Imagine 150 million people on land the size of Iowa. Part of the country doesn't have any infrastructure. The people are predominately Muslim with a large Hindu minority in a country that is one of the poorest in the world. It is a perfect place for a Maryknoll priest, his bicycle and a bag containing only a change of clothing and the essentials to celebrate his own Mass.
For more than 35 years, Father Robert McCahill, who was born in Des Moines, Iowa, has lived in different villages of Bangladesh. Most recently, Narail, in the southeast part of the country, was his home. He said it is "a good place to make a mark of Christianity, not for the purpose of conversion but simply for the idea of showing what a Christian is and does."
As one of five Maryknoll priests who arrived in Bangladesh during 1975 to begin a ministry of Christian witness, the priest who was raised in Goshen, Indiana, has traveled within the interior of the country to help people, particularly children, who are in urgent need of medical assistance. His special criteria for mission: the place should be poor, no other foreigners or Christians should be present and some of the locals must be willing to allow him free use of a small piece of land so he can build his own shack.
He spends about three years in each location. Wherever he goes, especially in the local tea shops, his foreigner status draws crowds along with many questions – has he come to convert, how does he finance his work and why doesn't he have a family.
Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is the overseas mission outreach of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, following Jesus in serving the poor and others in need in 26 countries. All Catholics are called to mission through baptism, and Maryknoll's mission education outreach in parishes and schools throughout the country engages U.S. Catholics in mission through prayer, donations, as volunteers and through vocations.
During 2011, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is commemorating its centennial with a theme of The Gift of Mission – The Maryknoll Journey. These missionaries will celebrate as they continue their journey into the next 100 years to share God's love and the Gospel in combating poverty, providing healthcare, building communities and promoting human rights.
Father McCahill tells the villagers that the medical help he offers depends completely on the financial donations of his extended family and not on an organization. He advises that his purpose is to live among people who are not Christian and treat them with love, respect and brotherhood. He tells them his family is all of humanity.
"The first year many are suspicious of me," said the priest. "The second year trust begins to build. The third year people's affection is felt."
Daily Routine By Bike
In Narail, villagers soon came to understand his daily routine. He rose very early to dedicate time for prayer and meditation before beginning his work. He would leave his shack of jute-stick walls, dirt floor and corrugated roof to mount a bicycle that carried him over miles of windy dirt roads (muddy roads during monsoon season) through Bangladesh's fertile farmland.
His work included advising a family about physical therapy for a three-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, obtaining surgery for a child who suffered disfiguring and disabling burns on her arm, and helping many others who suffered from muscular dystrophy, cleft lips, hernias, tumors and broken bones. Every week, he traveled the same way as the poor, taking a bus to the capitol of Dhaka to show doctors the photos he had taken of the sick and injured children. Part of his mission is to arrange for free treatment and he makes the all-day trip with the children and their parents at the scheduled times.
"Not a great expense," explained Brother Bob. "I afford them their tickets. I usually provide the medicine. It's not a matter of money. It's a matter of love, of the heart."
Since he lives among the poor, he relies on only a modest budget that comes from donations to his ministry through Maryknoll.
"If I had lots of funds at hand to use, and lived apart (in a parish), people's attitude to me would differ," adding that the people would be tempted to try to wheedle money out of him. "People here understand I'm using more money for their needs than I use for my own needs. No one can look at my life of service and say 'he can only do that because he's a rich American.'"
All of this is far from his upbringing. He was 19 during 1956 and interested in a political science career. As he was leaving Seattle University one day, he just changed his mind.
"I received, I can't event describe it, an attraction to God like I had never felt before nor have needed since. The motivation I received in that moment was sufficient to keep me for life, as long as I continue to remember it. My mission is to show the love of Christ, the love of God for all people of all faiths, to be with them as a brother, to establish brotherhood by being a brother to them."
See the video about Father McCahill on the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers website at www.maryknollsociety.org. Follow them on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MaryknollNews and Facebook at www.facebook.com/maryknollsociety.