“You’re going to Dhaka?” the Bengali man asks. We stepped up to board our flight. He stops his conversation to inquire about the six white Americans at gate 109 cramming onto a seven hour flight from Istanbul to Dhaka, Bangladesh. I tell him we are, indeed, headed to Dhaka. He puts his hands on his hips and laughs. “Good luck. You’re going to need it.”
I turn to one of the other writer’s traveling with me. “Not exactly the most comforting thing to hear.”
If you took away all the traffic lights and removed all the lines from the roads in New York City, you’d have a rough blueprint for the city of Dhaka. Dhaka is to Bangladesh what New York is to America: a city of opportunity. Now imagine that 150,000,000 of your fellow Americans intend to leave their small hometowns to pursue big city dreams. There won’t be enough space for them. So you build more buildings, but the contractors keep running out of money. Now 30% of the skyline is unfinished skyscrapers and scaffolding thirty stories high. You will never have enough manpower working enough to clean up after the influx of people. Trash will accumulate faster than you can dispose of it. You will be forced to burn it. Now there are small fires on every street corner. What trash is left, the homeless will use to build shelters. They will construct entire neighborhoods along your sidewalks. Next, release every animal from every home. Let them take over the back alleys and side streets. With all the trash there will be plenty for them to eat. And the chances of them getting hit will be slim. There will be enough cars to render traffic laws useless. A perpetual state of honking will hang in the air like the thumping bass line in a night club. Drive where you can, wherever the road opens up, and hope you don’t run down the men and women now pulling rickshaws because they can get to where you are going faster than you and make money while doing it. A permanent layer of ash and dust now settles over everything. What doesn’t fall hangs low in the sky, turning it from blue to shades of green and gray. Now you have an idea of what it’s like to live in Dhaka.
We are photographed as we walk through city streets. The residents here stop and stare as if I’m an escaped animal from the local zoo. They are friendly, but they know I am out of my element. They know, just as I do, that I am a long way from home.
You can’t turn a corner without running into someone in desperate need. The need for a cigarette, a drink, or five bucks. The average daily income in Bangladesh is between $1.25 and $1.85 a day. That’s fifty-five dollars a month. I’ll spend that in one night on a movie and popcorn with my wife in LA.
Religion is a way of life out here. It is a cornerstone. It is not something to hide or be ashamed of. In fact, a prayer is recited from loudspeakers around the city five times a day, starting at 5 am. 89.5% of the population is Muslim. The remaining 9.4% is Hindu. It’s safe to assume in our Western Culture, Christianity is the dominant religion. There is no reason for them to assume that religion is any less import to us. So when they look to America, they see Bill Clinton and Kanye West. They see the Kardashians. They see Brittany Spears and say, “Those are how the Christians behave.” Repulsive may not be the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind. In fact, we are instructed by the .1% of Christians here in Bangladesh to never refer to ourselves as Christians when we are asked about our religion. “You’re followers of Jesus,” our translator says. And we will be asked. The way we ask our friends and acquaintances if they’ve seen any good movies lately, the culture here wants to know of your religion and how many brothers and sisters you have. Family and God preside above all else.
My first day here we will visit with the lowest class in the city. Sweepers. Those who go out in the city streets at five in the morning, seven days a week, and sweep away the dust and garbage with antique and makeshift brooms. They are brought in from India to perform this specific task. When we arrive, these sweepers are working in a giant lot, breaking bricks to build a home for themselves. A compound. A dormitory. Children run barefoot through the rubble. The men are on their hands and knees. The women push brooms. Those fortunate enough to have homes live in a room no larger than your bedroom. Their entire family shares the same bed. They have no toilet, but must use the community bathroom. Their doors are always open. Their neighbors spilling in and out of their lives without warning, permission, or question. And they are always welcome.
I will spend my afternoon in a school located at the center of the sweeper community that could double as a prison yard. The men and women working here will great us, the children will swarm us as if we are celebrities. They will pull on our clothes and climb atop one another to get a closer look at our faces. They will line up to have their pictures taken. They will laugh. They will follow at our heels wherever we go. The staff invites us to their daily devotional. We gather in a dark room. We sit at a table. We sit cross-legged on a concrete floor with no heat or air conditioning. We set our Bibles out before us. And we read. We pray. We cannot understand each other perfectly. But this does not matter. We gather for the same reason: this life is not about us. We gather as Hindus, as Muslims, and as Christians. We discuss Jesus. We talk about God’s love. And while we may not believe the same thing, I could feel God smile upon us as we read together from the same Book to learn from each other rather than dividing and arguing over who is right.
When the headmaster of the school introduces himself, a twenty-five year old man named Joseph, he says, “I used to be a sponsored child.” I weep. I’ve sponsored children for the last three years of my life. I did it because my church guilted me into it and for no other reason. Food for the Hungry came into this area thirty years ago. They didn’t come to hand them rice and water bottles. They didn’t come just to pray and leave. They came to repair the damage and prevent it from happening again. They turned this community, this school, into a self-sustaining, self-relying community. And Joseph, along with nearly every other teacher there, was once a student in this very building. And because they were sponsored by someone, somewhere, with an extra thirty bucks a month to give, they got an education. They learned English. They learned how to get themselves out of poverty. And they returned to the same school to pay it forward. The students here in Bangladesh are now the teachers. They are here to ensure the next generation has every opportunity they had and more. They can do this because people like you and me often earn an abundance that is someone else’s necessity.
I have seen no better representation of the church than I have here in this broken, overcrowded, tropical slum crammed between India and China on the other side of the world where believing in something other than yourself is respected rather than scoffed. I have seen kindness in the darkest of places.
Here I have seen grace.
I have seen fairness.
I have seen mercy.
copyright January 2013 || Max Andrew Dubinsky
photos courtesy of Esther Havens, Daniel C. White, and Lauren Dubinsky