FOUR SOULS Continued . . .

Bangladesh



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Copyright © 2001 by Matt Kronberg, Mike Peterson, Jedd Medefind, and Trey Sklar.
Published in association with Yates & Yates, Literary Agents, Orange, California.
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Contents
Preface vii
Introduction
: First Seeds of an Adventure ix

Part I: Mexico
1. 3,000 Miles in Ten Days 1

Part II: Guatemala
2. A Lesson in Generosity: Guatemala City, Guatemala 21
3. The Four Amigos! Together in Guatemala City 34
4. Into the Highlands: Uspantan, Guatemala 47
5. A Scathing Letter and Some Sweet Sorrow: Leaving Guatemala 61

Part III: Russia and Beyond
6. The Wounded Bear: Moscow, Russia 71
7. The Secret Police: Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Russia 75
8. Scarred Hands and Iron Doors: Serpukhov, Russia 92
9. Village at the Edge of the World: Loly, Russia 102
10. Heart of the Gulag Region: Yemva, Russia 117
11. Waltzing through the West: From Moscow to the Mediterranean Sea 139

Part IV: Egypt
12. Land of the Pharaohs: Cairo, Egypt 153

Part V: South Africa
13. Beauty and Strife 171
14. The Mountain Kingdom: Maseru, Kingdom of the Lesotho 176
15. The Road to Durban 193

Part VI: India
16. Rajas, Rice, and Rickshaws 215
17. A Change of Plans: Chirala, India 238
18. Sisters of Charity: Calcutta, India 249

Part VII: Bangladesh
19. The End of Our Rope 261
20. 100,000 Rickshaws: Dhaka, Bangladesh 285

Part VIII: Thailand
21. From Mosquito Nets to Marble Tile: Bangkok, Thailand 301

Part IX: Vietnam
22. Notes from the Underground 329

Conclusion: The Adventure Begins 358

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BANGLADESH



- nineteen -
The End of Our Rope


Bangladesh? Cyclones, floods, famine, unstable governments and people everywhere . . . it is hardly surprising that Bangladesh doesn’t rate highly on traveler’s itineraries.
-Lonely Planet guidebook

Come to Bangladesh before the tourists do.
-BANGLADESHI DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM

We had little idea where we were-just somewhere in the heart of Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh. Our drive through the teeming streets and alleys had left even Trey’s sense of direction spinning. After a half-dozen flights of stairs on the crumbling cement building, we were wheezing. The air tasted like lead.
The Bangladeshi man who had met us at the airport unlocked a door and motioned us through with a tilt of his head. His name was Ihan, his dark eyes, almond skin, and boyish face suggesting he was younger than his thirty-something years.
“Eight of us who work for Bangladesh Christian Service live here,” he explained. “We call it our dorm.”
The unpainted cement walls and glassless, barred windows had little resemblance to any dorms we had ever lived in. We expected to spend only a day or two in the dorms. Our goal for the next six weeks was to aid the work of Bangladesh Christian Service, the local branch of the worldwide JESUS Film International. For the first time on our trip, we would work separately, each joining a separate “team” on a month-long mission to show the JESUS film in villages far from Dhaka.
“Is this a kitchen?” wondered Mike, entering the first room. A sink crafted from sheet metal took up one corner. Next to it stood a large plastic barrel of water; most likely, it was filled during the few hours each day when the city’s pipes flowed. A propane tank with some sort of burner attachment lay on the floor-apparently the stove.
Three large gunnysacks leaned against the wall. Matt peeked into one. “Now that’s a lot of rice,” he remarked. “It looks like this is about the only food in the kitchen.” Matt recoiled as three large cockroaches bolted from the folds of the sack. He stifled a reaction as our host reentered the room.
We had been warned Bangladesh could be difficult. With more than 120 million people crammed into an area the size of Wisconsin, Bangladesh is three times as densely populated as India. In fact, Bangladesh is the most densely populated country on the globe. This demographic reality impacts every facet of life. Jobs and food are scarce. The average person makes less than $400 per year. Eighty percent of the people do not get enough nutrition to meet what food experts say is needed to subsist. How do they survive? God only knows.
“You can put your bags back here,” Ihan directed, leading deeper into the apartment.
A bedroom held four pairs of metal bunk beds and a ceiling fan; the bathroom connected to it. Since there was no running water, the sink and shower fixtures seemed to be little more than decorations. The squat toilet-a hole in the ground with a footpad on either side-apparently could be flushed with a cup of water from the kitchen.
“You can share this room with me and some of the others until you go out to the villages,” Ihan explained. “I’ll cook some rice in a short time for dinner. Before that, who will tell me more about America?”
We looked at one another, hoping one of us would volunteer. Already we had been asked 101 questions about America on the way home from the airport. As in so many countries, America represented a golden, almost mythical land across the sea.

Reluctant Messengers


Ihan had kept us up after dinner with more questions about America until our eyelids gave out. When we reached our beds, however, a combination of humid heat, noise, and mosquitoes kept sleep just out of reach. An hour after lights out, Mike lay sweating, stripped down to his boxers. The beads of moisture made him feel as if he were glued to the top of his nylon bag. Sounds of traffic poured through the open windows. He heard Trey tossing restlessly in the bunk below.
Mike stared at the unmoving fan above. “Why don’t they turn on the fan!” he grumbled, just loud enough to be heard. He knew our hosts would not hear, though; their breathing had grown deep and steady within minutes of the lights turning out.
“That’s just what I was thinking,” said a voice from the darkness.
“You’re awake, too, Jedd?”
“What else would I be doing,” came a grunted reply.
“I think we all are,” joined Matt.
Ihan had insisted that sleeping with the fan on was unhealthy. “We’ll all catch colds if you turn that on,” he had warned as he climbed under several layers of blankets. He informed us it was still the “cool” season in Bangladesh. Maybe it was. It sure would not have passed for “cool” with anyone we knew, though.

