Bangladesh: The mission of dialogue

After 45 years of missionary work in Bangladesh, Fr Bob still continues pedalling to find and bring help to rural disadvantaged people. His energy comes from prayer and a sober diet of veggies. He tells us his story.

After my ordination in 1964, I was assigned to the Philippines. For 11 years, I lived in remote areas, travelling often by motorcycle where there were roads or on foot in the hills, to be with farmers in their barrios and at their fiestas. It was a busy and satisfying life of service.

In 1975, an invitation for priests to work in Bangladesh was given to my missionary institute, the Maryknoll Society. We were five who volunteered, arriving on December 2, 1975 in Dhaka in Bangladesh. After a few months of our language studies we asked the Archbishop of Dhaka to give us permission to live among the Muslims.

At the beginning of our eighth year in Bangladesh, the community of five was reduced to two. Fr Douglas Venne and I decided to leave Tangail, the place where we had lived for the previous eight years, to go to places we felt the need to be, as witnesses of our brotherhood with Muslims and Hindus.

Doug chose to be a village-based farmer; I chose to be a seeker-helper of the disabled. Thus began my three years in a town and then transferring to another town and district. Often a curious Bengali wanted to know why I had come to live among them.

To be a Christian among Muslims is my purpose. To illustrate our feelings of Christian brotherhood with all people has been my effort. Searching for and finding persons in great need of medical attention or surgery has helped folks understand my name: Bob Bhai (Bob Brother).

I go around villages and bazaars, between one and thirty kilometres from where I dwell, searching for persons in need of a brother’s help. I hope to make the disabled poor more able. I am pleased to be recognised as their brother.

Every town I go to live and serve in is a new experience. The first days find me prone to anxiety, especially on day number one. Will I find a place to stay for a few days while I search for a more permanent place? Refusals to rent to me, brush-offs, and exorbitant rental demands: I meet them all. God inspires me to trust during those days. He urges me to hang on, to keep seeking, to refuse discouragement.

God has always arranged living conditions for me which demonstrate how important it is that a missionary among Muslims and Hindus regards has a simple lifestyle. Simplicity refers also to cooking for myself on a single burner kerosene stove. It feels good to fix my own food. Before leaving my shelter every morning to cycle to villages, I have a boiled egg and a large banana. Then, on the road perhaps an hour later, I stop for parata dipped in lentils. At noon, I eat a snack named shingara and drink lots of water to replenish the fluids I lose through biking. Then around 4, I enjoy my daily cooked meal, always like the meal from the previous day: rice and lentils mixed with veggies such as potatoes, string beans, okra, small squash, seasoned with a five takas packet of spices. All are cooked together in one pot for 12 minutes and I never tire of it. Neither meat nor fish are necessary. Vegetable kichuri satisfies.

To accept the Christian’s witness of service without any expectation of a reward is difficult for many Muslims to believe, unless they experience that stringless service. The openness of Bangladesh Muslims and Hindus to accept and appreciate the Christian servant is, in itself, proof of a converted heart.

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