LONG READ: Helmsdale rev's trip to Bangladesh 'bandit country'
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Helmsdale’s Rev Roddy Macrae made it into Bangladesh with Mission International’s Hugh Henderson before lockdown. Here is his story.
I was excited but nervous to be invited to visit Bangladesh and Myanmar with Mission International, an organisation I have had the privilege of serving with twice before in Africa. This would be my first trip to both countries, which have hit world headlines in recent years because of the Rohingya refugee crisis.
The region has a fascinating history. At one time Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma) were one British ruled country. Partition saw Pakistan and Bangladesh – once joined together though on either side of India – and India and Burma gain independence. Bangladesh (once called East Pakistan) would eventually gain its independence from Pakistan.
Our trip was delayed by two days due to flight changes. On arrival at Chittagong airport in Bangladesh, the border security was unclear if outsiders potentially carrying coronavirus, should be allowed into the country. Bangladesh closed its borders at noon on March 22, and we got in at 12.30pm. Perhaps we slipped through the gaps because of the antiquated system. However, from our point of view, we felt this was no accident.
Bangladesh has a population of some 160 million and we were immediately struck, as we were being driven from Chittagong south east towards a town called Banderban, at the number of people around. It was just so busy; people walking, always going somewhere. White faces are not common in some places, in particular rural areas, and we had to show our passports at various checkpoints. While the authorities in Bangladesh do not have much in the way of modern technology, they seem to know where you are all of the time.
At Banderban, we freshened up at our hotel before heading out to our first church meeting in a mountainous rural area known as bandit country where care is required when travelling.
We always had our local contact or government provided guide with us and never felt in any danger. The people in this area are more Asian (locally called Mongol) than those further west, who are of Bengali extraction.
They live mainly off the land. There is very little opportunity for paid work as we know it, although you do seefamilies making extra income by running what could be described as community shops, with soft drinks and water and other limited items.
There is a large Christian population here as well as other religious groups such as Buddhists. The government are not keen to allow western Christians to roam freely here, and especially not to stay with hosts or any other locals as they feel we may be trying to create some sort of anti-government division.
These groups feel left out, unsupported and therefore are more likely to agitate and make noises for independence from the governing authorities in Bangladesh.
Our contact, pastor Lal, has started nearly 30 churches in this rural landscape. He starts a church plant, then tries to train some people to lead the group and then trains someone to teach the Bible. Many of the people reached were walking around naked just 15 to 20 years ago and living wild in the jungle. Pastor Lal’s ministry also provides ways to teach people to read and write as well as teaching the Bible and creating a caring community even in these remote areas.
The delight of the church group athaving us there was just fantastic. Hugh shared a little from the Bible, which wastranslated into various languages. Singing is used as a means to teach what is mainly an illiterate people how to read and write, and boy they are good at it.
The next day, we travelled higher into the mountains where we met with another 50-strong group, some of whom had travelled from more distant communities. I had the opportunity of speaking to this group but found it hard to keep my train of thought going whilst waiting for the words to be doubly translated.
In terms of our relationship to Pastor Lal and to the churches, we hope to be able to provide Bible School style training for them, giving them tools to understand the Bible more and help them communicate it more effectively, and also train Pastor Lal and others in leadership and help organise the churches to be able to work together better with an overall joint vision where that is possible.
Back in Banderban, we were introduced to another amazing church project that provide accommodation for orphans in two hostels, one for boys and the other for girls. There are a lot of children in Bangladesh who have lost their parents.
The younger children are encouraged to attend school while the older ones are taught various skills in the hope of providing themwith an income. The young women have been learning how to make scarves and various other items such as blankets.
Mission International hopes to be able to import some of these crafts to sell here so that we can continue to support their work.
Unfortunately for us, borders all over the world were closing during our time in Bangladesh and that was the case with Myanmar. We probably could have entered Myanmar, but would have been quarantined for 14 days, so that would have made the trip redundant.
We are committed to returning to both countries when things settle down. It was a privilege for us to meet so many amazing people who are living in hard places and through hard times. We found that there are a lot of people in Bangladesh who are keen to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.
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