Issue Date: December 21, 2007
Anywhere you choose to settle, just let me know, Bishop Bejoy [Nocephorus DCruze] assured me when welcoming me to Khulna diocese. I investigated six of the 13 districts within the diocese. In every place, I sought to learn whether or not Christians of any denomination reside there. In one of the six districts dozens of splinter groups within the same denomination exist. I wish to avoid living in such a place because Muslims will surely ask me to answer why so many divisions, and I cannot answer. At the beginning of the search, Narail was the district I was least inclined to choose because a priest of the diocese had previously told me of his intention to work for conversions there. Despite that prospect, and because Narail impressed me as the poorest of the six, I decided to try, with Gods help, to insert myself there.
Happily, I soon found a room to rent. Momin agreed to let me stay in half of an old shed. Twice more I met with him to reconfirm our deal, but at our third meeting he suddenly reneged. I walked away dejected but decided not to be deterred. The first man who crossed my path, I asked if he knew a place to rent. He didnt, but explained my problem to a passing cyclist. A minute later the cyclist handed me over to an ice vendor who interrupted his business dealings to connect me with a devout fellow just emerging from prayer at the mosque. That one walked me to the compound of Mohammad Khaybar. Several days later I returned with bicycle and beddings to take possession of an 8-feet-by-9-feet room having an earthen floor and no electricity. The rent is 200 takas per month, almost 10 cents U.S. per day. After the rains end I hope to build my own dwelling.
Without delay I started on my bicycle to get acquainted. Early journeys took me through villages named Mystic, Under the Mango Tree, Cracked Head and Rotten. In every village people wanted to know why I was there. As it creates suspicion in peoples minds if a newcomer goes around merely looking, I needed a specific excuse for being there. Are there persons here having cleft lips? I inquired. Often I stopped at schools to ask the teachers for help in identifying children in need of surgery or physiotherapy.
During the flood season a large part of the districts population was harvesting and stripping jute plants. My first realization of how significant is the Hindu population of Narail came from observing a multitude of Hindu women and girls busy at this fieldwork. Muslim women do not, as a rule, work in the open as these women do. Although on the national level only 9 percent of Bangladeshis are Hindus, I can believe a retired official from the education office who calculates Narail has 40 percent. If that is so, this is the district having the highest percentage of Hindus in Bangladesh.
One day as I stood in a store a man introduced himself to me as Hubert, a Christian. He told me about periodic visits made to Narail by missionaries from Khulna. Probably they pay attention to this place because many people are poor (that is my reason too), but also because it has so many Hindus -- persons they perceive as potential converts to Christianity. The perception among some missionaries that poor persons of Hindu background are easier to convert than are Muslims is accurate. All the more reason for me to live among Muslims and Hindus simply as one devoted to the poor, but also as a missionary who has not the faintest intention to convert them.
The room I live in is usually dark so I sit outdoors to read. Normally my silent presence draws curious children; sometimes it attracts numerous adults, mostly female, who gather to gab or to tease me. The first time it happened I rather enjoyed it, for Muslim women are expected to be reserved. We were discussing food preparation or some such pleasant topic when Begom asked: What would you like for us to do with your body if you suddenly die here? Although I recovered my composure quickly and reminded them neither I nor they would ever cease to live unto Allah, they also reminded me that in Bangladesh teasing is not for the faint-hearted.
Every six months, I try to revisit the eight towns where I have dwelt since arriving in Bangladesh in 1975. Starting that journey at the Dhaka rail terminal recently, the train headed north. Within moments I sat staring out the open window at the drama of life on display. Families live quite near to the rail lines in small, low-roofed bamboo huts squashed one against another, dwellings that offer a modicum of defense against monsoon rains and even less defense against heat. The sun at 7:30 beating on their bamboo and polythene roofs had already driven most inhabitants outdoors. Arriving and departing trains frequently disrupt their lives and pose a constant danger to the children running freely within a few feet of the passing giants. During those first 15 minutes of travel, uncomplaining people mesmerized me. Although it made me sad to see them living in such conditions, my overriding emotion was not sadness. Though they live in suffocating closeness to others, they do so with dignity and I am immensely proud of them.
National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007
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