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. During 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 to the poor people. 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, mons. Theotonious Amal Ganguly, 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 programme of spending three years in a town and them transferring to another town and district. Often a curious Bengalis 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 (on bicycle) 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. As the years have passed, I have limited the service I offer to young persons and children having these three characteristics: they are young—up to age fifteen years; they are poor—and cannot imagine seeking professional help; and they have serious conditions—medical, surgical, or therapeutic. 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 with them all. God inspires me to trust during those days. “Trust Me!” 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. It must be a quite 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 bicycle 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 noonday, I eat a snack named shingara and drink lots of water to replenish the fluids I lose through biking. Then, in the afternoon, at 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 of it I do not tire. 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. Suspicion is relegated along with hatred for the distant past, opening the door to brotherhood. Occasionally, I cross paths, by accident, with persons I had known in other towns and times. Recently in Dhaka, on a bus, the young man beside me—whom I did not recognise—reminded me of the services I had offered to the poor and disabled in his town and district. Finally, he summarized his feelings for his once-upon-a-time neighbour: “People there say you are a feresta” (in Arabic, an angel). I know quite well that I am no angel, so I replied to him: “You mean people say I am a feringi” (in Arabic, a foreigner). “No!”, he protested gravely. “You are an angel because you do what angels do: you come as a stranger and bring benefits to persons in need.” Thus, I am no mere foreigner. I am their brother, indeed.
I reckon that God has prepared me by my early life and environment for just such an apostolate. The happiness and peace I experience is surely God-given and is a sign I should continue on this path for as long as stamina—physical, mental and spiritual—remain. Am I practising a form of dialogue that the Church approves? Surely so, because each and every Christian is readied by God, guided by the Spirit, led by our Model in life, Jesus, to fulfil mission in multiple ways. My way happens to be a way of dialogue with persons of other faiths. We pray for the courage to place ourselves wherever dialogue and trust can blossom and flourish. Tea stalls, the ubiquitous tea stalls of the sub-continent, are suggested to us as dens of dialogue.