Marking History in Bangladesh
By Neil Earle
“Oh East is East and West is West, and Never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgement Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border nor Breed nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”
One strong man from the East I knew was Dr. John Biswas, founder of the Bengali Evangelical Association or BEA. It is high time Second Look paid a tribute to our good friend recently deceased. To do it I will reprint this report on the 25th anniversary of BEA held a few years ago in Duarte, CA.
This will fill you in as good as anything about a unique place and unique man.
Bangladesh, just east of India at the head of the Bay of Bengal, is known as the land of cyclones and tsunamis. It is both the seventh largest nation in the world and also one of the very poorest nations on earth.
Notwithstanding, Bangladesh has its active servants and avid home-grown humanitarians busily mobilizing Christian relief and health workers in this far-off land, one that is almost 90% Muslim and 9% Hindu. The man and wife team that help navigate a strong humanitarian presence in this nation of 150,000,000 is Dr. John and Naomi Biswas of Loma Linda, California.
On September 18, 130 people joined Mayor Pro Tem Lois Gaston and a Sonia Barragan from Assemblyman Portantino’s office at Duarte Elks Hall to pay tribute to the work being done by John and Naomi’s Bengali Evangelical Association or BEA. It makes for quite an intriguing story.
Forged in Adversity
The birth-pains of the nation of Bangladesh were traumatic indeed. As guest speaker Mark Magill outlined to the assembled guests, when British India was partitioned in 1947 the Muslim inhabitants of the subcontinent largely settled in two national enclaves northwest and northeast of India. The eastern portion, then known as East Pakistan, suffered a monumental tragedy in 1970 when the Bhola Cyclone swept away 500,000 Bengalis and left thousands homeless. The slow response of the nation of West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and tensions with the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan led to a war of independence in 1971.
“In the mean-time,” said Mark Magill, “Ravi Shankar, a native Bengali and famed musician living in America, came up with the idea of a massive fund-raising Concert for Bangladesh.” Ravi persuaded his good friend Beatle George Harrison to help launch the first rock fund-raiser. Harrison tapped Ringo Starr and then Bob Dylan showed up as well at Madison Square Gardens that memorable June of 1971. “When the crowds saw two Beatles and Bob Dylan on the same stage their heads exploded,” added Mark Magill. Just under a quarter of a million dollars was raised the first night and subsequent re-releases of this musical highlight has garnered $17,000,000 for UNICEF.
About the same time a young Bengali freedom-fighter and would-be lawyer named John Biswas was forced to flee into India from the turbulence in East Pakistan, now renamed Bangladesh. Discouraged and carrying Pakistani bullets in his body, John Biswas was touched by the kindness of a Christian monk originally from San Francisco who gave him food and water. “You are willing to die for your country, but Jesus Christ came to die for all of humanity,” said the holy man.
Those words affected John Biswas even more after studying theology in the Philippines from 1975 to 1977. He desired to do more to help his native land where poverty and starvation were intense. While studying he met his wife, a young nurse, named Naomi, and even with a busy life shaping up for them in Southern California, bringing two sons into the world as well, John could never escape his call to mission.
In 1986, encouraged by the legendary Donald McGavran of Fuller Seminary’s School of Church Growth, he began taking Christian literature into Bangladesh each time he returned home. In that year he began the Bengali Evangelical Association and the encouraging response soon forced John to shelve his career as a lawyer. With support from many Southland churches and elsewhere around the world, especially Canada, the BEA went on to establish a health clinic, a nurses training school, 14 primary schools, and to plant 16 Christian churches in this overwhelmingly Muslim land. A small campus complex deep in the Bengali countryside houses a tsunami shelter which doubles as a clinic and a school throughout the year.
“Although the mission was Christian-founded, it helps those in need no matter what their religious belief,” says BEA Chairman Roger Lippross of Banning, CA. “We have had occasion to use the shelter twice already since it was finished several years ago.”
Irene Donley Kimble, a medical doctor and BEA volunteer from the Inland Empire, has been in Bangladesh to help train what Roger Lippross calls “our little Florence Nightingales.” She told the assembly about her experiences among the rural poor and her hopes to return again soon for more follow-up work.
“BEA places a strong emphasis on self-help projects,” Lippross advises. “In one case a Westerner pays for a goat which is then purchased locally by Dr. Biswas in Bangladesh. The goat is then given to a poor but diligent family and everyone benefits. Bengali goats are extremely hardy and often produce twins. They can give as much as four quarts of milk a day and provide an excellent source of protein for malnourished children.”
To transport the goats, BEA developed a local rickshaw program which has become an added source of work for rural Bengalis. Just recently Dr. Biswas opened up a bakery program in partnership with other struggling Christians in Haiti. To BEA supporters it is encouraging to see these small but successful programs impacting the two poorest nations on earth.
The September 18 program began at 4:00 PM and ended at 7:20 and featured musical productions by local Bengalis led by Sushil Halder as well as pastor Bermie Dizon’s Praise and Worship team from Pasadena. “Few talks are more inspirational than those from missionaries who serve in conditions most of us would not abide,” commented guest Jack Collins of the Friends of the Duarte Library. “There are many hardships but many more blessings.”
To that John and Naomi Biswas would agree.
If you’d like to help the work of BEA you can contact them at: Box 1733, Loma Linda, CA 92354, or www.bangalimission.org.