Bangladesh relief effort not in vain

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Hundreds of Bangladeshis press against the blue iron gate as they hear their dinner being poured into large plastic containers.

Less than 20 feet separate them from the carefully rationed rice, lentils, eggs and potatoes that relief workers had provided as part of flood relief efforts for communities in the southern part of Dhaka, the nation's capital. Yet, what was to be 30 days of food and medical assistance for 6,000 people ended in that location Aug. 16 before the first bowl was handed out — when the relief initiative ultimately did not receive permission to open the distribution center.

It was hard for worker Drew Neely* to have to tell refugees with mud-splattered salwars (clothing) and sick children that after three days of waiting, no aid was in sight.

But even in the midst of what relief organizations would consider a failure, Neely sees a claimed opportunity to share the Gospel with the Bengali Muslims. Though unable to distribute the food and medical supplies, volunteers were able to give the desperate families some form of hope. Today, more than 2,000 families have ration cards intended for the food distribution that bear John 3:16 -– a portion of Scripture that testifies to the love God has for them.

"Those things [the cards] are precious to them," Neely said. "We can't lose here. We've already won."

Neely and his family serve in the southern portion of Dhaka — a city with nearly 7 million people, most of whom do not know Jesus. Located at the confluence of two major rivers, Dhaka has seen waters rise past the danger point because of monsoon rains and melting Himalayan snow. Over the past few weeks, approximately 500 people have died and thousands are without homes, food or clean water in these low-lying areas of Bangladesh.

The decision of what areas to target for the relief effort came after days of searching — first by car and motorcycle, then by boat. The choice was made to go to villages not being helped beyond the city's perimeter.

"No one ever goes there," Neely said. "They're going to be asking why we're helping."

Neely plans to follow up with contacts made through the card distribution — and with the 50-plus Bangladeshi volunteers who offered to work for free to help their neighbors. Their help included spreading sand in a rain-drenched schoolyard so people weren't forced to stand in mud as they waited for the food distribution, as it turns out, in vain.

For volunteers like Fahim*, this experience — even with its setbacks — has been worth the effort to show Bangladeshis that faith is not something you're just born into.

"We have a need to share our faith," Fahim said. "It's a way to show our faith to the people so they know who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ."

*Names changed for security reasons.