Oxford Mission Presidents visit to Bangladesh and Kolkata
October 21 November 7, 2007
The President of the UK Committee of the Oxford Mission, The Right Reverend Bill Down, attended the Third Partners Consultation of the Church of Bangladesh in October 2007, and afterwards travelled to see the work being carried out by the Oxford Mission following his last visit eight years ago.
My association with the Oxford Mission began in 1976, when I visited Calcutta as General Secretary of The Missions to Seamen. The Port Chaplain of The Missions to Seamen there was Father Victor Yardi, a member of the Brotherhood of the Epiphany, and he invited me to stay at the Oxford Mission, the home of the Brotherhood, throughout my 3-day visit.
I was immensely impressed by all that I saw at the Oxford Mission. I met, worshipped and took my meals with the Fathers; saw the compound buzzing with life and activity; visited the schools and hostels; listened to the glorious music the boys were learning to play in the Music Room; was shown the Ear Nose and Throat Clinic in the grounds; observed the use of the grounds by members of the public; attended the daily early morning service in the chapel for the boys; visited the Sisters compound on the other side of the main road, and saw the hostel for orphan children, the kindergarten and the Old Peoples Home there.
I had never previously heard of the Oxford Mission, so I made it a priority to find out more about it. I learned how the early Brothers and Sisters witnessed to their faith throughout Bengal: they taught, they established schools and clinics, and they drew people to them through their simple, deep and practical faith. They lived what they believed. They gave their whole lives to their calling. Many of them are buried in the Oxford Mission cemetery in Barisal, and it is very moving to stand there and read the names of these faithful servants of God.
Over the last 32 years my knowledge and appreciation of the Oxford Mission has steadily grown. As General Secretary of The Missions to Seamen I visited Calcutta on a number of occasions, and Chittagong, the major port of Bangladesh, twice. I discovered at first hand the high esteem in which the Oxford Mission is held in India and Bangladesh. Its influence has been profound and wide-reaching. It has survived huge political upheavals, such as the Independence of India, the creation of the States of India and Pakistan, and the bloody war of Independence in 1971, in which 3 million people died and East Pakistan became The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh. The Church of Bangladesh came into being in 1974, and all its Bishops have been former Oxford Mission students.
In 1982 I became a member of the United Kingdom Committee of the Oxford Mission, and apart from the years when I was Bishop of Bermuda I have been a member ever since. In 1999 I represented the O.M. at the first Church of Bangladesh Mission Partners Consultation at Savar, just outside Dhaka. It was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Representatives of other Mission agencies were present, and we heard inspiring reports of the work of the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Projects among the poorest of the poor. After the Consultation I visited the Oxford Mission centres at Jobarpar and Barisal, and it was then that I came to appreciate at first hand the immense contribution the Mission has made to the life of the Church of Bangladesh and the Church of North India.
I attended the Second Partners Consultation of the Church of Bangladesh in 2002, and the consecration of The Revd Paul Shishir Sarkar as Bishop of Kushtia in 2003. The Third Partners Consultation, which was due to be held in 2006, was postponed because of political unrest in the country and rescheduled for 2007. So in October 2007 I set out for Bangladesh and Kolkata, as Calcutta had now become.
It was a wonderful visit. I spent the first day and a half at the Church of Bangladesh Guest House in the grounds of St. Thomass Church in Dhaka, where the Bishop also lives and the administrative offices of the Church of Bangladesh are located. Bishop Michael brought me up to date with the current life and work of the Church of Bangladesh; I talked with various members of the diocesan staff; and I read the excellent reports prepared for the Consultation. I also attended the regular services in St. Thomass Church, which has been beautifully restored and decorated. Representatives of the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Church Mission Society and the Conference for World Mission attended the Consultation, and we spent the day before the Consultation visiting one of the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Project Self Help schemes in a slum area of Dhaka.
