished to see my reaction. All he could muster was a raised eyebrow. Seeing my taciturnity, another well-dressed fellow interrupted my meal, smiling grandly and warning: “The Taliban is looking for you.” Well, until the day I can erect a hut and start to do my own cooking there, lots of folks know I sup daily around 4 p.m. at the Food Village restaurant, and that even Talibanis (if such exist in Gaibandha) are also welcome there.

In the bazaar of village Horina it pleased me to experience the broad-mindedness of Ruhul Amin, owner of a small store. I had hardly finished explaining myself to a cluster of men beside his store. Never having seen a Christian missionary before, most of the men were hindered from fathoming what I told them. Perhaps my appearance threw them off; surely my proclamation did, that is: “The purpose of life is to love, and authentic Islam and Christianity must make us generous towards one another.” Ruhul interpreted “missionary” for the group in terms of dedication to Allah and zeal for people’s welfare. He truly understands the missioner’s respect for Islam and for Muslims. He is, therefore, confident that no effort will be made to convert the poor, that is, the easily coerced ones, to another religion.

Close to the village Datia I was bicycling along a murky, flooded pathway. As I advanced, the front wheel struck an obstacle, which pitched me off balance. By jumping off quickly I landed on my feet, but the splash was enormous, covering me with muddy water. The surprising part for me was in experiencing the people’s reaction. Normally in Bangladesh such mishaps elicit a torrent of jollity from spectators. But the response of the villagers was muted, not merry. Is Gaibandha a more genteel place than I have grown accustomed to? Or is it my age that moves people to make less fun of me than they otherwise might? I have friends who will blame me for not recognizing the obvious: As I get older, people have added regard.

On the way to village Simul Tari, I recognized the road as one I had traveled one month earlier. I wished only to learn from the pedestrians I met how far I had yet to travel in order to reach my destination. Several replied, offering me directions. I protested to assure them I already knew this path and its direction, but did not know the distance to my goal. That explanation puzzled them. For Bangladeshi villagers it is the direction that matters, not the distance. Thus, if you are on the right path do not even bother to inquire how far you have yet to go. Surely you will reach that place. Just keep plodding ahead. Not a bad philosophy.

Early one morning in Rifaitpur village, Sha Alam, the father of two children I had assisted, was walking beside me. His voice quivered as he exclaimed: “I shall never forget you for what you have done for my children. Their treatment was the greatest difficulty I was facing, and then an American came to be my brother.” For all the criticism of America that Bangladeshi Muslims feel justified in declaring, there is also -- especially among the less advantaged ones -- a readiness to credit Americans.

By chance we met on a street in the town. There were Zulifqur, Sifi, Monir and Ekram -- businessmen, ages 35 to 45 -- who all knew of my quest for a bit of land, 8 feet by 10 feet, on which I could build a dwelling. We kidded awhile -- mostly about celibacy and my desire to live beside the poor -- and then began to walk together, eastward toward Siddiq’s compound, to investigate a place. That plot, however, was still underwater. They pointed out that I could raise the level by using landfill. Nevertheless, I refused the place because there were no poor families on either side who would be my closest neighbors. Anyway, it makes me glad to experience the efforts of these men, Muslims who are trying to help a Christian missionary find a place to dwell among them.


National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 2004

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