Themes /

In the deep end

Finding new life on pilgrimage in Bangladesh

Greg Hewson

Manna Matters November 2010

What did you go to the desert to see? John the Baptist asked this question of the Pharisees and Scribes coming out to him in the Jordan Wilderness. What did you come to Bangladesh to see? Why come here? Why travel half way around the world to find yourself? What is God showing you? Sitting on beds, huddled together in a hotel room in the regional town of Elenga, Bangladesh, our own set of ‘pilgrimage questions’ confront the group midway through our TEAR DEEP trip.

‘I want to go home and start a veggie garden’, reflected one participant. Others agreed. Struck by the daily connection to land and food that those we had met ‘enjoyed’, a few on the group reflected upon their own disconnection with food, the earth and what sustains them.

‘The Bible never seemed so real for me’, shared another of the participants. This echoed my own experience on earlier trips to the sub-continent. Stripped away from the familiar supports and faith-denying mechanisms that surrounds so much of our own culture, the trip brought each of us face to face with the personal side of the ‘global poor’. Stories of lepers, beggars, healing and overwhelming human need suddenly had a face!

In January this year I was fortunate enough to lead a bunch of TEAR supporters from around Australia to Bangladesh on a DEEP trip (Development, Education Experience Program). For 15 days we visited the work of two of TEAR Australia’s Christian partner agencies, traveling around various parts of central and northern Bangladesh.

This was my second visit to Bangladesh and fourth to the subcontinent in the past 10 years. Yet this time I was in charge of 14 other people! I was really keen not to lose anyone. In fact counting heads on and off buses became a constant refrain during my time there. If I could make sure everyone was safe, everything else I did would be a bonus! And I’m happy to report everyone did make it back to Australia, and mostly in one piece…a few close shaves, search parties, and days in hospitals not withstanding.

Despite everyone making it back to Australia in one piece, they were not the same people they had been when they left. This is as it should be, because for TEAR and for me personally, the opportunity for immersion in a different culture is all about ‘transformation’ within a person’s life. ‘Every act of faith builds more faith’ suggested St Francis of Assisi. To me, these modern day pilgrimages to foreign places are small steps of faith for people wanting to see more clearly.

Within my own faith journey, this occurred via a number of immersion experiences when I was in my late teens and early 20’s. Waiters Union course in West End Brisbane, living and working at Urban Seed for two years, then traveling with Elvira (my wife) to New Delhi for three months in 2000, connecting with the work of two groups passionate about seeing transformation occur in the lives of those struggling with drug dependencies.

Within each of these and other ‘acts of faith’, I have come out the other side a different person. Not in a straightforward, easy to describe, linear fashion, but in small, surprising, often confronting ways. Generally with an increased courage and insight to take another faith step. So in leading a bunch of mostly young people to Bangladesh, many of whom had never left Australian shores before, it was like rediscovering that part of my own journey.

The ‘mission trip’ phenomenon, of which TEAR’s DEEP trips are a part, is in a sense a form of Christian pilgrimage for middleclass westerners. Growing up in a world of increasing communication and information, we somehow sense the need to journey to foreign and dangerous places in order to rub off some of our own cultural and religious baggage with the pervasive hope of finding something a bit more authentic. As one of the younger members of our trip so powerfully put it, ‘If you let him do it, Jesus will ruin your life…but you’ll get so much more.

It is for that ‘much more ideal that I see so many who we send on TEAR trips longing. Something authentic, meaningful, honest. On a recent trip to Melbourne, one of TEAR Australia’s long-term friends and former head of our Indian partner EFICOR, CB Samuel shared at a breakfast on the theme of partnership. CB spoke of the enormous opportunity the church in the ‘west’ has in connecting with the growing and dynamic church in much of the developing world. ‘You have the opportunity to experience the living God’.

The ability of trips, brokered within ongoing Christian partnerships, to create ‘new pilgrimage’ type experiences is at the heart of what I’ve been seeing in my work for TEAR for some time now. Yet they are not without their challenges. Not least of which is turning the experience into an ongoing practice, as one of our group members reflected:

I have come to the realisation that there is quite a responsibility…. (pause). The calling is to make sure that it does make a difference, that it does bear fruit, not just for me but for others. The other challenge is to think about what I can sacrifice…(long pause)…very scary.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that traveling overseas into ‘developing’ communities is the only way we can see more clearly the truth about our culture, the world and ourselves. Far from it. In fact, as the previous quote suggests, the costs of these types of experiences may far out way the benefits.

Yet as I reflect on my own pilgrimages and have the opportunity to journey with others in theirs, I’m repeatedly struck by their ‘saving’ qualities. For  the way God works in and through such journey’s, helping people see more of the whole picture. And that I think is worth going to see.