As I write this, we are back in Hong Kong awaiting our long flight back to the U.S. Here are some reflections on our time in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
While in Chittagong we worked exclusively with “tribal” people. There are fourteen tribes that occupy the Hill Tracts region of Chittagong. Overall, the tribal people are marginalized, ostracized, and in constant tension with Bengali people. As a group of people, they are far less educated and materially successful than their Bengali counterparts. They also happen to look much more like dad and I! I had a few of them tell me that if I were more tan (a LOT more tan) I could pass for one of them. This was probably best illustrated by our rickshaw ride to the Awana headquarters. I rode with one of the brothers and, as far as I could tell, absolutely no one stared at me or even gave me a second look while riding around on those busy streets. They are used to seeing people that look like me, i.e. tribal people. I guarantee you if it was Ron in that rickshaw, he would received countless stares!
Of the fourteen tribes we had seven of them represented: the Chakma, the Tripura, the Marma, the Mru, the Bawm, the Khumi, and the Pankhos. Overall, we were encouraged by how quickly they picked things up. They were thoughtful, engaged, and knowledgeable. At times, they grasped the concepts we were teaching them a bit quicker than our group in Dhaka. And, they were quite spirited! Almost every session began with robust singing, a mix of Bengali praise songs and songs more familiar to our ears. Frequently the Bengali praise songs would be accompanied with clapping and even dancing. They also brought this spirit into our sessions. Many of these men were passionate. Passionate in their discussion, passionate in their opinions, and passionate in their preaching. But, more than anything, they were passionate about their tribes turning from Buddhism and tribal religions to worship the true and living God!
Our accommodations in Chittagong were excellent. Each of us was less than a hundred percent in terms of health. We were all dealing with an assortment of stomach issues, fatigue, headaches, etc. The accommodations we had were just what we needed. We had two rooms between the three of us, both equipped with air conditioning, and their own bathrooms (with actual showers instead of buckets!) Our host, DJ, was a very well educated and accomplished churchman. And although he is Bengali through and through, he cares very little for typical Bengali fare. So, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he insisted that the three of us as his “honored guests” join him at his dining table where his chef prepared for us typical western fare. Each morning we were welcomed by oatmeal, pancakes or French toast, and eggs (scrambled, hard boiled, or fried). For lunch and dinner we were treated to things like chicken soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried snapper, fried chicken, potatoes, and a beef roast. And, there was almost always an offer of dessert. Apple pie a la mode. Ice cream cake. We were all cautious with our portions because of our stomachs, but I think the hospitality we experienced was exactly what we needed!
The hunger that these men had to learn the training was great. Our days were long and grueling. This was compounded by the issues we were having with the air conditioner in our classroom. Oftentimes we would go through long stretches where the AC would shut off and the room would be start to feel like a sauna. But that didn’t stop these men from engaging. At the end of our first day of training our coordinator, B., asked if would add an additional post-dinner session for the men to review all of the concepts we had learned thus far. We did and, even though it was mandatory, everyone was there. The next night B. said it might be a good idea if there was a review from the first training back in March on the book of Jonah for those who weren’t at that training. Again, the majority of the seats were filled with both first time and second time learners. Our humble prayer is that the hunger of these men to learn the Word of God would never abate and that they would have an equal hunger to pass on what they’ve learned with others.