I remember the colors the most. Bright and beautiful garments covering the bodies and faces that have suffered under years of soul-crushing poverty. I don’t remember any smiles. Just heads hanging shamefully, gazing at the ground. Eye contact was at a minimum once the momentary greeting passed. I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe they have yet to learn the song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart…down in my heart to stay.” Or maybe this is the customary Bangladeshi disposition when meeting a white person for the first time. My 6’1”, long-haired, bearded self was a lot to take in for this South-Asian culture, despite being the embodiment of “wall-calendar Jesus”. This small community had recently chosen to follow Jesus, so where is the joy?
It was in this moment that I received a clear directive from God: if you want to do anything that will outlive you, BUILD MY CHURCH. Bangladesh is about 90% Muslim, 9% Hindu, and less than 1% EVERYTHING else. Converting to Christianity from these religions is radically different from, say, becoming a Wesleyan from a Baptist background. Now, I know for some people, that feels like a drastic shift, but these precious converts lost everything when their faith became public. They lost their means of income, their kids were kicked out of school, and they were removed from their home and community. Their whole support system was now gone. So, naturally, they turn to the one who led them to Jesus for what they are supposed to do now.
Over the past few years, I have been developing a network of trusted friends who are willing to lose everything in order to see the Kingdom of God revealed in Bangladesh. They understand the dark spiritual landscape but also understand the unique dynamic that “I have decided to follow Jesus” brings. They understand that in order to reach the families, you have to reach the kids. It’s been a slow build, and we are beginning to see kids from many different religions come to Christ through camps, literacy projects, and good old-fashioned “Sunday School”.
This is all very hopeful, right? On the one hand, yes, but on the other, no.
The ongoing tension I live with is that it all seems so small. Bangladesh is a country the size of New York state, with a population of 170 million people compared to New York’s 20 million. Can you believe this?
On top of that, the darkness and pain I’ve witnessed runs deep in Bangladesh. I visited a city called Daulatdia that is built on prostitution and is the largest brothel in Bangladesh, maybe even in the world. Over 2000 women work and live there along with their babies and young children who are born in the brothel city. Sadly, most of the young girls who are born in Daulatdia never leave, becoming prostitutes themselves when they are old enough. I asked a 16-year-old what she would rather be doing with her life. She responded that she has never thought about it; this is the life that she was created to have. It’s how life works here. As a dad of two teenage daughters, I couldn’t emotionally handle that conversation.
A few days ago, I visited one of many Rohingya refugee camps outside of Cox’s Bazar. Since 2017, these camps are filled with 700,000 documented (and hundreds of thousands of undocumented) Muslims from Myanmar who fled to Bangladesh due to persecution. I was told that I visited the camp on the same day as Angelina Jolie, but in a place that large and densely populated, I never saw her. I spend a lot of time in the developing world, so I often barely notice things that tend to shock other Americans. On this visit, however, even I was overwhelmed by the dust, the smell of trash heaps and sewage, the inequitable distribution of goods and services, and the violence and abuse. This is NO place for a child to grow up. And the number of faith-based organizations working here hovers right around zero. But if there were some, and people started coming to Jesus, then what? What about health, education, and employment? Where is the hope in this situation?
Now, I firmly believe that that darker the night, the brighter the light, and that the painful realities of poverty, exploitation, and spiritual darkness present some of the greatest opportunities to share and show the love of Jesus. However, these realities threaten to squeeze any and all hope that I might have in seeing these places not just changed but completely transformed. As I travel the globe each year, I witness a growing disparity between the poor and the non-poor, the educated and illiterate, the generous and the stingy.
This is the heartache in hope. This is the groaning of all creation waiting for God’s children to be revealed. Longing to see His kingdom come and will be done in Bangladesh as it is in heaven. What I witness, more often than not, in seeking to establish and build the church, is not what I imagine heaven to be like. So when I see one Muslim or Hindu child receive Jesus in a literacy class, my heart explodes in two different directions. Hope now and hope deferred. A celebration of one while mindful of the millions yet to be. Joy and pain. Hope and heartache.
I need to remind myself that this reality is not unlike what Jesus himself was up against. Maybe he felt the same way when he would retreat to pray alone, leaving the next child in line unhealed. Or when he fed the multitudes two times over, knowing they will be hungry again and still only a few hundred followed him. He had twelve true disciples, but only three waited with him in the garden, and only one waited at the cross—the closer you get to the cross, the smaller the crowd. When we step back to view the movement Jesus began, however, we remember that what he started is an unstoppable force that has grown to reach the ends of the earth. And it began with a small network of trusted friends.
Despite the dismal landscape we are choosing hope, no matter how small, to reach the lost and desperate, regardless of how many. We will fight in Bangladesh.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Micah Kephart is the Founder & CEO of Poetice International.