A Maryknoll priest talks about serving sick and disabled children in Bangladesh.
Father Robert McCahill, a Maryknoll missioner from Goshen, Indiana, has served in Bangladesh since 1975, working among the country’s Muslim majority, serving the sick and disabled. On a home visit recently, he met with Lynn F. Monahan, our editor-in-chief, to discuss his ministry in the Asian nation. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
What was it about the Muslim people that made you want to work among them?
Our distance from them and the common feelings against them. We heard about the poverty of the people and the hardships of their lives.
From the very beginning, I was working with sick people. Not only children in the beginning, but all sorts of people. I would be taking them to a hospital that’s 19 kilometers (about 12 miles) away by bus every Wednesday. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience to receive the trust of the people to go with them.
In the beginning, of course, it didn’t happen. First, there’s suspicion, expecting and getting it. By the second year, there are many people who trust you, and that builds during the year, a year of trust-building. By the third year, there is affection for me.
And so, I knew at that time, at the end of the third year, I could leave and do the same thing in another town. That has been my process of joining the people in Bangladesh, roughly 90% of whom are Muslims and perhaps 9% Hindus.
You said you always worked with the sick, and now particularly with chronically sick children.
I started by working with the old and young. Now, it’s down to just working with the kids — a specific targeted group. My excuse is … “Let’s help the children because helping them now will help them have an entire lifetime of benefit from it.” And the people respond very nicely to that, “Yes, that’s true. That’s true.” I’ve never been in a country so fond of children.
So, it’s any kind of illness in children, especially things that disable them. There are those who cannot sit, stand, or feed themselves, or their hand doesn’t work, kids who need some help to become more active. Some never actually recover completely, but they are helped and that’s the important part. I’m trying to be a brother to the families by helping children.
There are two main characteristics in Bengalis that I see: hospitality and love for children. The happiness of Bangladesh is from the children. They are the entertainment. They are what gives life purpose. I suppose you could say that in almost any country, but it’s just so obvious in Bangladesh. The children are the reason for living.
You mentioned hospitality. Many people would be very afraid to work in a majority Muslim country.
Hospitality is so big in Islam. It is an Islamic characteristic. I haven’t studied this greatly, but it’s just so obvious when they meet you. It is not a matter of, “Oh, he’s a Christian. Let’s get out of here.” They will talk to you. They’d even be favorable to what you say about our lives and our purpose. We should pay attention to Islam.
What would be the goal of paying attention to Islam?
We are on the same wavelength in so many ways. Prayer is so important for them. Different kinds of prayer, but, nevertheless, prayer. We can take inspiration from them through their devotion to prayer.
For Muslims, the official prayer, the formal prayer, is always in Arabic. While their kids live in the village, they learn the Arabic prayers and they keep those prayers in their minds throughout their lives. So, it’s very much like when I was an altar boy. I spoke in Latin during the Mass. I didn’t get what I was saying, but it was a prayer.
They can learn from us through our devotion to service, which is not to say that none of them have served, but they are surprised, very surprised, at the amount of work that the missionary will do for non-Christians.
Speaking of service, you mentioned this three-year cycle of suspicion, trust-building and affection. You’ve been doing that since you started?
I ride a bicycle everywhere, and people see me, and they ask me all sorts of questions. The best place to get engagement with the Muslims is the tea stall. It is just a little shack-like thing where somebody’s making tea and handing it out to people. He makes his living that way. And the men in the villages always go to the tea stall. …
I just finished my 13th town, which means 13 districts out of the country’s 64 districts. I have been to 13 of them for three years, or more. I go to the villages every day. I get up early in the morning. I’m out by 6 o’clock, going to different villages, where I’ve heard that there’s somebody in need of physical help.
I think one of the questions most people would have is, do you ever feel that you’re in danger?
No, I don’t feel danger. I feel mutual ignorance of one another.
What would you want people to take away from your experience in Bangladesh?
Just be open to the idea that this is another great religion. There’s something to it. It’s in some ways close to us.
We should do what the bishops of Bangladesh told me to do. The first thing is to live among the poor as a brother to them. The second thing is to serve so that the people can live better. Serve the sick so that the sick and the disabled can live better lives, more meaningful lives.
The third thing is to demonstrate the respect that we have for people of other faiths and show it. That’s something that very much pleases them. The fourth thing is to explain to anyone who asks the reasons for your lifestyle and good works. Jesus did this. Jesus is my model. Jesus went about doing good and healing, as it says in the Acts of the Apostles 10:38.
The fifth thing that the bishops asked me to do is encourage the Christians I happen to meet to live according to the Gospel.
To read more from Father McCahill, see I Am Indeed Your Brother: A Servant of Jesus among Allah’s Poor, a collection of his annual letters that he has sent home each year from Bangladesh over the last forty years, published by Maryknoll’s Orbis Books.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Father Robert McCahill is pictured at Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, New York, during a visit last year. (Diane Mastrogiulio/U.S.)