• • •

The smell of curry and fish, mixed with wafts of exhaust fumes, permeated the bedroom. Morning sunlight sifted through the barred windows, painting stripes of light on the walls. Trey lifted an eyelid. Two men wearing what looked like colorful skirts and undershirt tank tops stood in the middle of the room, speaking and laughing out loud as if it were the middle of the day. Trey felt under his bunk for his glasses and slid them on. He glanced at his watch. 5:30. He wondered to himself, Why are they talking so loudly? Don’t they know what time it is?
Jedd pulled his pillow over his head. Matt slid out from under his mosquito net and climbed down to the floor. His face felt puffy and his eyes stung.
“Time to get up. Breakfast is ready now,” Ihan announced with a smile, his head bobbling from side to side.
We roused ourselves as quickly as possible. After downing a mound of rice topped with sprinkles of fish curry, we were on our way to the Bangladesh Christian Service office.
Dennis Sammadar, director of Bangladesh Christian Service, was waiting for us at his desk. An American employee of the JESUS Film International had put us in contact with Director Sammadar nearly a year before.
“Please come, sit down,” the small man invited, returning his glasses to his face. His English was flawless but heavily accented. “I am glad that you have finally arrived. I must talk to you about the work we have planned for you. As we discussed in e-mail, you will be going to villages tomorrow. Tonight, we thought it would be good if you went to show the JESUS film with us in a region near Dhaka city.”
The four of us exchanged glances in silence.
Jedd finally responded, “Director Sammadar, we’re looking forward to beginning work, but we are not feeling very well today. We think it might be best if we rested this evening before we separate and go out to the villages.”
Director Sammadar glanced at the checkered tile floor, then raised his eyes. “I’m sorry. Normally I would encourage you to rest, but we have informed the government chairman of the region that four Americans would come with us tonight.”
“Is there any way you could tell them that we were not able to make it?” asked Mike.
“No. That would not do. We have been trying to show the film in this fundamentalist Muslim area for many years. Tonight is our first opportunity to do so. We got permission because we said we were bringing Americans. I think if you don’t come, it would not be good.”
Trey mustered a smile. “In that case, we’re very willing to join you. We didn’t understand how important it was.”
The sun had dropped below the earth’s edge by the time our Jeep reached the regional chairman’s office. Fading baby-blue walls surrounded a large wooden desk. As we entered, the well-fed, graying man behind it stood, shook our hands, and motioned us toward the chairs directly in front of him. Behind the chairs, a wall of men-apparently lower-level regional officials-stood looking on. Forty pairs of eyes followed with interest as we took our seats.
“The way they’re looking at us, I wonder if they have ever seen a white person before,” Mike whispered.
The chairman leaned back confidently in his chair, gripping both armrests firmly. On either side of him stood assistants dressed in traditional white Muslim garb. They inclined their heads slightly toward the chairman; it seemed they would be quite ready to clean his bellybutton with Q-Tips should he demand it. An awkward silence fell on the room for a moment. Overhead, an out-of-balance ceiling fan click-click-clicked, providing little respite from the night’s moist heat. Finally, the chairman barked, “Give these men refreshments-fruit and snacks!”
The servile assistants rushed to obey, laying a plateful of pretzels, fruit, and other less recognizable goodies before us. Mr. Sammadar stated loudly, “The chairman would like to explain his plan to increase the region’s literacy rate. He would like your help in implementing his program. I will translate for you.”
We nibbled hesitantly at the snacks, trying not to betray our bewilderment. The chairman appeared pleased that we seemed to enjoy his delicacies and began popping pretzels into his mouth. Every few bites, he held out a pretzel or bit of fruit in an open hand, allowing his assistants to clamor like monkeys to retrieve a treat from their benevolent leader.
He launched his first question. “Should the first priority in a literacy program be to teach the old or to teach the young?”
We glanced at one another with a tinge of fear. We knew absolutely nothing about literacy programs.
“There . . . are many theories . . . in regard to this matter,” began Jedd, speaking slowly. “I tend to think it might be best to . . . begin instruction with the group that can learn most easily, and then allow them to teach the others.”
The chairman nodded, apparently pleased with the answer. He continued, “And should this be done in schools or in homes?”
Another difficult moment of silence. Matt spoke directly to Director Sammadar, trying to convey our dilemma. “We do not know this location very well yet. Do you have a suggestion, Mr. Sammadar?”
Mr. Sammadar’s response to the chairman was long enough to suggest he had answered the question himself.
Mike leaned over to Matt. “It’s funny the chairman is asking us this stuff. We have no clue. I guess just the fact that Americans are here gives Mr. Sammadar a lot of credibility.”
Matt whispered back, “It’s crazy how much deference they show us-we’re just a bunch of nobodies.”
The questions continued, but Mike had successfully guessed our role. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Mr. Sammadar stopped translating the chairman’s questions into English altogether. Somehow, our presence had accomplished its purpose. A relationship had been built that would allow Mr. Sammadar to aid with the local literacy program. Better yet-even before our meeting finished-the JESUS film was allowed to proceed outside. As the meeting concluded, we were ushered to a soccer field where the film was being shown on a fifteen-foot portable screen. Several hundred Muslims sat on the ground, watching intently. We joined them, listening to a Jesus who spoke Bengali.

Matt’s Reflections-February 19
I had no idea tonight would be such a remarkable evening.
As weary as I felt coming out here, it was exhilarating to witness hundreds of Muslims being presented with the truth of who Jesus Christ is and what He did for us. It seems almost laughable that I, just because I am an American in Bangladesh, could be so key in opening the opportunity for the film to be shown here.
I’m thankful the Lord allowed us to be a part of His work even when I really just wanted to rest tonight. I do want to serve Him in the way He desires of me, not just in the way I wish to serve.


We spoke little most of the way home, scrunched four across the backseat of a compact car. Finally, Mike pulled his forehead off the seat in front of him. “You know, guys, I think the craziness of India took more out of me than I realized,” he announced, his voice vibrating with the bouncing of the car.
“Is this Mr. Culture-Shock-Is-for-Wimps speaking?” poked Matt.
“Four and a half months of travel has probably taken a little toll on all of us,” said Jedd.
Matt nodded. “All except Trey.”
“To be honest, I’m feeling a little worn down, too,” admitted Trey.
“I’m starting to wonder if it is best to go off on our own for five weeks when we’re feeling like this,” remarked Matt.
“I’d vote for staying together if we weren’t already pretty committed to this,” said Trey. “I think Mr. Sammadar is really counting on us to help his teams make headway into new areas, just like tonight.”
The others had to agree.
With morning, we would depart for the provinces, each accompanied by a Bangladesh Christian Service translator. Once in the provinces, we would join up with local believers. Director Sammadar explained that our teams would travel from village to village by day, visiting with what Christians there were and inviting everyone to the nightly showings. Beyond that, we had little idea what to expect.
Matt would be traveling to the northwestern Thurkagon region with a BCS worker named Kinjapur. Jedd would journey to a small village several hours north of Dhaka. Trey’s venture would take him to the southern Ganges River delta region with a man named Ajonni. Mike and his partner would head in a northeasterly direction, although he still does not know exactly where they ended up.

Matt-Northwestern Thurkagon Region

Kinjapur, the BCS worker who would serve as Matt’s translator, had roused him from his bunk before six that morning. Now-an hour later-Matt was still trying to wake up. The depot was chaos. Matt sat in the bus, waiting for it to fill. Regardless of schedule, it would not depart until every seat was taken. The entire scene seemed surreal. It felt almost as if he were outside his body, watching himself from a distance in a strange land.
He looked down at the crowd that churned around the buses. The shifting colors-especially the women’s brilliant saris-made him think of a spinning kaleidoscope. Individuals shouted to each other to be heard over the din of bus horns. Brightly painted bicycle rickshaws pressed through the mix as well, their drivers forced to walk alongside their carts and push. The air was thick with noise and diesel, making his head feel empty.

Matt’s Reflections-February 18
I am officially starting to feel a little homesick for the first time on the trip. I feel like I just want America and comfort. I want to be home. Instead,I have Bangladesh, alone, for five weeks.
Part of me wonders why and how I got here. But then, I remember: I followed my Lord Jesus’ voice that told me to step out in faith. I stepped out and found solid ground beneath my feet. And even when the ground seems to quake, my faith continues to grow firmer the farther I go. After all, what does a little shaky ground matter when you know you’re in the loving hands of the living God?


The bus barreled down a narrow, potholed lane. As the largest vehicle on the road, it had unquestioned right of way. As it roared past, other traffic squeezed onto the road’s narrow shoulders-women carrying market supplies, bicycle rickshaws, rusted trucks, ox-drawn carts. The bus driver honked incessantly, seeming to say, “I’m not stopping for anything, so you’d better get out of the way!”
Matt winced as the open door of the bus nearly clipped a woman with a large bucket balanced on her head. She steadied her cargo, but her eyes held little anger as she stared after the bus. Matt glanced at the driver. It seemed he had not even noticed the woman.

Matt’s Reflections-February 18
Roads seem to personify the rules in Third World countries: Right of way goes to the biggest and strongest. The only “right” of the small guy is to get out of the way of those bigger than him.
As Americans, we have the sense that each individual has inalienable rights, regardless of their status in society. These rights apply everywhere. We believe you shouldn’t be able to send someone to jail or take their property just because they are poor. You shouldn’t be able to deny someone the right to vote, even if they have little education. Whoever gets in line first should get served first, even if someone more important comes in.
This is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage, which places law and justice above any man, no matter how powerful he might be. Of course, it doesn’t always get worked out perfectly, but we still expect that things should be this way, and we get mad when they aren’t. That’s not the case here. Everyone seems to accept that rights are merely a product of size and power-even on the road.


Some time later, the bus began to slow. The wind, which had been whistling through the windows, became a breeze and then stopped all together. Little pearls of sweat quickly took shape on Matt’s forehead. Sticking his head out the window, he saw a long line of vehicles stopped where the road disappeared into a coffee-colored river.
“What are we doing?” Matt asked.
Kinjapur responded, “We must wait for the ferry. Our government is too poor to build bridges, so we have to use ferries to cross rivers.”
“No road bridges at all?” The way the map looked, Bangladesh was crisscrossed by hundreds, if not thousands, of rivers.
“Very few. That is why it can take several days to drive across the country even though Bangladesh is a small country. Ferries are not rapid.”
“Not rapid” was an understatement. A full three hours later, the bus finally lurched forward onto the bed of the ferry. Nineteen other vehicles packed on, mostly buses, all parked within inches of each other. It took four hours of winding down the rain-starved river to reach the road on the other side.

