The day Maryknoll Father Robert Mc-Cahill arrived in Narail it was raining. The thin, older priest was physically exhausted and tired of looking for the place where he would begin a new phase of mission.
Narail "was kind of miserable," says the missioner who for more than 35 years has been living in different villages of Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world, with a population of 150 million in a land the size of Iowa. Narail, a small, underdeveloped village without infrastructure in the southeast of the country, seemed to the missioner like "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."
McCahill was one of five Maryknoll priests who arrived in Bangladesh in 1975 to begin a ministry of Christian witness. For eight years, the missioners lived together, forming a Christian fraternity in Tangail, near Dhaka, the capital. Afterward, McCahill focused his mission on traveling to the interior of the country to help people, particularly children, who were in urgent need of medical assistance.
Finding a place to begin his next stay can take McCahill months of research. He has his own criteria: the place should be poor, have no other foreigners or Christians and some of the people must be willing to allow him free use of a small piece of land where he can build his own shack.McCahill watches physical therapy in action (S. Sprague) * Click here for video about this story
A disciple for our times, McCahill arrives alone—with only a bag with a change of clothing and the essential elements to celebrate his own Mass—in any community where he might live for the next three years. There he sits in any tea shop—"tea stalls" he calls them—where men generally congregate to drink cha, sweet tea with milk that is the national drink, the way coffee is in the United States. Noting the presence of a foreigner, the rustic shop quickly fills up with people and McCahill responds honestly to all their questions.
"I am Brother Bob, a Christian missionary," the priest from Goshen, Ind., tells them. "I am here to serve seriously sick people who are poor."
In the predominately Muslim nation with a large Hindu minority, the questions that McCahill receives are many: has he come to convert, how does he finance the help he offers and why has he no family? He responds that the medical help he offers depends completely on the financial donations of his extended family and not on an organization; that his purpose is to live among people who are not Christian and treat them with love, respect and brotherhood; and that his family is all of humanity.
McCahill describes the three years that he lives in each town this way: "The first year many are suspicious of me. The second year trust begins to build. The third year people's affection is felt. They say, 'He said he only came to do good and that is what he does.' "
In Narail, a short while before finishing his three years, McCahill continues getting up very early in the morning to dedicate time for prayer and meditation before beginning his mission work. This morning in October, he leaves his shack of jute-stick walls, a dirt floor and a corrugated roof and mounts the bicycle that will carry him over windy dirt roads through the beautiful countryside of Bangladesh's fertile farmland, where ironically millions of people live in extreme poverty.
Father McCahill visits Liza, a child who suffered disfiguring and disabling burns on her arm when she was not even a year old.
The missioner pedals some miles to the next village of Bolorampur, where he visits Mehenaz, a 3-year-old girl who suffers cerebral palsy as a result of a poorly handled delivery by a midwife in the village. Mehenaz's grandmother brings the girl out of her hut and puts a mat on the ground. The missioner squats down in the style of the Bangladeshis and observes and assists the grandmother with the recommended physical therapy for the child. The girl's mother isn't there and McCahill is happy that someone else in the family has learned the exercises.
Afterward, amid the songs of wild birds and smell of burning firewood, McCahill again mounts his bicycle and pedals several more miles to the village of Buramara.
In Buramara, McCahill visits Liza, a 2-year-old girl who suffered serious burns on her left arm before her first birthday. The burns were so grave that her entire hand was fused to her forearm. McCahill was able to take the girl to a hospital in Dhaka where surgeons separated her hand from the forearm. Liza wears a brace so that the hand stays straight. The missioner explains that the child needs another surgery to straighten out two fingers that are bent. Liza cries easily and McCahill thinks it is because she is still in pain, but he tries to console her and make her laugh.
That is McCahill's ministry. He mounts his bicycle and rides miles to his destination. It doesn't matter if the roads are full of mud during the monsoon season in this tropical Asian land, east of India, on the Bay of Bengal. He arrives in a village and looks to help people who would otherwise be disabled and burdened for a lifetime by their physical conditions. With a small camera he takes photos of their conditions: cerebral palsy, burns, muscular dystrophy, cleft lips, hernias, tumors and broken bones caused by accidents. Every week he goes to Dhaka, traveling the same as the poor, in the old buses that are part of the complicated and dangerous Bengali transportation system. At a hospital in the capital, McCahill shows the photos to doctors who make their provisional diagnosis. With this information the missioner arranges for free treatment at one of the government hospitals in the city and eventually makes the eight- or nine-hour trip again with the children and their parents.
"Not a great expense," McCahill says. "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."
Because he lives in a poor and predominately Muslim country, McCahill relies on only a modest budget that comes from donations by his extended family for his ministry. "If I had lots of funds at hand to use, and lived apart (in a parish), people's attitude to me would differ," he says, adding 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.' " For that reason McCahill shares the donations he receives through Maryknoll with other Christian communities that serve the poor in Bangladesh, especially communities of apostolic Sisters.
His is a life of service that he says began on Oct. 31, 1956. He was 19 years old and was interested in a career in political science. But that day as he was returning home from Seattle University, where he was studying, "I received—I can't even 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."
Father McCahill arrives at a village in Bangladesh and explains that he has come to help the people as their brother. For years, McCahill has described his mission life in a journal that he types every month on an antique Olivetti typewriter and shares with friends and family. "My mission," he says, "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."