For many years, Maryknoll Fr. Bob McCahill has been sending an annual letter to friends at Christmastime, chronicling his experience living among the people of Bangladesh. Since 1984, NCR has published his letter every year in the Christmas issue. Following is an edited version of his 2016 letter.
"Thank you," or its Bengali language equivalent, is not spoken often in the 12 towns where I have lived in Bangladesh. Consequently, I marveled at my youngest neighbor, Niha, age 3 years, when she started telling me -- in English and for no apparent reason -- "Thank you very much." This is she who loves to be outdoors during heavy rains where she runs and shouts and collapses merrily in the mud. Yet, English language: "Thank you very much."
Three teenaged boys stopped me near the town's stadium. "We want to interview you for our high school’s annual magazine." By the time their questions and my answers ended, another seven boys had joined us, listening respectfully. They were attracted to service for the poor, which they saw wins respect for the server. They already intuited there is more to life than earning money.
In a village to which I bicycled every first Tuesday, Moin Uddin, a government health worker, had become my collaborator. While a group of men sat in a tea stall near the hospital, Moin regaled us by flawlessly speed-reading a newspaper article as articulately as a rapper. He made us howl. Many persons of the place regard Moin as eccentric. My regard for him is full of respect and affection. For I seek collaborators and Moin is one of them.
Early one chilly morning I arrived at the home of Jahangir, his wife and son. It was my third visit to see them. This time we set the date for taking his son to Dhaka for surgery. As I was leaving their home, Jahangir ran after me to ask something that made him deeply curious. "Brother, what is your religion?"
My reply: "Christian," at which he sighed flatly, "Oh." Like many other Muslims, Jahangir wishes I were one of them. It would make him feel better to be helped by a fellow Muslim.
Borhan manages a three-wheeler cab service. When he sees me pass by on bicycle he invites me to take tea with him. "I like you very much!" he has often told me. Eagerly, he informs others about my efforts for disabled children. Borhan's rare ambition is to someday be able to build an animal hospital to shelter the many stray dogs of the place, one of which lay peacefully at his feet as we sipped our tea together.
When my three-year stay in Hobiganj neared its end, Bishop Bejoy D'Cruze wished for me to move to another one of the four districts in his Sylhet diocese. However, I was intent on moving far away and he understood my missionary purpose. Accordingly, he arranged a farewell meal for me at which gifts were given and his blessings bestowed on my future in the Barisal dioceses.
Around the time I was switching dioceses, assassinations and executions were occurring throughout the country with greater frequency than ever. Thus, when I visited one of my former hometowns, Ataur, the dwarf who is doorman at the Chinese restaurant, was delighted to see me once more. Ataur led me by the hand through the bazar while announcing, "Bob Brother is alive!" Many people had heard the news that a Christian missionary had been shot, and as they know only one foreign missionary, they imagined I had been the victim.
In my new hometown, Shariatpur, I had hoped to be able to quickly attract parents by my offer of treatment for their disabled children. Within two weeks, I had won over Kulsuma and Malek to accompany me with their child, Alameen, to Dhaka.
On the day before our departure, I returned to reassure them about our trip. Kulsuma, the boy's mother, requested me to sit down. She had a hard time saying what she had to tell me. "You are a foreigner," she began. What it meant was: "We are suspicious of you. No one has ever offered to help us as you do. We fear trickery. We cannot go with you."
Thus, did I understand that I am once again starting from scratch in a new mission area.
During my first visit to Noria's large bazaar, I took breakfast in a dark restaurant. Another customer, without any preliminary comments, leaned over and inquired: "Your age is 100-plus, no?"
To which I replied: "My looks have deceived you." There are few 100-year-olds in Bangladesh and perhaps not one of them pedals a bike 10 miles to get breakfast.
The police feel inconvenienced by my presence in Shariatpur, the only foreigner in their district. Assassinations occasionally occur throughout the country. It is their job to maintain security for all, especially for foreigners. Several officers have told me: "You cannot live among the poor because there you are easily exposed to harm. You must live within a walled compound. Do not venture out of doors; stay inside. Go abroad for a long vacation."
All their warnings are well-meant. They are uneasy about a foreigner’s safety. I appreciate their concern and on my daily bicycle journeys frequently recall one officer's advice: "Keep looking over your shoulder." That much I can do.