• • •

Kinjapur had obtained the key for a small, brick building in the center of the village. Besides the school next door, it was the only brick building in sight. The rest of the homes and shops lining the dirt pathways had thatch roofs and walls of mud. Matt glanced up from his book as Kinjapur and two local JESUS Film Project workers entered their temporary residence. Although the room was windowless and its cement floors unfurnished, Matt was beginning to prefer it to the alternative. Whenever he went outside, crowds gathered around him, peering in wonder at the tall, white Westerner.
“You are well, Matt?” asked Kinjapur for the eighth time that morning.
“Just fine.” As politely as possible, he questioned, “Why do you keep asking me that?” Matt was finding elements of life in rural Bangladesh difficult, but still manageable. Kinjapur and the other JESUS Film Project brothers, however, seemed to fear he was going to wilt and whither or something worse.
Kinjapur did not seem embarrassed by the question. “We’ve never had Americans come with us out this far-only to Dhaka sometimes. This is not a very good place, I think, for American people’s bodies.”
Matt was not quite sure what Kinjapur meant, but tried to assure him. “I’ll be just fine. You know, Mr. Sammadar wanted us to call to let him know we had reached the region safely. Can we do that now?”
Kinjapur nodded. “The nearest phone is in a town a short distance from here. We will take a rickshaw.”
Matt looked down to finish the page he was reading when a knock came at the door. One of the JESUS Film Project workers opened it. A small crowd of men in long robes flowed in. Traditional Muslim prayer caps covered their heads, and tangled beards draped down from their faces. They spoke rapidly at the man who had opened the door.
As Matt stood, Kinjapur whispered to him, “These are teachers from the Madresse. Be very respectful.”
“What is the Madresse?”
“A fundamentalist Muslim school known for its strict obedience to the Koran.”
The men moved past the local JESUS Film Project workers. They seemed most interested in Matt. Kinjapur translated their greeting and the questions that followed. They did not smile, but did not seem angry, either.
Kinjapur explained, “They ask where you are from.”
“I am from America.”
Kinjapur translated, then followed with the next question, “And why have you come to visit Bangladesh?”
“I am traveling all around the world. I am learning much about the people and country of Bangladesh.”
“The teachers say you must be Muslim to have such a fine beard as you do.”
Matt smiled. “No, I am a Christian. Tell them they have much finer beards than I.”
The men seemed to enjoy Matt’s answer; one even let out a chuckle.
Several more questions came before what seemed to be the grand finale. “The teachers want to know if you are willing to donate money for their school.”
Matt smiled, but glanced at Kinjapur. “What do you think?”
Kinjapur smiled back in a slightly strained manner. “I think it would be a good idea.”
Matt pulled two fifty-taka notes from his wallet. The teachers seemed quite pleased as he handed it to them, the equivalent of just over two dollars.
They shook Matt’s hand once again as they filed out.
When the door was shut, Matt asked, “Did they come and ask all those questions about me just so they could get a donation?”
“No. They liked the donation, but I think they just wanted to check us out and see if we’re safe. I think they also were just curious about you.” Kinjapur opened the door once more. “Are you ready to go make your phone call?”
Kinjapur’s description of the trip to the nearest phone as a “short distance” was another understatement. Matt wondered where their slight, wiry rickshaw driver got the strength to continue straining against the peddles for an entire hour, and even well into a second. The path led through rice fields, over bridges, and down semipaved roads for at least a dozen miles.
Finally, they came to a stop before a two-story cement building in a town significantly larger than the one they had left. On the second floor, a lone man sat at a desk, pulling plugs in and out of a wooden box and turning a crank. The device seemed to be a turn-of-the-century British switchboard.
“We wish to call Dhaka,” requested Kinjapur when the man had set his listening device down.
The number, however, did not go through on the first try. Nor on the second, nor the third. Half an hour later, Kinjapur turned to Matt and shrugged. “I do not think we will able to get through today. Perhaps we will send a letter to Mr. Sammadar to inform him all is well.”
Before they left town, they obtained permission from the region’s government chairman to show the JESUS film in local villages. The chairman was a Muslim, of course, but a film about a man he accepted as a great prophet was not necessarily a negative thing. The presence of an American, Kinjapur told Matt, also helped a great deal.
It was late in the afternoon when they made it back to their simple residence. “We need to hurry,” directed Kinjapur as he slid a key into the door. He grabbed the projector and screen. Matt followed with the generator.
The rickshaw Kinjapur engaged had no passenger seat, only a four-by-five-foot flatbed of wood. They placed their loads on the flatbed, then climbed aboard. The rickshaw driver got a long running start, pushing on the handlebars to gain momentum before jumping on. Dusk was fast approaching as the rickshaw neared its destination. A long, earthen path ventured through the rice fields on a levy, three or four feet above the flooded fields. Set among coconut and eucalyptus trees at the path’s end were a dozen or so mud huts with thatched roofs. As the rickshaw bumped to a halt, a crowd of children ran out to greet the visitors. Kinjapur explained something in Bengali, and all but a few of the children shot off in every direction. Matt could hear their little voices crying, “Publicity! Publicity!” as they ran among the huts and out along other paths to neighboring villages. He wondered where they had heard that word.
The two local JESUS Film Project team members arrived a few minutes later. Matt aided as they set up the screen and the projector, then primed the generator. Glancing up from his work, Matt was surprised to notice a Hindu temple rising a short distance from the open area where the film would show. He gazed at the twenty-foot pyramidal structure. Its yellow and sky-blue paint was chipped and faded, but the cement seemed quite solid. Intricately carved faces and animals peered back at him. He could see a woman draped in an indigo sari lighting candles and incense sticks near the entrance.
“This is a Hindu village,” explained Kinjapur. “Most of the country is Muslim, but there are . . .”
He was cut short as a piercing scream rang out from the temple.
Matt peered toward the temple. “What was that!?”
Kinjapur gave a half-smile. “They scream to chase away evil spirits before they go into the temple. Here, can you give me a hand with this cord?”
A large crowd had gathered by the time the film began; where they had come from, Matt could only wonder. He sat in the stiff wooden chair that had been presented to him by one of the village elders. Around him in the darkness, Matt could make out perhaps two hundred faces in the colored light reflecting from the screen. The crowd extended behind him as well, and a group of men even leaned against his chair and on his shoulders.

Matt’s Reflections-February 20
What a remarkable day in such a strange and foreign place.
I spent most of it trying to make a single phone call that I ended up not being able to complete. From a productivity standpoint, most of my hours were a total waste. Reflecting back on it though, I have to say that it was relationally rich. I spent over four hours talking with Kinjapur on the back of a bicycle rickshaw. I didn’t accomplish the one task I set out to do today, but perhaps I accomplished something even more valuable through my time with a friend.
I would have thought that living without the conveniences of electricity, running water, or a car would give one less time for relationships. Surprisingly, I have found the opposite to be true. Wealth and material things so often detract from time for relationships. The complexities that come with more possessions-even while making life more convenient-often bind people to having bad relationships rather than free them to have good ones.

