Though the haze of alcohol fogged his mind, old Kumar saw clearly enough to know something was happening in the next village. Something powerful.
Whatever it was, he knew his own people needed it. Kumar, a Tripura (TREE-per-uh) tribal patriarch, saw the sufferings of his own village and felt despair. Food was increasingly scarce. Children and old people were dying from dysentery and diarrhea, and no one knew how to cure them.
Over the years his Tripura clan had been pushed into the hardscrabble hills of Bangladesh by the ever-increasing Bengali majority. They had been reduced to toiling under the sun as day laborers for Bengali farmers on land he and his ancestors had once owned.
Little by little, he had sold most of his good rice land to pay off debts incurred by “easy” Bengali credit. He had signed it away—sometimes while drunk—a piece at a time, placing his “X” or thumbprint on pieces of paper he couldn’t read, offered to him by smiling Bengali creditors.
Worst of all, the Tripura collection of Hindu and animist deities did nothing to relieve his community’s hardships. Kumar and his people sacrificed dogs, pigs and chickens—all to no avail.
“My daughter is well”
The Tripura village down the road had suffered, too. But things seemed to be changing there. Kumar and others sat up and took notice.
Baptists had come there to talk about the Bible and what it had to say about one God who reigns over all. International Mission Board missionary R T Buckley, who helped start ministry in the area with a Bengali Baptist co-worker, picks up the story:
“We were having a Bible meeting at that first little church one afternoon. It was pouring cats and dogs. The pastor of that little congregation said one of his cousins’ daughters was real sick. He insisted, even though it was raining and we didn’t have raincoats, that we get on the motorcycle and drive (to a village inaccessible by car) five or six miles to see that man and pray for his daughter.
“When we got into this little village there were quite a few people. The father told us his daughter was dying. They had purchased a rooster and were getting ready to sacrifice it for her life. I suggested that he let us pray for her and for them just to eat the rooster. He agreed, and we both prayed that God would heal the girl. We left, and a day or two later, the father came and said, ‘My daughter is well,’ and they had not offered the rooster sacrifice. Then he said, ‘Please come back. I want to learn about this Jesus.’ And so we started going to his village and he and his three brothers were the first to come to Christ.”
Another little church was born, and word spread around the region about a God who really listened to prayer and answered with power. Village leaders like Kumar observed the new Christians for several months.
Leading his people to Christ
“Then one day we were going into that area and we went over and met with Kumar,” R T recalls. “We told him we would like to come and share the story of Jesus with him. He said, ‘We want you to come. We have watched these people who have become Christians. Something is happening. We don’t know what it is, but they are different.”
That was a decade ago. Today, the centerpiece of Kumar’s community is a church. Hiking up to it on a drizzly day, visitors hear the voices of children singing. They’re learning Bible songs and stories and how to read—from the first young man in the village to attain higher education. It’s a Baptist-sponsored tutorial program that gives kids in Bangladesh a chance at an educational beginning while they learn about Jesus.
The church faces a fish pond originally stocked by Baptists. The church folk now manage the pond, sell the fish and use profits for church programs. Nearby they grow crops planted in SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) style, a method pioneered by Southern Baptist missionaries in the Philippines to help struggling Asian hill people like the Tripura.
Down the hill is a tube well, sunk by Baptists to provide fresh water from a deep spring. It not only protects the villagers from the disease-carrying river water they used to drink, but irrigates adjacent rice land, benefiting Tripura and Bengali alike.
Old Kumar proudly leads a tour of the village. “My eyesight is nearly gone and my teeth are too,” he sighs. He proves the latter with a toothless grin, but his eyes still gleam. Though his sons do most of the work these days, Kumar still stretches out his wiry, 95-year-old limbs in the fields once or twice a week. And he has sworn off liquor.
Their physical and social circumstances have drastically improved since they invited Baptists to the village. But these are no “rice Christians.” In R T’s words, they’re learning “a new way to think.”
“We are learning that without God and His help, we can do nothing,” Kumar explains. “We used to offer sacrifices that did no good. When we heard it was only through Jesus that we could get forgiveness, we embraced Christ. When I made the decision, everyone else made the decision with me.”
What of the chickens they used to sacrifice to various gods? Kumar chuckles. “We just eat those chickens now.”
A people movement
Kumar symbolizes a movement in the hill tracts of Bangladesh. “He can read very little, but he was responsible for leading that group of people to Christ, kind of like Cornelius,” R T observes. “This is the beautiful thing about it: We’re getting so many requests to come in and share the gospel, but it’s not coming from our (Bengali Baptist) evangelists. It’s people whose relatives have become Christians. They seek our guys out to say, ‘Look, somebody come and tell us what’s going on in the lives of our relatives.’ It’s difficult to keep up with all the opportunities.”
R T and other missionaries have long labored with Bangladesh Baptists to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the majority Bengali people. In recent years, however, they’ve spent more and more time working with tribal minority peoples. Like the Tripura, with more than 100,000 members. The Chakma (CHOK-muh), with a quarter of a million (and 300,000 more in India). The Lushai, the Marma and the Kooch.
They total 3 million or more people in Bangladesh. But their extended ethnic families flow across political borders—into India and Myanmar. As the gospel spreads among them, it crosses borders too. It also moves farther into the hills of Bangladesh—permeating areas long off-limits to missionaries and other foreigners because of political unrest and rebel activity.
“We haven’t been anywhere the Lord hasn’t gone ahead of us,” R T says. “We can rush into these areas for Jesus, and when you get there you find He is already there. Somebody in there was already receptive to the Holy Spirit. We’re just doing follow-up work.”
That first congregation begun after the little girl was healed has multiplied to more than 150 mostly tribal churches in the hill region. Last year leaders of another tribe, the Bongshi (BONG-shy), approached Baptists to declare, “We want to follow Jesus.” They represent about 50,000 people.
“We’re sitting on a keg of dynamite,” says R T, who’s savoring a spiritual harvest after more than 30 years of hard labor in Bangladesh. “When you walk up a path you’ve never walked before and you hear voices already singing, ‘We praise You, we praise You,’ you know something is going on!”
He cocks his cap, leans forward and adds, “If you aren’t careful, you could get excited.”
Originally published as “Something’s happening” by Erich Bridges in The Commission, September 1998, p. 36-40.