The Self Help projects are a wonderful way of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ in a country where public preaching and proselytization is prohibited. The Church of Bangladesh employs 280 fully trained social workers and ancillary staff to bring much needed practical assistance to the poorest of the poor, without any consideration of religious affiliation. People who are willing to work to earn a living are trained free of charge for various trades and occupations, such as tailoring, poultry rearing, shoe making, carpentry, simple book-keeping and fish culture. Their training complete, they are loaned the money to buy the tools of their trade. They agree to repay the loan in small instalments at regular intervals from their earnings, and 95% of the loans are repaid in full. In this way the Church of Bangladesh touches the lives of thousands of people, many of whom ask why the Church does this. The capital for the loans is initially supplied by partner Churches and overseas mission agencies. The Church of Bangladesh has fewer than 20,000 members, but it touches the lives of many thousands of people outside its membership. Serving humanity is proclaiming the Good News is the basis of the work of the Church of Bangladesh Social Development programme.
After the Partners Consultation I went on by road to Jobarpar, a journey of 70 miles as the crow flies but which took 7 hours. A long wait at a ferry crossing, which cannot be avoided, and the interminable loading and unloading of the many and varied vehicles making the crossing, ate up the time.
Travelling by road in Bangladesh is a hazardous venture. The guiding principle on the roads seems to be that might is right: The bigger and more powerful the vehicle, the greater its influence on other traffic. The fast inter-city buses plough through all traffic as of right. The heavy lorries make their powerful way without regard for anybody. Vans, cars, rickshaws, cyclists and pedestrians progress as best they can, in descending order of precedence and importance. Humble pedestrians fall into 2 categories the quick and the dead!
At Jobarpar I received a tumultuous welcome at the entrance to the Oxford Mission compound. The band played, and an excited crowd gathered round. It was lovely to see Mother Susila and the Sisters again, and as I relaxed in the comfortable Guest Cottage, gazing out over the well-tended compound with its ponds (or tanks), school, play area, farm animals, workshops, the Sisters accommodation and the chapel, I was conscious of the overwhelming beauty and peaceful purpose of the place. God is palpably present there.
It was soon time to work. I was invited to preach at an important Deanery service the next morning, so I had to think fast to prepare a sermon. I visited the school, the kindergarten and the Play Group children. I spent a full morning with the personnel of the Self Help Project, and I celebrated Holy Communion in the lovely chapel.
Sisters Dining Room/Refectory was a set of 15 new dining chairs. They had been made by the 2 carpenters from a mahogany tree planted 25 years previously by Mother Susila and which had recently been felled. 3 new mahogany trees had been planted to replace the one which had been felled. The skill of the carpenters was obvious.
I moved on 3 days later to the Oxford Mission at Barisal. It was good to be there again to see the magnificent chapel, the huge school playing field, the administration building, the Fathers and Sisters accommodation, the schools, the hostels, the tanks, the medical centre, the Self Help project, and the cemetery.
During my time there I visited every part of the compound. The Administrator, Mr. Byapari, accompanied me, and pointed out the severe undermining of the walls of the tanks by the monsoon. I preached in the chapel on
All Saints Day, and visited St. Peters church, where I preached in 1999 and could hardly see across the sanctuary through the dense cloud of incense!
From Barisal I returned to Dhaka and then flew on to Kolkata, where I was greeted at the airport by the Administrator of the Oxford Mission, Mr. Arijeet Roy. It was great to see him again, and during the 1½ hour journey to Behala he outlined the programme for my 3-day visit. I was to preach the next day at St. James Church in the morning, and the Duff Church in the evening; to have meetings with the Bishop of Kolkata and the British Deputy High Commissioner; and to speak to a meeting of the clergy of the diocese together with College Principals in the presence of the Bishop all in the space of 2 days! It was quite a challenge.
On the last full day of my visit the Oxford Mission boys had arranged a concert in the superb new Mathieson Memorial Music Centre. They provided an hour of wonderful music. String ensembles, dancers, singers and a small orchestra, gave truly riveting performances. They so obviously loved what they were doing, and their joy in performing was infectious. They are obviously well taught and led, and it was all most impressive.
It was the culmination of a memorable visit.
RIGHT REVEREND BILL DOWN
President, Oxford Mission UK