Mike-A Village Somewhere Northeast of Dhaka

Mike could not help shaking his head as he emerged from the hut he had slept in. I’ve never felt so far from home, he thought.
Rice paddies stretched off in every direction. Most had been flooded by farmers, their waters reflecting silver from the predawn sky. In some, tender shoots of rice poked up through the water. The village, with its twenty or so huts, stood on a levy of hard-packed earth a few feet above the surrounding fields. The purpose of the levy was to hold the village above the yearly floods that cover more than 70 percent of Bangladesh’s surface area during the rainy season; the few feet of elevation also allow for an extensive view of the countryside in a land that is essentially flat.
Not far off, wearing only a loin cloth, a man bent over in a field. He seemed to be plucking individual stalks of rice out of the ground and bunching them in his hand. Apparently, the shoots needed a certain amount of space to grow initially, but could be relocated closer together once they reached a certain height. It looked like painstaking work.
Mike glanced over as a small boy emerged from a hut and placed a pile of banana peels before a bony cow. As he worked, the boy never took his eyes from Mike. His mother squatted before a small fire in front of their hut, boiling rice. Every minute or two, she stuck another piece of dried dung into the fire and blew on it softly. The boy who had fed the cow disappeared back into his hut. A moment later, several more children emerged, moving toward Mike, but stopping a short distance away, their clothes tattered but clean. The girls all had enormous brown eyes and rings in their noses. Two carried their infant siblings-hefty loads for the girls’ size.
“Good morning,” offered Mike.
Giggling and moving behind one another shyly, they followed as he moved to the village well and doused his head with several pumps of the handle. Mike next headed in the direction of the small bamboo enclosure that housed the village’s single pit toilet, glancing back at the trail of children.
“You can’t follow me in here,” he said.
At least he could latch the door. From the moment he had arrived in the village, the children watched him as if he were a moving TV set. Even when Mike and his BCS partner, Isali, bedded down for the night in their hut, they could hear children scurrying around outside, peeking through the thatch for a glimpse of him. The adults were not much better. Although the women were generally shy and deferent, and at least tried to appear as if they were not continually staring, the men gathered around him in groups and stared unabashedly. Some introduced themselves, but most simply gazed at him silently, emotionless, as if they were watching a zoo animal. It was understandable. Most of the people in the remote villages he was visiting had never seen a foreigner before. Even so, he was beginning to wonder how much more of it he could handle.

Mike’s Reflections-February 23
There are things I enjoy about being in the village here, but this is also a very difficult time. The challenge goes much deeper than the mosquitoes and the heat, the absence of modern conveniences, or even the stomachaches I’m getting. It is that I feel stripped of all the things I enjoy most. I have no access to the things that give me my “sustenance” for living: meaningful relationships, good books, good conversations, activities like surfing, or even a sense of being an important part of a purposeful ministry.
I wonder if this is the “desert experience” Christians often speak of. Perhaps a “desert experience” is not merely a difficult series of events. It is a time when all of our sources of sustenance, except God Himself, have dried up. In this, we discover how much of our sustenance we have drawn from sources other than God. In this place, I am seeing how much of my joy for life actually comes from things other than my relationship with God. I know that God does want me to enjoy His good gifts, but ultimately, He desires to be my source of final joy and purpose.
As I think about it, I realize that all the people God has used in powerful ways have gone through significant desert experiences in their lives, often in literal deserts. Moses, David, Paul, and even Jesus Himself spent significant time in the wilderness before beginning more public work. Knowing this may not make the desert times of my life any less difficult, but it can make it a little easier to embrace them if I know they are a necessary part of becoming the man God wants me to be.


“Please, Mike, I think you should share the four spiritual laws with him,” Isali advised.
Mike did not respond. His attention had been drawn to his stomach for a moment. It seemed to be protesting eighteen straight meals of little but rice. The slight ache was getting worse. “What did you say, Isali?”
“Give him the four spiritual laws.”
Mike glanced at Isali and the two other JESUS Film Project brothers. They watched expectantly, waiting for him to produce the “magical” Christian tract. Mike’s hand moved across his chest with noticeable hesitation as he reached for the pamphlet that lay in his shirt pocket. The old Muslim man on whose dirt porch they sat continued to offer his near toothless grin. For several minutes, the man had listened with fascination as Mike explained faith in Jesus. Now Isali wanted Mike to cut to the evangelistic chase with the tract.
“Use the booklet and ask him to pray the prayer,” came the next suggestion.
“Isali, do you think he understands who Jesus is?” questioned Mike.
“I think maybe . . . I don’t know . . .” Isali seemed taken aback that someone would question the formula for making Christians.
Mike shook his head. “I want him to come to know Jesus, Isali, but I don’t think it’s right to ask him to commit his life to Christ if he doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
Isali looked at the ground thoughtfully. The other two Bengalis, sensing their American counterpart was not going to proceed as they had hoped, produced their own copies of The Four Spiritual Laws. Fifteen minutes later, they were on their way to the next village. The old Muslim had remained polite throughout the conversation, but declined to “pray the prayer.”

Mike’s Reflections-February 22
I greatly respect the evangelistic zeal of the BCS workers. It highlights how often I let opportunities to share about Jesus slip by. I also admire their commitment to serving God under persecution and some of the roughest of circumstances I can imagine. I just don’t know what to think about the focus of the methods some of them use sometimes.
It seems that the goal is often just to get people to “pray the prayer,” whether they understand what they are doing or not. It’s like a rushed, assembly-line mentality.
I know we are commanded to spread the good news of Jesus, but the Great Commission is a command to make disciples. “Conversion” that is nothing more than repeating a formulaic prayer for getting in to heaven without a decision to give one’s life totally to Jesus bears little similarity to the invitations Jesus offered to those He met up with.


Trey-Jhalakhati Region, Southern Bangladesh

The roosters began crowing a good while before dawn. By the end of the first week, Trey had learned that getting back to sleep was unlikely. With a grunt, he submitted to another early morning. The usual crowd of locals stood at the door and window, staring in at him. He wearily returned a smile and climbed out from under the mosquito net. Apparently, his BCS partner, Ajonni, had a long journey planned for the day. A local woman who helped with cooking brought in a tin plate piled high with breakfast-another mound of rice, this one topped with a potato. Trey washed the starchy taste down with a few swigs from the well.
“I’ll be ready in a second, Ajonni,” he promised, splashing water on his head and combing at the tangled mass as best he could. His decision to not cut his hair on the trip was becoming a bit cumbersome.
A muddy river flowed on the outskirts of town. Trey nodded at the turbaned beanpole of a man who balanced on the far end of the boat as he and Ajonni boarded. The ancient wooden craft creaked as the old driver used a long staff to push off.
“What are we going to do today, Ajonni?” Trey queried.
“Oh, it is down many rivers.” Trey nodded, waiting for Ajonni to continue, but the Bangladeshi seemed to think he had answered Trey’s inquiry fully. Ajonni’s imperfect English often meant questions had to be repeated.
“Why, Ajonni? Why are we going down many rivers?”
Ajonni seemed to understand. “Today, we visit a Christian village. They saw JESUS film some years ago. Now they all Christian. They will like to see you very much. No American Christian ever visit before.”
Several miles downstream, Ajonni directed the old boatman toward a concrete dock on the edge of a good-sized town. Not far down the river, Trey could see it joining a second river and widening considerably. “This is beginning of Ganges River delta,” Ajonni explained. “We will switch here to a boat with motor.”
Ajonni paid the boatman and set off in search of a motorboat for hire. A merchant who was going their way finally agreed to take them on. Trey settled in as best he could beside the merchant’s cargo-a load of fresh coconuts-beneath a broad bamboo awning. With the day as warm and humid as it was, he was thankful for the shade. As they moved deeper into the delta, the air grew noticeably warmer and the buzz of insects louder. Two hours later, Trey noticed the first building he had seen for some time. It seemed to be growing right out of the water. He noticed a second, then another.
“This is town of Pirojpur,” Ajonni announced. “We walk from here. You know the Sundarban jungle? They beginning only few miles from here. That is where Bengali tiger lives.”
For one with an imagination like Trey’s, Pirojpur seemed an Asian Venice with its homes and shops poised high above the water on stilts. Bridges made of bamboo and woven reeds linked individual homes with one another and with the mainland.
“It’s amazing how they build everything up on stilts like this,” remarked Trey as he and Ajonni debarked onto a bamboo platform.
Ajonni tilted his head slightly, as if pondering the thought that there might be something interesting about building houses on stilts. He asked, “You want chai before we start hike?”
Trey had little desire for a hot drink, but he nodded anyway. He knew Ajonni would insist that he ought to have some until he gave in. They stopped at a small café on the way out of town and sipped hot chai from dirty cups. Dish soap has yet to make its appearance in rural Bangladesh.
The hike led along the levies that crisscrossed the rice paddies. Occasional stretches of unbroken water suggested that certain areas of the delta remained flooded almost year-round. Trey had been watching a man plow with a large black ox when he felt Ajonni’s hand close around his. He started and pulled back slightly, but Ajonni’s fingers were already interlaced with his own.
Ajonni acted like nothing had happened. “The village is two miles more from here, I think,” he remarked nonchalantly.
Trey had noticed that male Bangladeshis appeared completely comfortable holding hands as they walked or sat talking. It was merely a mark of friendship. Even so, it felt quite unnerving. Noticing that a farmer was watching them, Trey unconsciously pulled his hand back again. Ajonni did not let go. I’ll just have to get used to this, Trey decided, smiling at the thought of what friends back home would think if they could see him stroll across the rice fields hand in hand with a Bangladeshi man.
A patch of trees grew out of the horizon as they approached. It took nearly half an hour to become life-size. Entering the grove, Trey caught sight of small huts set among the trees. Although not built above water, these homes also were balanced on stilts.
“This area will flood every year,” explained Ajonni. “Often even with the stilts they have to spend several weeks a year living on their roof.”
Ajonni and Trey emerged into a clearing in the middle of the village. Women and young girls were about their daily chores, sweeping, washing clothes, and cooking. Children played at their mothers’ feet and under the houses. Several old men sat talking to boys, apparently teaching them. No one seemed to notice Trey or Ajonni.
Suddenly, one of the boys cried out something in Bengali. Faces turned toward the visitors. Several men in traditional longi skirts crowded around, shaking hands with Ajonni and eagerly pointing at Trey. Children squeezed in between them to get a good look at the tall white man. Women, decked in their bright saris, watched and whispered from a distance. Into the swirl of welcome, an aged man with untypically long hair stepped forward. As the others quieted to a low buzz, Ajonni translated for the village elder.
“We welcome you, our brother, to our simple village. We are blessed to have you here.”
He grasped Trey’s hands firmly for a moment, then pulled him into a welcoming embrace.
“Thank you,” said Trey, a bit overwhelmed.
The elder nodded. “Understand, brother, our love for Jesus is our love for you.”

