Bangladesh. Pedalling for the poor

At the age of 80, an American Maryknoll missionary, Fr Bob McCahill continues riding his bicycle on the countryside roads of Bangladesh, to meet and help sick people, especially children. He is a sign of Christian love among Muslim and Hindus. 
Along these roads he is greeted as Bob Bhai (Brother Bob – bhai is Bengali for brother). Father Bob has been serving the Bangladeshi poor for 38 years. He is an intrepid bicycle rider. He rides tens of kilometres every day, sometimes up to 70, to visit the villages and meet the children most in need of medical assistance. Since he arrived in 1975 he has resided in 10 towns. Usually he  stays only three years in a town. He defines “the first year as one of suspicion, the second of trust and the third of affection – the time to move on to another town and continue my ministry of friendship and healing among Muslims and others”. 

When he arrives  in a town, he rents a room until he manages to have a makeshift hut set up for him on the periphery. The hut is made of jute sticks over a foundation of clay soil. The roof is reinforced with a polythene sheet to protect it from the rain. 

The small hut’s size can easily keep the few things the missionary needs. A wooden bunk bed, a low stool on which Fr Bob sits to pray, read or write. There is also a little shelf to keep a few essential books, a one-burner kerosene stove and a pail for water. The residual food supplies (rice or bread) hang from the roof in plastic bags as a means to prevent the mice from sharing them. The hut also shelters his bicycle during the night.
A Good Samaritan
Father Bob’s day starts very early. He gets out of bed at 3.30 a.m. for a full hour of meditation, followed by daily Mass. While it is still pitch dark he prepares and takes some breakfast, performs the little house chores and sets the programme for the day. Around 6.30, he is ready to hit the road towards the villages to meet and help the sick, especially children, to overcome infirmities and deformities. 

Wherever he goes, people  are very curious and ask him many questions. In turn, Fr Bob loves challenging them. “I always ask people: ‘what is the purpose of life?’ They just look at me. Then I say: ‘Christians believe that the purpose of life is love’. This is striking for a Muslim, because they also believe in love but they never really thought that the purpose of life is love. 

Many Bengali Muslims regard various Christian missionary programmes as means that are being used to convert them. Therefore, Fr Bob notes: “I am not a proselytiser; I am an evangeliser. The act of love is itself evangelisation, especially among these people whose very strong suspicion is that a missionary comes to convert them and uses healthcare, education and social development to that end. We must show them complete unselfishness. We are here to show these people love and respect, and leave them in a way that will allow them to do the same while remaining Muslims. They resonate very powerfully with what we are doing, that is, loving”.


Weekends in the city jungle

On Friday evening, Fr Bob moves to Dhaka in the company of the sick due for treatment in the various hospitals, along with their relatives. The trip takes the whole night as they need to leave the bus more than once and board the ferryboats to cross the rivers. Arriving in Dhaka, almost sleepless, Fr Bob has to find his way in the very noisy – even deafening – traffic confusion, of bicycles (single, pulling carts and rickshaws), tricycles, cabs and baby-cabs, cars, bigger and smaller buses that cram the densely populated city. Aggressive and reckless driving is seen everywhere. 

After ensuring that the people he has brought have been admitted to hospitals for surgeryas intended, he checks on the sick brought there in previous weeks or even months and still undergoing treatment. He spends part of his weekend running from hospital to hospital, meeting patients, nurses and doctors. 


A priest-servant

Life is mission and mission is life for Fr Bob. Not only does he live for the poor, he lives like the poor he serves. The way he lives and what he is doing gives him inner peace. He doesn’t do it to be appreciated. He was called to do it – a call that matured through prayer and commitment. He is a living Gospel for those he serves. His life is a sign of God’s loving care, especially for those who are sick. 

He started off his missionary life in the Philippines. After eleven years, he was classified as “stimulating and happy”, and he offered to work in Bangladesh. “The idea of coming to Bangladesh was that of being a priest-servant”, he states. In a country prone to natural disasters – tidal waves, famines, floods, war, everything – he wanted to give his little contribution to alleviate people’s sufferings. 

The fact that Bangladesh is a Muslim country was secondary in his decision. But, soon, he did see the advantage and he deliberately stresses it: “The fact that Bangladesh is an Islamic country is a big bonus, because in doing the one – serving the poor – we are also doing the other – serving the Muslims, and it has a great meaning for them because they have the saying that ‘by serving the poor, we serve Allah’”.

Soon Fr. Bob will move on for a new town and he will continue his ministry of friendship and healing among Muslims.