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News of our work India & Bangladesh May - October 2008

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By The Revd Alwyn Jones

28 December 2007 – 05 February 2008

West door of St. Thomas Church, Dhaka

West door of St. Thomas Church, Dhaka

The Revd Alwyn Jones, a member of the UK General Committee of the Oxford Mission, travelled to India and Bangladesh to visit old friends and renew acquaintances. Below is the first part of his description of his travels

I landed at Kolkata Airport on 28 December 2007 after an excellent Air India flight, and, following a long delay waiting for luggage (many on this flight were going on to Bangladesh and the luggage was not separated at Heathrow), I was at last through and glad to be met by Arijeet and taken once more into the hectic Kolkata traffic after nearly five years. Every traffic law is broken, including one way signs, and the custom seems to be to drive as hard as you can to avoid an accident! Contrary to the impression given, the traffic does not move very fast, rarely getting above 25 mph, and when it slows down, pedestrians weave their way through it, holding up their hands and making various sorts of signals. I find it hard to believe that, forty years ago, I drove here without an accident. And so I arrived at the Oxford Mission compound.

I was persuaded to preach in Bengali at St. Peter’s Church (which serves the local Christian community) on New Year’s Day’, and then, on the afternoon of 06 January, there was a Eucharist celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, which was held on the lawn with a stage erected and many chairs hired for the occasion. Formerly it was an all-English service with people coming from English-speaking congregations in Calcutta. Now it is almost entirely in Bengali for the local Christians. I delivered a message from the supporters in this country and stressed our need for their prayers in the difficult times which lie ahead.

The next day, I flew to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I had been unable to contact the Bishop either by phone or e-mail, so decided to take a taxi. The driver seemed uncertain of my directions but we seemed to be getting nearer, although the city had changed so much. Eventually we arrived at St Thomas Church, and I discovered that the Bishop’s office had only opened that morning after Christmas and my e-mail was read after the plane had landed!

View within the compound Jobarpar

View within the compound Jobarpar

I first arrived here in 1958 and lived there till 1964. It has changed a great deal: then there were only two buildings, both single storey. One, about fifty feet long with four rooms, is where Bishop Blair and I lived. The other at the east end of the compound had three or four rooms where servants lived. Now there are three or four two-storey buildings and, to my amazement, two with four storeys. On my return visit in 1988 I discovered that my nickname was ‘Pagal Fadar’, which means ‘Mad father’ – a quite understandable appellation!

I went south by river the following night. I had booked a single cabin which had a bunk with a pillow and a very grubby duvet. There was also a T.V. and a pair of flip-flops. The cost was about £4.00; the exchange rate is very favourable for foreigners. Most of the passengers travel on the open decks. And so I arrived after an eight hour, very comfortable, journey in Barisal, a Divisional Town. It was about a hundred and ten years ago that the Oxford Mission began pastoral work here, and in many of the out-lying villages. They established a boarding school for boys and in 1904 built an outstanding church. In 1902 the first Sisters arrived and began similar works for girls, as well as eventually opening a small maternity hospital. Father Francis Pandey is the only member of the Brotherhood remaining. By 1970, it had become clear that the rule of the Sisterhood was not suitable for local women, so Sister (now Mother) Susila, originally from Tamil Nadu and a member of the Sisterhood, formed a community known as Christa Sevika Sangha (Hand Maids of Christ) (CSS). The last three English Sisters returned to the U.K. in 1993 to allow CSS to take over their work without always being in their shadow. The CSS has grown steadily and seems a very happy and contented community. Mother Susila herself is in poor health and unfortunately I saw little of her. I enjoyed taking my meals with them, they seemed assured and at ease.

On Saturday afternoon, after a few days, I moved on towards Jobarpar which is very isolated and impossible to reach by public transport, so I had to hire a car. The road was bad in places, but new bridges are being built and it will make it an easy journey eventually.

The town of Barisal was hit by the cyclone, but not too badly. I saw no sign of it at all, probably because I did not see the right places. However, when I went along the road there was evidence. Quite a few trees were at forty-five degrees and there was a lot of sawn-up timber about, as well as stumps of trees still in the ground. This was almost two months after the disaster. There were some wrecked houses and there were very likely more, but I was keeping to the roads.

And so I arrived at Jobarpar, where there are six of the Sisters here as well as the six in Barisal. Again, I was impressed by the way they lived, and the worship in their small chapel is more inspiring than that in the large church at Barisal with the dreadful acoustics for speaking.

The compound is extensive, but not as large as Barisal. I went to the parish church on Sunday morning, and when I arrived the priest asked me to preach. While I got my thoughts together as to what to say in my limited Bengali, one of the sisters went back to get my cassock. I made the point that, when I was living in Dacca fifty years ago, all the people there wanted to practise their English on me, so my Bengali was poor.

I talked to a man a few years younger than I whom I had known then before he went off to Canada to study. He had held a very responsible job and had now come back to his village to retire. He said that the health of people was much better these days; cholera and malaria have been eliminated. There is not the grinding poverty that was present in those days. It was certainly my impression, I saw very few people barefoot.

Monday midday I returned to Barisal in preparation for going almost to the Indian border to Meherpur near Kushtia. I had booked a luxury coach and was promised a five-hour journey. Tuesday morning I duly went to the bus station and, after a lot of enquiry, discovered that the luxury coach had been cancelled. As my schedule was tight, I decided I must leave at once. The bus I boarded was very ramshackle and the seats were in twos and threes. I got an aisle seat on the only one of threes which had two seats in front, which meant that I had leg room. However, depending on the hip measurements of the other two, so did my backside drip over the edge of the seat! There were two conductors: one who took the fares but issued no tickets, and the other, who hung out of the ever-open door beating the side of the bus with his hand. He announced the destination as we approached a bus-stop and yelled at rickshaws and other lesser vehicles to move on to the rough ground to enable the mighty bus to pass. All sorts of vendors ranging from quite young boys of nine or ten to men getting on in years came onto the bus selling anything from knickknacks to fresh food which the passengers ate. It brought home to me the pressure there is for landless people to move to the towns and do anything to scrape a living. The problem is likely to get worse as rising sea levels will reduce the amount of land.

The second part of the travels of Revd Alwyn Jones will be reported in the next copy of The Oxford Mission magazine.

... to be continued.

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