Trey’s Reflections-February 24
I can tell these people want to emulate their Lord in everything. Ajonni says he thinks the elder even grew his long hair so that he could be like the Jesus in the movie.
With Muslims on every side and the only other minority villages being Hindu, these believers are a virtual island of Christian faith. Somehow, the simple fact of my presence here is an incredible encouragement to them. It seems that a visit from an American Christian to those who often feel so isolated is refreshing and encouraging-even validating-in a way I could never fully understand.
Darkness was nearly complete when one of the villagers brought out an old oil lantern. Its flame cast flickering light over the congregated faces-large, eager eyes of children; gold glinting in the noses of the women; time-carved foreheads of the old. Trey, Ajonni, and the old men sat in chairs. The others stood or sat on the ground, the old men conferring with one another in hushed tones before launching a question on behalf of the group.


“How many days did it take you to walk here from America?”
“Actually, I did not walk, I flew . . .” Trey could not hold back a smile.
He stopped, realizing how little his words would mean. His eyes fell on a piece of sheet metal that lay against one hut. Picking it up, he tried for several minutes to demonstrate how a man-made bird could be made of metal. The crowd had not lost their quizzical looks when Trey decided to ask if they had any other questions.
After more conferring, “What color is the dirt in America?”
Trey’s response that dirt was pretty much the same in America as in Bangladesh brought roars of laughter from the crowd.
Another man spoke up, “But do you have stars in America?”
Trey nodded, trying to hold back a laugh. “Oh yes, we see the very same stars in the sky from America that we see here in Bangladesh.”
The man seemed somewhat relieved. Perhaps it made the mythical land of America not all that far off after all. Trey glanced around at the circle of faces once again. What a strange thing, he thought, that I am here on the far side of the world with people who have absolutely no clue about America-and yet, we worship the same Lord!

• • •

A letter waited for Trey upon his return to Ajonni’s house. He could not decipher the return address, but it appeared to be from Dhaka. He tore back the flap and pulled out a single sheet of paper that read:

Dear Trey,

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mike is sick. Come to Dhaka
immediately. Hope you are doing well. See you soon.

Sincerely,
Dennis Sammadar, Director of Bangladesh Christian Service


Jedd-Village of Borkali

Along the horizon, the lights of distant villages twinkled. Jedd stood between two JESUS Film Project workers, just beyond the glow reflecting from the film screen. Before them, seventy-five people watched transfixed as Jesus laid His hands on the eyes of blind Bartimaeus and declared in Bengali, “Receive your sight, your faith has healed you.”
Jedd breathed a faint sigh. This was the first time all day the attention of the crowds had not been utterly focused on him. His translator had returned to Dhaka nearly a week before, but although he could exchange only a handful of words in Bengali, everyone he encountered was constantly watching, following, and trying to interact with him.
A gangly shape shuffled up next to Jedd in the darkness. “Shomosha, brother? Shomosha?” It was Swapan, the local pastor in whose church building Jedd was staying. Once again, he was asking if Jedd was doing okay, if there was any “problem.”
Jedd shook his head. “Nah, Thank you, brother, Shomosha nah.” As Swapan melted back into the darkness, Jedd silently breathed, “I just need some time alone.” As touching as their care and concern were, the constant attention was wearing on him.
One of the film workers noticed he was standing and brought the village chair from the place Jedd had left it only a few minutes before. He placed it behind Jedd and indicated for him to sit. “Thank you, brother,” said Jedd, sitting, although he had no desire to do so.
For a moment, everyone’s attention returned to the film. Jedd quietly rose from the chair and stole in the direction opposite the film, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he had not been seen. Past the village’s dark huts he moved, past a bony cow that was tethered to a tall eucalyptus tree, then down off the levy on which the village stood and into a drained rice field. The film continued to play-now a small, colorful square a few hundred yards off. Only faintly could he hear the deep voice of the Bengali Jesus explaining the kingdom of heaven. All around him stretched the rice fields, some dry, others glimmering with stars reflected from above. Jedd plopped down on the cracked earth of an empty field, placed his head between his knees, and breathed deeply for a moment.
“Oh God, please lift this weight. I love Your people, Lord, but I am really pretty tired of them right now.”
Looking up, it seemed to Jedd that the expanse of stars above him was blazing brighter than he had ever seen. It felt as if the psychological weight of always being watched, of never having a moment to himself, was beginning to dissolve. A smile creased his lips. He began to sing a hymn, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all . . .” Refreshment began to pour over him. The solitude felt rich and velvety. He began another song; “Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. Not be . . .”
With a start, he noticed that the JESUS film had suddenly stopped. The screen had gone dark, disappearing into the night. All was silent for a moment, and then, over the bullhorn used earlier to invite villagers to the film, the voice of one of the workers crackled, “Mister Jedd, Mister Jedd! Please come to home of Swapan Das. Please come to home of Swapan Das.”
Jedd sank his face into his hands and let out a long, desperate breath. “No! No, no, no! I can’t believe this!”
Slowly, Jedd rose to his feet and began plodding back toward the village. As he walked, the bullhorn sounded again and again. “Mister Jedd, Mister Jedd, please come to home of Swapan Das.”
He entered the ring of light cast by an oil lamp that sat next to the projector. Several of the JESUS Film Project workers ran up to him, their faces creased with worry. “Shomosha, brother? Shomosha?”
Jedd swallowed hard before replying. Something close to anger welled up. “Shomosha nah! Shomosha nah!” The brothers looked at him with a blend of relief and concern. Jedd’s anger melted into weariness. He could not feel mad, but a stifling desperation pushed upon him, even seemed to fill his throat. Tears crept into his eyes. The workers were staring at him. He knew they would not understand what he was saying, but he said it anyway, “I just need some time alone. You understand? Time alone, by myself.”

Jedd’s Reflections-February 25

I feel tired, desperate, almost claustrophobic. The people here are good, kind, and so loving to me, but I feel my love for them is wearing thin.
I need time alone. They seem to have no concept of such a need. Their lives are crowded shoulder to shoulder from birth. They are surprised, even worried whenever I indicate a desire to be by myself. But I need it. I feel like I need it now as much as I need air.


