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Work in Bangladesh reaches 50-year mark

DHAKA, Bangladesh (BP)–When God called Troy and Marj Bennett to serve in Bangladesh 50 years ago, no other Southern Baptist missionaries were there to welcome them. All that awaited them were millions of people in need of Jesus’ love.

“In February, just days before the 50th anniversary, Troy Bennett went to be with the Lord,” said Burt Galvin*, who continues the ministry that Bennett started 50 years ago in Bangladesh. “In his last moments here on earth, the doctor came to him and in English said, ‘Who is this?’ and pointed to his wife. In perfect Bangla, he said, ‘amar stri’ (my wife).

“When he was in Bangladesh, it became a part of him,” Galvin said of Bennett. “I believe, as he was going to heaven, he was seeing those Bangladeshi brothers and sisters who went before. So, Bangla naturally came out of his mouth.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Mission Board’s presence in Bangladesh. In 1957, the Bennetts arrived in what was then East Pakistan, beginning a chain of events that would lead to an incredible movement of Bangladeshis coming to Christ.

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This fall, IMB personnel and partners gathered to celebrate 50 years of ministry in Bangladesh. The first evening, past and current personnel shared memories during an anniversary dinner.

“Scripture indicates that there is a time and season for everything under the sun,” said Hank Cantrell*, a retired missionary who served alongside the Bennetts for many years. “There’s a time to come and a time to go. There’s a time to experience everything [God] wants us to experience, and there’s a time to go home and share that. There’s a time to rejoice in the coming of other folks.”

Such sentiment pervaded the events marking the anniversary as attendees celebrated past achievements and how they will shape future work in the country.

“It is evident that our Lord’s hand is on this country, and it is evident that there is still so much to be done,” Cantrell said.

On the second day of the celebration, national and international partners joined Southern Baptist workers to commemorate their history of work for God’s Kingdom.

“It was a day of rebirth and coming back together, refocusing,” IMB representative Darryl Pogue* said. “David Garrison [the IMB’s regional leader for southern Asia] challenged us to look at the next 50 years, and it looks good.”

Bahi Nadir* agreed, in speaking on behalf of the Bangladeshi partners. “I pray that we look ahead for another 50 years of time, another 50 years of partnership together to bring hundreds of thousands of Muslims to the saving knowledge of Jesus in our country.”

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The ministry began as the Bangladesh Baptist Mission, a registered non-government organization, in 1957. The Bennetts arrived at the request of the Australian Baptist Mission to take over its mission stations. The Bennetts were the first Southern Baptist personnel assigned to Bangladesh, but more families soon joined them.

“It was those early missionaries who really went through the lean years of seeing very few results,” Galvin said, “and yet they stayed and were faithful and laid the foundation for the growth after that.”

Pogue agreed. “We feel like we’re reaping a harvest that is a result of all that,” he said. “We can say today that there’s a jamaat, a church, in every district in this country. It seems to us that a [church-planting] movement among Muslims of this country is unprecedented.”

The faithful work of the early missionaries paved the way for many new visions and strategies for reaching the lost with the Good News of Christ. During the course of the 50 years of work in Bangladesh, many changes took place as missionaries and their national partners learned how best to reach Bangladeshis.

“A vision of church planting was pioneered by the International Mission Board,” Nadir said. “From the mid-1970s to the early ’90s, the church-planting movement went to its highest peak [in Bangladesh] because of the movement of the missionaries and nationals.”

Cole Elbridge* was a part of the ministry in Bangladesh then and experienced some of the transition in the methods used. He admitted that his personal American ways of thinking had to change before he could be effective in communicating the Good News to Bangladeshis.

“One thing I remember about Bangladesh is how my missiology just evolved,” he recounted. “We couldn’t share with these people in the way that we normally preach in our Western culture. We had to get to the heart language.”

Because of the efforts of these missionaries and their national partners, Bangladeshi Muslims are coming to Christ in great numbers.

As a result, Garrison said, “The world is looking to Bangladesh. I get e-mails and letters from people in Yemen, Saudi Peninsula, Sudan and Chad, and they talk about the lessons they are learning about how to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with Muslims. They said, ‘We have learned this from you in Bangladesh.'”

The going certainly has not been easy, but the love of the missionaries for Christ and for the people of Bangladesh has made a lasting impact as Christ’s love shone through His servants to speak to Bangladeshis in ways their words could not.

“I remember at the time of the [1971] civil war, some of the missionaries were asked by the U.S. [embassy] to go back [to the United States] because their lives were not safe,” Nadir recalled. “But I remember these missionaries stayed during that crisis -– even at the cost of the security of their lives -– to show their love for us, for our land and for our country.”

As much as the missionaries touched Bangladesh and its people, they also are the first to say Bangladesh left an indelible impression on them as well.

“You don’t have to stay here very long to understand that we don’t live here; Bangladesh lives in us,” Cantrell said.
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*Name changed for security purposes. Kari Wynn is a writer serving in southern Asia.