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Reaching Hindus, Muslims in N. England

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,600 North American missionaries.

WALTHAM, Mass. (BP)–“It is only by the grace of God I was able to overcome all the hardships and persecutions of my life,” said Paul Biswas, reflecting on his conversion to Christianity from Hinduism, the religion in which he was born and indoctrinated as a boy in a higher-caste, ultra-religious family in his native Bangladesh.

As the oldest son in his family, Biswas carried respect and responsibilities. Rejecting Hinduism as the oldest son brought family rejection and persecution.

Biswas, 56, was 21 years old when he realized that he could no longer believe in a religion based on reincarnation; three major gods and 300 million other gods and goddesses; predestination; and karma.

“From the Bible I came to know that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone,” Biswas said. “It is by faith only. I don’t need to do karma; I don’t need to show my good works and prove them.”

His father became furious when Paul decided to change his last name from “Vishnu” (one of the major Hindu gods) to “Biswas,” which means “faith” in his native language.

Disowned by his father and kicked out of the house in 1973, Biswas would endure years of persecution, humiliation, hardship and even physical torture because of his Christian faith.

“Before I left my father’s home, I told my father he could disown me, but that my eternal Father would not disown me, Biswas said.” He and his father have since reconciled but even now his parents won’t hug him because he’s considered an outcast.

Biswas today ministers to other Hindus and Muslims as a church planting missionary and founding pastor of the Boston Bangla Church in Boston, Mass. He is jointly supported by the North American Mission Board (NAMB), the New England Baptist Convention and the Greater Boston Baptist Association.

Biswas and his wife Elizabeth are among the 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are two of the missionaries featured in this year’s Week of Prayer, March 1-8, with the theme, “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million.

According to Biswas, about 1 million Bengalis live in the United States but there are only four SBC-Bengali churches nationwide. About 7,000 Bengalis live in metro Boston — 4,000 in the Cambridge area. Biswas said, noting that 88 percent of Bengalis from Bangladesh are Muslim; 11 percent are Hindus and Buddhists; and 1 percent are Christians.

“The biggest challenge for my ministry here is to mobilize the local churches,” Biswas said. “We have more than 150 people groups here in the Boston area and the American churches are getting a new experience. They don’t know how to reach out to the vast number of Muslims and Hindus.”

Is it difficult to reach out to Muslims and Hindus with the Gospel?

“As for Hindus, that’s my culture and background, so it’s not too difficult. Hindus think of Jesus as a god,” Biswas said.

“I don’t find it difficult to reach out to Muslims, especially in the U.S.,” he continued. “It’s much harder back in Bangladesh, a country of 150 million people. But here, Muslims hear and are responsive. It depends on your approach. It’s important to speak to them in their own heart-language and to know and understand their culture.”

Language is not a problem for Biswas, who speaks Bengali and English fluently and understands Hindi and Urdu.

“Muslims have a high regard and respect for Jesus. They consider him as one of four major prophets. The Koran has 22 different titles for Jesus — ‘Messiah,’ ‘Spirit of God,’ ‘Word of God,’ etc.,” said Biswas, who uses the Koran as a bridge to reach Muslims. “Muslims cannot deny what’s in their own book!” he said with a laugh.

Biswas prefers to preach Christ and not Christianity because the word “Christianity” is a politicized word with a strongly negative connotation for Muslims, who associate it with the Crusades and the Western world.

A key problem with witnessing to Bengalis in Boston, however, is finding a time to coincide with their busy work schedules, Biswas said.

“It’s hard to reach the Bengali immigrants because they work so hard — seven days a week,” he said. “We have one group that meets at midnight because that’s when the people come home from work. At midnight or 1 a.m. they have their Bible study meeting, eat together, go home by 3 a.m., sleep a few hours and then get up and go to work again.”

Biswas said he is partnering with three local churches, but needs additional partners. Biswas’ two most pivotal partners in sharing the Gospel are his wife Elizabeth and Abu Mansur, a converted Muslim he first knew back in Bangladesh.

“The great joy in my ministry is my wife. We have worked together, serving the Lord as a team since 1974,” the year he and Elizabeth, also from Bangladesh, married. Today they have two grown children and two grandchildren.

In 1976, Biswas was called into the ministry and ordained one year later. Until coming to the United States in 2001, he worked in Bangladesh as an evangelist, church planter, pastor, pastoral superintendent, director of missions, writer, translator and teacher at different Bible colleges and seminaries.

“Many times we had to go through hardship and suffering,” Biswas said, “but my wife always is with me and encourages me. She’s does a lot of prayer and fasting.”

Biswas holds an A.B. degree in economics from Rajshahi University in Bangladesh; an M.Div. degree from the Philippines Baptist Theological Seminary; and a master of theology degree in missions from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. He currently is working on his Ph.D.

Mansur, his other ministry partner, left Bangladesh before Biswas did and now is a bivocational minister.

“Mansur is a wonderful guy with a great passion to reach out to his own people because he himself came from a Muslim background,” Biswas said. “I came from a Hindu background so that’s a good combination. I can reach the Hindus and Mansur can reach the Muslims.

“He came from an upper-class Muslim family so he has a very good knowledge about the Koran. He also was persecuted and at one time his life was in danger so he had to leave Bangladesh.”

Baswas and his wife started their ministry in 2003 without the help of NAMB or the Annie Armstrong Offering.

“Today, their support is a real blessing for us,” Biswas said. While he receives assistance from the Baptist Convention of New England and the Greater Boston Baptist Association, Biswas also is a NAMB Mission Service Corps missionary who raises additional financial support through local churches.

“Paul brings a lot of expertise because he basically functioned as a director of missions in Bangladesh,” said Al Riddley, director of missions for the local Boston association. “He brings a lot of ability and is very respected. He has a real working knowledge of Muslims and Hindus alike.

“Among Southern Baptists, there are few experts like Paul, who has not only the academic background but also the experience,” Riddley said. “That’s what Paul brings. Plus, he has such a strong commitment. He’s really an evangelist at heart.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.

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  • Mickey Noah