Jedd’s belly churned like the inside of a volcano. He had not felt right for several days and seemed to be getting worse. Placing his hand on his forehead, he felt the clammy skin, disconcertingly warm.
I hope I can make it back to Swapan’s village, he thought, forcing himself to place one foot in front of the other.
“Shomosha, brother?” Swapan asked.
“I do not feel well,” replied Jedd in Bengali with a faint smile.
Swapan gazed at him with his wide, bulbous eyes for a moment, concerned. “Rest here?”
“No. Go to village. Rest there. I am fine.” Jedd did not want to give Swapan too much cause for worry. Swapan was always anxious over Jedd’s comfort, even when nothing was wrong. For a moment, the world seemed to roll before Jedd. He closed his eyes, and the dizziness passed. “I will be fine, Swapan. I will rest at the village.”
Their path led through the vast expanses of rice fields and into a small town. As always, the people stopped whatever they were doing to watch Jedd pass. He did not smile at them as he usually did. The pathway was a bit muddy from a recent downpour. Brightly clad women sat on bamboo mats along the side, their small piles of rice, guavas, eggs, or fish set in front of them for sale.
Swapan paused for a moment to bargain for some eggs. Suddenly, Jedd felt the contents of his stomach rushing up to his mouth. There was nowhere he could go. He erupted onto the muddy road: half-digested rice, a little fish, and part of an egg. He placed his hands on his knees, bent over, and threw up again. A crowd began to form to watch as he wretched several more times, coughing, breathing hard. Swapan ran to his side and placed his hands on Jedd’s stooped shoulders, “Oh, brother, brother!” Swapan seemed on the verge of tears.
Jedd glanced up at the flock of onlookers. “Stare if you want. I don’t even care,” he muttered. He gagged again, but nothing came out. A dog crept out from between two buildings and began lapping up the vomit.
Swapan signaled a rickshaw driver. “Will you take us to the village of Boruka?”
“There is no road there. You know it is hard to go along the levies.”
“Yes or no?”
“I will take you.”

• • •

Throughout the night, Jedd slipped in and out of consciousness, sometimes miserably awake, sometimes twisting in a feverish sleep. The rickshaw had taken them to Swapan’s village, and Swapan brought Jedd into his family’s hut and laid him on his own bed-a low table covered with two blankets. After getting Jedd’s mosquito net from the church and setting it up over him, Swapan sat cross-legged on the bed at Jedd’s feet. Whenever Jedd drifted into consciousness, he could hear Swapan praying quietly, fervently for his American brother. Whenever Jedd moved, his feet poked out from below the not-quite-big-enough mosquito net. Swapan would pause in his prayers, pull Jedd’s socks up as high as they would go to protect his ankles from the mosquitoes, and then work to pull the netting as close to covering Jedd’s feet as he could.
Even in the midst of delirious dreams, Jedd wondered, What amazing love this brother has for me! I never would’ve appreciated him if I hadn’t gotten sick.

• • •

Jedd woke in the morning. He must have fallen into a deeper sleep some hours before. The small room was full of villagers. Swapan talked with them in hushed tones. When Jedd stirred, he came and sat on the edge of the bed. “You are better, brother?”
Jedd managed a faint smile. “I am not bad.” Although his stomach still ached, his head felt much clearer. Relief poured over Swapan’s face.
“You like rice?”
Jedd shook his head, but seeing the concern creep back into Swapan’s tired eyes, he replied, “I would like a little rice, please.”
An hour later, he vomited the rice on the side of the hut when no one but a group of children was watching. Jedd walked around the hut to where Swapan was crouching next to his wife as she prepared lunch over a dung fire. “Swapan, I need to go to Dhaka. I will see a doctor.”
“Yes. I think so also.”
Bidding good-bye to all of the villagers, he and Swapan departed for Dhaka. On the side of the road where the bus for Dhaka would pass, Swapan looked at Jedd one last time. His wide eyes were sad, loving. “We”-he placed his hands together, as if in prayer-“for you,” he finished, pointing to Jedd.
“And I . . . will pray . . . for you,” said Jedd, repeating the pantomime.
Tears began to fill Swapan’s eyes and he leaned forward, wrapping Jedd in a bony embrace. Jedd could feel tears dripping on his neck. “Thank you, brother, thank you,” whispered Swapan as he finally released Jedd. “Thank you for coming to Bangladesh.”

 

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_________________________________________

- twenty -

100,000 Rickshaws

Dhaka, Bangladesh



Dhaka’s smog made for brilliant sunrises. Matt might have noticed had he not felt so weary. Screaming babies, incessant honking, and a cage of distraught roosters had not allowed him much sleep on the twenty-four-hour bus ride back to the city. Questions as to why Mr. Sammadar had summoned him back gnawed at his mind the entire trip. The letter had explained nothing; it simply directed him to return to Dhaka immediately. Had something bad happened to one of the other guys?
The road was already crowded. Matt and Kinjapur’s rickshaw driver, calf muscles straining, pushed forward, deftly negotiating the traffic. Thousands of bicycle rickshaws flowed every which way, somehow managing to dodge the charging buses and other large motor vehicles. Hundreds more rickshaws waited along the roadsides, their drivers hoping the day’s labor would bring in enough to feed a family for a day. Matt glanced off a bridge at one of Dhaka’s sludgy, trash-filled rivers. Several women had already begun doing their laundry. They lofted each piece of clothing into the air to catch what little breeze there was before floating it down to the lumpy water. He could not help wondering if the clothes would come out dirtier than before they were washed.
Kinjapur paid the driver at a busy corner and led off down an alleyway toward the BCS dorm. Matt made it to the door first. He pushed it open and headed straight for the bedroom. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. On an upper bunk, Mike stirred slightly. From the other side of the room, the sound of deep, methodic breathing came from under Jedd’s mosquito net. Trey sat against the wall, writing in his journal. A feeling of relief passed over Matt. Everyone seemed to be okay.

In Search of Plan B

At the sound of footsteps, Trey looked up. “I’m glad you’re back,” he whispered as he stood and welcomed Matt with a big hug. “How are you?”
“Pretty tired, but I’m doing fine. I’ve just been worried about how everyone else is here. Do you know why they had us all come back?”
A faint moaning came from Jedd’s bunk.
“Here, let’s go talk on the roof so we won’t wake up the guys.”
Up two flights of stairs, they emerged into the blinding morning light. A waist-high wall of cement block surrounded the flat roof. Up here, the sounds and smells from the streets below were less overpowering.
Trey looked at Matt and smiled. “Man, it’s really good to see you. I’m glad you’re okay. Mike and Jedd are pretty sick. Out in the villages, both of them came down with some kind of dysentery or something.”
“How bad are they?”
“Not good. They’ve got constant diarrhea and are throwing up anything they eat. The doctor can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong. Mike has been talking a lot about trying to leave the country.”
“Hey,” came a weak voice from the stairwell. It was Mike. Matt would have been tempted to laugh if it had not been so pitiful how much like an old man Mike moved across the roof. To see the always rough-and-ready Mike so feeble was disconcerting.
Mike noticed the concern in Matt’s face and turned his lips up in a faint smile. “So, Matt, you made it back all right?”
“Better than you, I guess.”
“That’s not saying much,” Mike replied. “Did you get sick at all?”
“Not really. I had a few stomachaches and stuff, but nothing real bad.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Jedd and I both got worked. I wasn’t in the village for more than a week before it hit me. I think someone served me some water out of a pond they use to wash and go to the bathroom in. I’ve never been so sick in all my life.”
A pained look crossed Mike’s face, and his hands went to his belly. He waddled quickly toward the wall and leaned over, dry heaves, nothing came out. He offered Matt a faint smile. “I haven’t been eating much.”
“You going to be okay?”
Mike nodded. “Yeah. But I don’t know how much longer I can handle Bangladesh.”
“Trey told me you’re thinking about trying to get out of the country.”
“I don’t know if I can last four more weeks here. I probably sound like a wimp, but I am just totally miserable.”
“What about Mr. Sammadar and the other BCS guys?”
“Maybe I should care what they think, but I honestly don’t. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel like I was doing anyone out there in the villages any good anyway. Did you?”
Matt thought for a moment. “Actually, I did. Obviously, there was a language barrier, but I felt like my presence made it possible to show the film in regions they’d never been allowed to before, and having an American helped with publicity. It also seemed like the local Christians were really encouraged just by the fact that I was there.”
Mike was nodding but did not seem to hear what Matt had said. His voice held a faint tremor, “I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think I can handle it here anymore. I think we should leave as soon as possible. It doesn’t seem like there’s any point to us being here if all we’re doing is feeling sick and miserable in this place they call a dorm.”
Matt looked at Mike with surprise. Mike was the last person in the world to complain, let alone talk of cutting out on a job before it was done. He must be a total wreck, thought Matt.“What do you suggest?” he asked gently.
“I have some friends in Australia who work with Young Life, and I’m going to have my sister send me their contact information. We could go work with them.”
“Australia?” Matt was a bit taken aback. “Plane tickets would probably cost at least a few hundred dollars from here.”
Mike stared blankly at Matt as if prepared for a showdown.
Matt continued, “Look, Mike. Whatever we need to do to get you well we should do. But it seems to me that we should at least talk to Mr. Sammadar and . . .” Matt stopped as he noticed tears were filling Mike’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” sputtered Mike after a moment. “I know I’m being a total wimp. I just don’t know if I can stand to be in this place for another month . . .”

