As the plane swept 45 degrees to make its landing to Dhaka the many fingers of rivers crossing the green fields was a visual shock, reminding me of how vulnerable Bangladesh is to rivers, monsoons and floods. This country, carved out of north east India, is built on a delta, a young nation of l947 established after a bloody war. This is a people not only struggling to keep its head above the ever rising floods but vigorous to find their way into the modern world.
Defeating the British (the country was first called East Pakistan) then separating from Pakistan, its gap between a very small upper layer of the wealthy and most living in poverty is so evident. While fashioning itself as a secular democracy, it really is a Muslim majority, incited by modern Islamicism.
But what is overwhelming is people everywhere: 160 million in a small land. Imagine 160 million people living in one third of Manitoba, or half the US population forced into Florida? In Canada the ratio of population per square kilometer is 3.3. In Bangladesh the population density is 1086 people per square kilometer. Its packed world must be experienced to be understood.
It was among this people Lily and I were honored to visit. Loving, accepting and generous, we early felt right at home. Their life is tough. They know their share of suffering. Birthed in a blood bath of three million dead, its nationhood withstands floods washing away everything they own. Christians feel the snubs and buts as a religious minority, but not once did I hear one suggest life is tough. No complaining. No wishing for what others have. Joyful, we were welcomed in the most loving and generous way. Having little, their celebrations opened our hearts. They were easy to love.
While their hospitality and generosity was genuine and greatly appreciated, Bangladesh is ladened with enormous burdens of poverty, ignorance and life-choking bribery. Literacy is at best 50%. Many live in homes so primitive you wonder how they survive. A government rife with graft is so brazen it has become a way of life – institutionalized; starting at the top of government it works its tentacles through all of public life. Nothing happens – when working with anything official – without greasing the wheel. Getting a job requires up front payment. To land a job in the police force, for example, an applicant pays a major bribe up front and then works for ten years to pay back the loan.
Cheap labor attracts Wal-Mart type products. A 12 hour day, six days a week earns $100 a month. The GDP has grown rapidly driven by this labor market but economists warn the burden of corruption is disabling the country, holding it back from moving to a stronger zone of economic and social growth.
I provide this background because I assume like me, you’ve heard of their floods but not much else.
My role is to encourage and help leadership of our national fellowships and alliances. The younger leaders here (and most are) are the kind you could drop into any country or situation and they would land on their feet. They are bright, wise, creative, courageous and deeply committed to the Lord Jesus. And they are indigenous. The world has changed. The period of missions leading national ministries is over.
The Christian community here is still small: .4%. With approximately 6,000 churches, the relief and development side of agency work is large and growing. The Canadian Food Grains Bank works with the Nazarene church and World Relief Canada with Koinonia, a division of the Fellowship. Each denomination builds its own residential based schools to serve children of Christian families discriminated against in the public schools.
In contrast to what I saw in Nepal, here denominational and ministry agency (NGOs) have maps, plans and statistics, operating by strategy and driven by planning. They point to their year by year plans to introduce Christ to villages, communities and regions and how it will be done. The Jesus Film has been a particular accelerator in conversions. One pastor working with Hindus focused on entire families and villages. He said he baptized 4,000 Hindus in one day.
The vast population allows for all kinds of evangelistic groups to come unannounced, and staying on their own, move about (and also leave quickly) leaving some wondering why foreign engagement is so independent. However this isn’t the first country in which evangelicals have been guilty of allowing entrepreneurial evangelism run unchecked.
Back to the culture, its scenery and life. Dhaka is a photographers dream. Colorful, idiosyncratic, what you imagine you might see, you probably could find. Traffic fascinates me. I’ve been in Cairo, Bangkok and Nairobi but this city holds its own madness. Drivers are crazy and brilliant. They are deft at missing each other and in a strange way, look out for each other. The driver rule (at least as I came to see it) is that if I don’t help you, you won’t help me. The literally tens upon tens of thousands of rickshaws moving about motor cars, trucks and cycles on a decrepit and broken road infrastructure makes a simple traffic journey an adventure.
I’ll end with a touching story. Lily and I were to go north east to meet Christians of a number of villages. What we didn’t know was their fascination – most had never seen a white person before. We so wanted to visit them but after a church dinner, stomach revenge exacted its price and we were immobilized with no choice but to stay put. However that evening, a young man arrived at the mission house where we were staying with gifts. These they had prepared for us when we were to have arrived, but since we couldn’t come to them, they would come to us. Lovely hand crafted gifts, from those with so little, all in the words of gracious love. As the young pastor left, I asked how long the return bus ride would be. “Four and a half hours.”
Why did it matter they hear from us, I wondered? I recall at twelve years of age, hearing Nicholas Benghu from South Africa in our Saskatoon church, telling of God’s love. Somehow hearing it from him bore a hole in my heart. Yes there is value of people going from one culture to another. But the sustaining development of Christian life in this wonderful and impoverished country is that its strength is in its national pastors and leaders. Please get this message out: your prayer and money investment in these men and women is well worth every moment and each dollar.
Oh yes, Lily and I promised the village people we would return for our visit. And return we will.
Brian C. Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance