This update is from Rod Matthews, GCI mission director in Southern Asia, New Zealand and the Pacific.
The first GCI-sponsored conference ever held in Bangladesh brought Bengali church members and visitors into contact with GCI personnel from five other countries. Held in the capital city of Dhaka, in a facility belonging to the Baptist church, 165 people heard speakers from GCI and local churches. About 80 members and gospel workers from GCI’s mission arm in Bangladesh, the Bengali Evangelical Association (BEA), travelled to Dhaka from the mission center in the village of Sathsimulia, some for the first time.
The arduous bus trip of nearly eight hours did not lessen the thrill of mixing with international visitors and guest speakers, and hearing local denominational leaders extol the work of BEA in Bangladesh and the heart that GCI Bangladesh National Director, John Biswas, has for his people and the gospel.
International English speakers included John and Naomi Biswas, Rick Shallenberger, Roger Lippross, Robin and Arline Connelly (all from the U.S.), Mohan Jayasekera from Australia, Dan Zachariah and Joe D’Costa from India, Geoff Sole from the UK and my wife, Ruth and me (Rod Matthews). Our messages were competently translated into Bengali by Peter Mazumder, General Secretary of the Bible Students Fellowship of Bangladesh, who donated his time for the two days of meetings.
The strong focus of the meetings was God’s love for all people. Summaries in Bengali of each message were handed out to each participant. Because only a few participants could speak any English, and none of the visitors could speak any Bengali, we found communication frustrating. We all long for the day when we will understand one another perfectly.
On Sunday, March 18, the local people headed home by bus, and we set off in two vans to drive 280 kilometers south to visit the BEA mission center in Sathsimulia, and to participate in a public meeting and festival in the nearby village of Nagirpal the next day. The trip to the city of Barisal where we were staying the night needs to be experienced as words do not do adequately describe the trip. Getting out of the city of Dhaka took a long time due to the traffic congestion. But finally the traffic thinned out (relatively speaking) and we could see the flat countryside of brilliant green fields of young rice, the rich yellow of wheat ready for harvest, peppered with the giant chimney stacks of brickyards where the very poor slave away making bricks from the mud of the rice paddies to serve the building boom of the ever-growing cities.
After several hours, we crossed the wide and gentle (at this time of year) Padma River in one of many old but faithful vehicle ferries which chug back and forwards 24 hours a day. The crossing is about 180 kilometers from the mouth of a vast river system that starts in India as the Ganges, and drains much of the southern side of the Himalayas. This is the main road to the southwest and there are no other crossings for many miles, so literally hundreds of buses, trucks and smaller vehicles are lined up waiting for a ferry. Our driver, who seemed to have gained his skills in former days in Formula 1 racing, bypassed the line with impressive and breath-taking skill in a cloud of powdery dust and got us onto the first ferry that arrived after we did.
After the night in the regional city of Barisal, we were off early for the hour’s drive to Sathsimulia and a visit to the BEA mission center. Narrow roads became narrow lanes and finally the van could go no farther so we had to stop in Sathsimulia village and walk the last kilometer or so to our mission center. A hundred people met us at the gate and welcomed us with garlands and clouds of rose petals.
We briefly saw the layout of the mission center from which the gospel goes out through BEA in this part of southern Bangladesh. Shown below are two prominent structures in the compound.
The blue two-story building houses educational activities and church meetings. Its construction was funded by our Canadian churches. The white three-story building is a flood-resistant cyclone shelter named after the late Dr. Herman Hoeh. Nearby is a new chapel that will soon be dedicated. We also saw the new and strengthened walls, which had been rebuilt with help from the Sydney, Australia congregation after being destroyed by a mob of misguided militants several years ago.
We then moved to the nearby village of Nagirpal where hundreds of people were waiting under a large tent for the day-long festival. It started with a morning service attended by over 600 people including many from surrounding villages, some of whom were not Christian. It was held in the grounds of a local church. Then a wonderful meal was served to everyone who came, funded by GCI/BEA, with families sitting in long lines on the mats covering the ground under the awnings of the tent, savoring the generosity of God made available through the gifts of people far away in the USA. All during the afternoon and evening, the crowd was enthralled with musical presentations – songs and dances – celebrating and explaining the gospel. It is an especially effective way to present the good news for those who are illiterate. We heard that eventually over 2,500 attended the festivities which went on until four in the morning.
What a delightful day of relief, encouragement and inspiration in contrast to the toil of working under the sun in the rice fields to sustain their families. Here we are reaching with the gospel message into the lives of hundreds of people living in remote rural villages with few facilities and limited schooling for their children, where they see the love and generosity of God, where everyone is welcomed regardless of their religion or social caste, and where the literate are given a free Bengali Bible, for some the only book they own (see picture below).
From BEA’s mission center, nurse’s aides are trained to go into the community to bring education and medical assistance to the poorest people in the villages, gospel workers are trained to bring the good news to anyone interested in listening, goats are distributed to needy families to raise and breed to help them to reach self-sufficiency and raise the nutrition levels in the family. Schools have been started to give the children an education not otherwise possible in the remote rural areas, and a better future in a world rushing away from them.
This is the ministry of the Living Jesus Christ, who has invited us into all he is doing there. This is your church responding to that invitation. It is not an easy place to reach, but you would be humbled and moved and inspired by what God is doing in the deep south of Bangladesh, and thrilled by our involvement.
Now that many of these people have seen and met GCI members from far away for the first time, they know they are part of something far greater than what they see there. They know hundreds of people around the world care for them and regularly express this in their prayers to our Great Creator.
We have seen the results of the ministry of Jesus Christ in rural Bangladesh. Add that to the countless similar stories from other countries, and it speaks to the truth that (with thanks to the words of hymn-writers, Don Moen and Debbie Graafsma), “We stand in the midst of a multitude, of those from every tribe and tongue; we are your people redeemed by your blood and rescued from death by your love. ….By the blood of Christ we stand, every tongue, every tribe, every people, every land, giving glory, giving honor, giving praise unto the Lamb of God.”