• • •

Mr. Sammadar’s overhead fan whirred quietly. We sat in four chairs in front of his desk as he asked about Jedd’s and Mike’s conditions and our thoughts about what to do now.
He ran his fingers through his black hair, thinking. “I believe you should not return to the villages. You must take time to rest.”
“Would there be work for us to do here in Dhaka?” followed Matt.
“Oh yes. There is much we would like you to do. You can teach English classes here at BCS headquarters and many Muslims and Hindus will come. You can also visit the Dhaka University and speak with students. Other things, too. There is much to do.”
Mike glanced at the others before responding. “Thank you for that offer, Mr. Sammadar. We need a few days to rest and think about it, but we’ll give you a call.”
“Yes, take some time to think and pray about it,” he said, pausing for a moment to adjust his glasses. “It would also be good if you found another place to stay-Dhaka has several reasonable guesthouses. The BCS dorm is not a very good place for an American to get well. Please let me know when you decide.”
We shuffled out and moved into an unoccupied room in the BCS office.
“What do you think, Mike?” asked Jedd.
“I still want to go to Australia,” he stated flatly.
No one dared respond for a long minute. Jedd let out a long breath. “I was thinking the same thing, Mike, until we talked with Mr. Sammadar. If they can really use us in Dhaka, I’m starting to feel like maybe we should stay.”
Matt and Trey remained quiet, apparently viewing their generally good health as disqualifying them from offering an opinion. Finally Mike responded, “All right, guys. I’ll try to stick it out. Let’s see if we can find a decent place to stay and if they can really use us. If not, I may just go to Australia with whoever will come with me.”

• • •

“Who would like to read the next section in English?” asked Trey, looking around the circle of Bangladeshi men and women.
Ihan, the young man who had first welcomed us to the BCS dorm, was waving his hand again. He and several other BCS workers had joined our classes, both to build their English skills and to spend time with us. Trey looked for any other takers. Ihan had read too many times already. A young Hindu woman raised her hand, the crimson dot in the middle of her forehead matching the deep red of her sari. Trey nodded at her and smiled.
“Okay, verse 16,” he directed.
She read slowly, mouthing the words carefully. “‘For God so . . . loved the . . . world that He gave His only be . . . beg . . .’”
“Begotten,” pronounced Trey. “It means, ‘to be born of.’ Go ahead, you’re doing well.”
“‘He gave his only begotten son. That who . . . who . . . whosoever . . . believes in Him will not . . . perish but have et . . . et . . . eternal life.’”
“Excellent!” affirmed Trey. “You’re doing great. Now who wants to try answering the next question-I want you to answer only in English: What did those words mean?”
We had begun our English classes several days before with little publicity. Already, our two classes had more than twenty students each. Jedd and Mike taught a two-hour session in the morning; Matt and Trey led a second in the afternoon. Although few people in Bangladesh speak English well, young people-particularly university students-are eager to learn. When one pair was teaching, the other ventured out to Dhaka University, seeking recruits for our classes and talking with the groups that inevitably gathered round. In the meantime, we also had discovered a decent guesthouse. It was not much by American standards, but it was clean and relatively bug-free. Mike still saw the whole situation as somewhat probationary, but we were all feeling generally better about life.
Trey looked around the circle and repeated his question, “So, who wants to try explaining to me in English what the verse means?”
Welcome to the American Club
Mike tapped the rickshaw driver on the shoulder. “Turn here,” he said, directing with his hand.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” asked Matt.
“Just wait, you’ll find out.”
Large, leafy trees reached out to touch one another over a quiet lane. The pollution-stained apartments and high-rises that dominated most of Dhaka were nowhere to be seen-only individual homes, many of them encircled by high walls. As we moved along, the gates grew larger and the houses less visible.
“Stop here, please,” instructed Mike before an eight-foot whitewashed wall, topped with barbed wire. Trey and Jedd’s rickshaw followed suit.
Jedd handed several bills to each driver as Mike proceeded to a gatehouse set within the wall and spoke briefly with the Bangladeshi guard. A moment later, a steel door beside the gatehouse swung open.
“Matt, why don’t you lead the way,” offered Mike with a grin.
Matt looked around in wonder as he passed through the wall. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. Before him spread manicured tropical gardens, tennis courts, a sparkling swimming pool, and a large white building that looked like the clubhouse at a country club.
“Where are we? What is this place?” asked Jedd.
“Welcome to the American Club!” Mike announced, gesturing forward as if to his own plot of land. “I stumbled on it when I visited the U.S. Embassy.”
“This is unbelievable. I almost feel like I’ve been transported back to the good ol’ U.S. of A.,” sighed Trey.
Mike was obviously quite proud of his discovery. “As nice as it looks here, the best thing is the food. I think they serve just about anything-cheeseburgers, fries, salads, even milkshakes.” We would have been embarrassed to admit it, but each of us had had lengthy daydreams about American food over the past several weeks.
“How in the world did you find this place?” asked Matt.
“See, I went by the American embassy. It’s not much to speak of. There weren’t even any Americans working there that I could see. When I was there though, I noticed a flier for something called the American Club.
“I got on a rickshaw and said ‘Ammerriccann Cluuub’ very slowly to the driver, and this is where he brought me. I guess the club is usually restricted to Americans that are attached to the embassy, but I pleaded with the administration and they were kind enough to give us all passes.”
“Cheeseburgers . . .,” Trey said slowly, shaking his head.
Mike nodded toward the large white building. “So, you guys ready for lunch?”
Matt looked at Jedd. “Is your stomach going to be able to handle it?”
Jedd shrugged. “It will probably end up hurting pretty good, but right now I don’t care.”

