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Following way Jesus went: stranger offers compassion to Bengali Muslims.

Maryknoll missioner Father Bob McCahill writes a letter to his friends each Christmas, and sometimes NCR publishes it to keep track of one man trying to follow the way Jesus went. Dear Friends,

Nowadays, I live in a kitchen. Jabeda, the wife of Firoz and mother of their 11 children, rented a family's cooking shed to me three months ago on the day I arrived in Jamalpur town to begin missioning in a new area. On that first day, I searched for a hut to rent but received, instead, numerous refusals. No Muslim family having girls will easily agree to accept a single male into its compound.

Then, inexplicably, Allah inspired Jabeda to take a chance on the foreign Christian. "You don't want a place that simple, do you?" she asked me, incredulously, while pointing to her kitchen hut. Indeed, I did. At that moment I was gratefully aware that God was intervening through a Muslim woman to relieve my anxiety.

No sooner had I taken possession of the cooking shed than I had to rush off to hardware stores to buy basic kitchen equipment and utensils. The first item prepared on my new kerosene stove was a gallon of boiled water. Folks here do not boil the water they drink. Children gawked as I gulped the barely cooled fluid. Even greater surprises are in store for them, and for me, as we mutually observe one another.

The cooking shed stands 4 yards from the family's house. It measures almost 8 feet by 10 feet, has a bamboo roof and incomplete walls made mostly of bamboo and partially of rusty tin. There is no ceiling for trapping heat beneath the roof. The floor is earthen and unlevel. Into it, two clay stoves are sunk, remnants of the years when Jabeda and her seven daughters cooked rice and curry to feed a family of 13.

Food preparation requires more time than I want to give it, but the alternative is to eat inexpensive, delicious, peppery hot Bengali cuisine in local restaurants until, inevitably, a dysenteric explosion strikes me down. Each day I spend half an hour at the bazaar picking out vegetables for supper, a duck's egg for breakfast and rice with lentils for lunch. Cleaning the food takes another 20 minutes. Cooking all three meals takes less than an hour, total time, during which I read. The family has their own tubwell, which is convenient, and a latrine more private than ones I've gotten used to. Surrounding the family's compound is a fence constructed of jute sticks. It has a single narrow exit through which I squeeze my bicycle.

Firoz and Jabeda expect 100 takas per month for allowing me to share the family compound. Thus, rent is less than 9 cents U.S. per day. Their twin teenage daughters, Chaya and Maya (the names mean shade- and -affection-) take down my drying clothes if it rains while I am away, a kindness for which there is no charge. Rain frequently penetrates the roof and dampens the hut.

Occasionally, on days when I am away, one of the twins enters to spread fresh mud mixed with rice bran on the floor. It is the Muslim Bengali's way to keep a house neat. There is no way to attach a lock to the bamboo door, And even if it were lockable any determined person could enter through 20 square feet of open space above the walls. Thus, even though my door is not always open, the house always is.

Days begin at 4 a.m. in prayer followed by Mass. Then I shave and eat breakfast. The remainder of the day is a stew of spicy activities. By bicycle I ride to many villages to meet seriously sick persons. Conversations are frequent and arguments (a form of entertainment in Bangladesh) occasional. I haggle over food prices in the bazaar and visit the children's ward at the government hospital to bless Muslim and Hindu tots.

In every corner of the district, women regard warily the recently arrived foreign missionary who offers concern and assistance to their ailing loved ones. It will take time to build trust with them. Men express astonishment when they see an old man on a battered bike traveling great distances at high speed. They want to know what I get out of such strenuous labor. I explain to them my thoughts about Allah and the part Jesus plays in my life.

Every late afternoon beside the neighborhood mosque I wash clothes and bathe in a large fish tank. While I pound sudsy laundry on a rock, curious youths sit on the bank and shoot questions at me. By nightfall the hut is cooler. It is not connected to electric current so my sight and mind grow dim by 9 p.m. or earlier. Sleep comes quickly on a mat spread on a wooden cot.

Jamalpur, the town in which I've settled, is a rail junction located on the Brahamaputra River. The municipality has 101,000 people. The district of Jamalpur, which surrounds it, has a population of less than 2 million. In the town are a score of mosques and three cinema halls. An odd feature about the main street of the town is that it changes names 10 times within a mile and a half. Door-to-door research at 30 stores informs me there is not a single wooden clothespin for sale anywhere.

My periodic transfers from one district town to another are in imitation of Jesus' approach to mission. Jesus, the compassionate stranger, moved from area to area and in every place paid special attention to the hopelessly infirm and to sick ones who had no relatives or friends to assist them. The crowds who witnessed Jesus' acts were gripped by his compassion, not exclusively by his cures. Bengali Muslims are no less astounded to receive compassion from a stranger.


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Title Annotation:Christmas - missionary's annual letter
Author:McCahill, Bob
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 25, 1992
Previous Article:Mary's foremothers.
Next Article:He shelters those in solitude and darkness.

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