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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Home is where his hut is

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.

Dear Friends,

During the first five months of my stay in the new town, Gaibandha, 10 persons offered to let me build a house on their land. One of them, Sohel, welcomed me with the understanding that I need not pay land rent. His family knows their only reward will be to share in the blessings Allah bestows on me for helping the disabled. In some of the other locations proposed to me by hospitable people I may have enjoyed more privacy or nicer scenery. However, at Sohel’s I enjoy proximity to the town’s bazaars and many nearby companions in a crowded neighborhood. Thus have I settled just across the tracks from the Gaibandha railroad station.

The first stage of house building in this frequently flooded district is to lay an earthen foundation. Thus did Haidar cut and carry earth from 100 yards away. Within two days he raised by 18 inches the foundation of my 8 feet by 10 feet plot, sufficiently high to keep my feet dry during a normal monsoon.

An expert bamboo craftsman named Noya Hiah (that is, Mr. New) then began to build. Fifteen days later I took possession of my dirt-floored, bamboo-walled home. People call it, not a house, but rather a hut, because the roof is of straw and not of galvanized iron -- the favored building material. Total expenses for the hut and its foundation were $55.

The dwelling was prepared barely in time for me to receive the first of two theology students from the major seminary. Every day during Peter’s 17-day sojourn, we bicycled to villages, often stopping to answer questions. “Why do you inconvenience yourselves for others?” they wanted to know. “Jesus lived this way,” we replied.

Later, David, another seminarian, was my partner when we found an old man lying in rags on the solid cement verandah of the railway station. Mohammed, as we dubbed him, tried to tell us who he was but was too weak to speak. We brought a burlap sack to place under his head as a pillow. When I pledged to return the next morning he stroked my forearm and guided my hand to his heart. On the third day of our attention to Mohammed a spectator informed us of a woman who had lugged a bucket of water to the verandah, removed most of the man’s clothes, and bathed him. Then she fed him. Our informant declared; “She is not a good person!” We proposed otherwise: “If she bathes the soiled, feeds the hungry and comforts the lonely, she surely is a very good person.”

Water having a high iron content is a frequent source of stomach troubles in Bangladesh. Thus, the first home improvement I made was to build a water filter. Neighbor Alamgir helped me. Two months later, Alamgir, 38, died of a stroke, leaving his widow with three children ages 7, 3, and 6 weeks. Many folks have come to comfort the family. Before they leave they usually peek inside my hut. I point out the water filter Alamgir and I made together. They regard it with reverence.

Dulu, also of this neighborhood, had agreed to go with me to a hospital in Dhaka, six hours away, for her son’s treatment. As the time approached for our journey it became clear that some peopled were nervous about it. Several women grilled me near the room Dulu shared with her parents and two small sons. Then some men came to talk things over, along with Dulu and her mother, seeking assurances. “You must simply trust me,” I counseled. Certainly they had never before entrusted a relative of theirs, for example, this young mother, to the guardianship of a stranger. It was hard for them. Yet, that is what I offer people: an opportunity to trust a stranger.

Several miles northwest of my home a tornado struck, uprooting trees, collapsing solid brick walls and strewing mangled sheets of galvanized iron. The death toll was 50. Many went from the town by bicycle, motorcycle and train to view the devastation. In the village Kishamot, a tiny table under the open sky became a makeshift tea stall. “Good for you!” thought I of the determined owner who refused to let the destruction of his former 12-seater tea stall stymie his livelihood. I had been wondering what I might do for the tornado victims, besides admire their resolve and industry. Several packets of biscuits stacked on the table suggested a way. Purchasing all the packets I handed one to each of the five men and boys standing nearby. Upon seeing that kindness the tea stall owner blurted out: “Everyone has come to look at us, but this man is doing some good!” I thank God for biscuits, which saved me from being completely useless to the afflicted. One day in village Kamar Para I joined several men sitting in yet another tea stall. They questioned me and listened closely to the responses. “Which is the best of all countries? Do you have a degree? Why do you not marry?” We were having a lively exchange. After awhile they seemed almost persuaded that it is possible for a man, inspired by Allah, to renounce the blessings of marriage and to live celibately and happily for the One. But then curry being prepared in the kitchen next door made me choke and cough. I had to vacate the premises and discontinue evangelizing because my eyes were watering and my lungs gasping for fresh air. When people talk about obstacles to spreading the good news they seldom mention curry.

Another neighbor, Zillur, has epilepsy, which attacks in unpredictable places. Last month he suffered a fit while locked inside our common outhouse. Shohel had to rip off the door to rescue his cousin. More recently, as he was walking to the bazaar, Zillur collapsed and tumbled headfirst into a flooded paddy field. A pair of alert teenagers saved him. One good feature about life in the world’s most densely populated country is that one is never far from helpers.



National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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