• • •

As he had been doing for more than two weeks now, Matt spent the morning on a patch of lawn at Dhaka University. He never sat alone for long because a student or two-often a large group-soon descended upon him. Talking with Bangladesh’s best and brightest made for fascinating conversation. This morning, a slender young man sat across from him, black goatee protruding from his narrow chin, head set back proudly, but his gaze respectful and thirsty for knowledge. Zaki had been plying Matt with questions for nearly an hour.
“I am so intrigued by what you say,” continued Zaki. “I like what you tell me about Jesus and what He teaches. I have spoken little with Christians before. That is why I ask so many things.”
“I don’t mind at all,” replied Matt. “Ask anything.” Already, Matt had spent some time explaining how Jesus’ death and all He taught through His life opened the way for man to be reconciled to his Creator.
“So then, what I want to ask,” said Zaki, “is if I can be a follower of Jesus but not a Christian?” He leaned forward with anticipation as Matt pondered the unexpected question.
Matt began slowly, “In some sense, I suppose you can. My definition of a true Christian, though, is a person who follows Jesus. I see them as the same thing.”
“But does a person have to call themselves a Christian to follow Jesus?”
“A person who truly wants to follow Jesus would accept Him completely, including everything He said about Himself. They wouldn’t just view Him as ‘some nice teacher.’ They would want to make Him their Master and Lord.”
“If I wanted to do that, would I have to be a Christian?”
After another pause, Matt responded, “I know there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians, but really don’t follow Jesus. I guess it would be possible to do it vice versa.”
Matt guessed he might be beginning to understand what Zaki was driving at. For Zaki, being a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu was almost like being a certain ethnicity or culture. It was something you were born into, like your skin color, and was not necessarily tied to what you believed.
“So being called ‘Christian’ is not the important thing?” Zaki continued.
“Whether or not you call yourself a Christian, the most important issue is whether or not you are truly placing your faith in Jesus-whether you are giving Him your life and seeking to live it as He would want you to. The word Christian really just means someone who has committed their life to Christ Jesus, but sometimes the word gets diluted into something else. The thing that really matters to God is what your heart is committed to.”
Zaki nodded but appeared to be deep in thought. Matt was about to ask a question when a voice shouted from across the lawn. “Zaki! Time for class.”
Zaki stood slowly, still thoughtful. “The things we have talked about will be on my mind.” He shook Matt’s hand and jogged off across the grass. “It was good to meet you,” he called over his shoulder.

Matt’s Reflections-March 11
I wonder if I responded correctly to Zaki’s question. Can a person be a follower of Jesus without being a Christian?
I wouldn’t blame someone for not wanting to be linked to all the evil things that have been carried out by people who have called themselves Christians. I also know a lot of the cultural aspects associated with “being a Christian”(whether it’s seeing alcohol as a sin in America or women not being allowed to wear makeup in Russia) really have little to do with following Jesus. After all, what really matters anyway? As Paul put it, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
At the same time, I know that a central part of the faith taught in the Bible is a community of believers who love and serve together. I don’t know that a person needs to call themselves a Christian to follow Jesus, but it does seem that if they were really interested in doing so, they would soon want to join with others who were seeking to do the same thing.

Mike’s Reflections-March 12
I can’t believe how differently I feel now from just a few weeks back. Bangladesh seems an entirely different place. A short time ago, I would have given anything to leave. Now, I can even see myself coming back someday.
A lot of it is just that I’m feeling better. There is still something weird going on in my stomach, but the medicine has definitely helped. It has also been so nice having a haven from the madness of the streets at our guesthouse and the American Club.
A big part of the change, though, is the amazing difference it makes when you feel like you are truly accomplishing something meaningful. I love spending time with the students in the English class, teaching them and sharing Jesus with them. Several have even had us over to their homes for meals. And the college kids I’m meeting at the university seem so eager to learn about anything I share.
I feel like I’m realizing more every day that the heart of this epic life we are seeking is, more than anything else, living with true purpose-not just some “random acts of kindness” mentality, but a deep sense that what you are doing in the ordinary moments of your life has eternal significance.

Answering the “Call”

Trey’s neck popped as he rolled it slowly to the left, then back to the right.
“You sore?” asked Matt.
“Kind of. Having to share that double mattress with you, I always end up sleeping squinched up on the side of the bed. For some reason, it leaves me sore sometimes.”
“Just be thankful you don’t share a bed with Mike or Jedd. You can tell their medicine hasn’t totally fixed ’em yet by the way the room smells every morning.”
The first series of tests run by the local doctor had not been able to discover what was wrong with Jedd and Mike. When they requested a repeat of the tests, the diagnosis suggested that giardia or a similar parasite was the culprit. The medicine prescribed, however, had little effect. Only when Jedd acquired the drugs suggested by our guidebook at a roadside stand did they begin to show signs of recovery.
Trey turned his attention back to their surroundings-the outdoor dining area in which they sat, the freshly cut lawn, the flowers hanging from the fences around the tennis courts, the clear waters of the swimming pool. They had made a morning trip out to the American Club for a luxury breakfast-fresh orange juice, toast, and two slices of bacon. Life felt so much better than it had just a few weeks before. He was especially enjoying the students in his and Matt’s English class. The relationships they were forming were great, and it was almost embarrassing how the young men and women lavished them with appreciation after every session. Best of all, each of the students-Muslims, Hindus, and Christians-were spending time every day in the Bible, getting to know Jesus better as they learned English.
Trey jumped as a low voice whispered just inches from his ear. “You were at the international church service yesterday, right?”
He shot a surprised glance at a stout man in his late twenties. “Uh, yeah, we were.”
“When you introduced yourself, you said you were working with the . . .” The man paused briefly as a Bangladeshi waiter walked by, then continued more softly, “. . . the JESUS film.”
“Yes, Matt here and I and our two friends are showing the film with Bangladesh Christian Service. We’ve been here about four weeks, and we’ll be here for another two or so. How long have you been here?”
“Nine months now. I’ll be here indefinitely.”
“And what is it that brings you here?”
The man took a quick look behind him-as if he thought someone might be eavesdropping-and replied in a hushed tone, “The Call.”
Trey shook his head. “The what?”
“You know,” he repeated slowly, “The Call.”
“Oh, I get it. You mean you were called to the mission fie-”
“Shh, shh, shh!” he said almost frantically. “You never know when any of the M.’s or F. M.’s might be around.”
“Hmm,” said Trey, trying not to reveal that he had no idea what the man was talking about. “So, what organization are you here working with?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Okay.”
A moment of awkward silence passed before the man spoke again. “Have you run into any problems with the F.M.’s while you’ve been here?”
“The what?” interjected Matt. “Oh . . . do you mean fundamentalist Muslims?”
The man nodded, a grave look on his face.
“No, no problems at all.”
The man hmmed, then put on his conspiratorial look once again, glancing back and forth for any spies. “May God bless your work.”
He left as stealthily as he came. We never saw him again.

Trey’s Reflections-March 13
That secret agent missionary guy this morning seemed a little bit weird to me. It was like he thought danger was lurking everywhere.
It does make me wonder, though. Maybe we are a little too casual in how we talk about our faith. Just because we haven’t faced any opposition doesn’t mean it does not exist. After all, it is officially illegal to share Jesus in this country-something we’ve been doing every day.
Jedd also told me just last night how one of the men he spent time with in the villages had been beaten by a mob of angry Muslims when he showed the JESUS film just a few months ago. They broke both his kneecaps and left him to die out in a rice field.
We should probably be more careful. I’m thankful God has kept us so entirely safe through our time here-we shouldn’t push it.


• • •

The night before our departure, we were up until nearly 2:00 A.M. with students who stopped by our guesthouse with thank-you gifts. It was the first time we had been given flowers, piling them, eight bouquets deep, next to our packed backpacks.
Our clocks had not yet hit six in the morning when a rapping came from the door of our room. The sound was repeated several times before Mike untangled himself from his mosquito net and stumbled to the door, pulling it back a crack and glaring through. All he could make out was a single eye and a large smile.
“Ihan? What are you doing here so early?”
“I wanted to make sure you did not leave before I could say good-bye.”
“We don’t leave until this afternoon,” replied Mike flatly.
“I know, but I feared I might miss you.” Ihan squeezed past Mike into the room. He did not notice that we were still trying to sleep; rather, he seemed overcome with relief. “I was awake all night. I worried I would come to your guesthouse and you would no longer be here. Then I would never see you again.”
Mike was beginning to soften. “Well, thank you for coming, Ihan. We definitely wanted to say good-bye, too.”
“I also brought you some presents. Here, open this.”
Mike untied the twine and peered into the brown bag. Four plaid shirts lay piled neatly inside.
“One for each of you,” explained Ihan, grinning.
Matt lifted his head from his pillow, his eyes only partially open. “Thanks, Ihan.”
Matt, Trey, and Jedd never did fully awaken. The half-aware smiles and nods were apparently enough for Ihan. It was an hour before he left. “I will be back this afternoon to go with you to the airport,” he promised.
Mike glanced at our pile of flowers as he moved back to his bed. “You know, getting woken up like that was annoying . . . but really, how can you not appreciate that guy.”
“That sums up how I’ve come to feel about Bangladesh,” said Trey.

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