BRYN MAWR, Calif. Each year the Bengali Evangelical Association ministers to the poorest of the poor in 230 remote villages of Bangladesh. They use every means possible from goats to rickshaws to spread the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest nations, suffering from gross over-population. Tucked in the western corner of India, the average yearly income is a meager $360.
Many of BEA's self-help programs have ushered many families out of spiritual and financial bondage.
"Our goat program is one of several service-oriented outreaches we provide," BEA Director and President John Biswas said.
A few dollars can purchase a goat for an impoverished family. These hardy animals are ideal for village life because they can thrive in harsh conditions while producing up to four-quarts of high-protein milk per daya feast for the often-malnourished children.
Another BEA program helps the most destitute and hopeless Bengalis to purchase their own "van rickshaws" or bicycle taxis. Owning their own vehicle allows them to double or even triple their income by eliminating high-rental charges and usurious interest rates.
In addition to the self-help programs, BEA runs 13 elementary schools that provide free Christian education to poor, village children. The schools teach basic subjects such as English, math and history. And, because government-approved curriculum is not required until the fourth grade, they are also able to teach the Bible to their 380 students, 85 percent of which are Muslim.
Realizing that education is the path out of poverty, other BEA programs include a three-month nurse's aide training course for young women, many of whom are Muslim and Hindu.
"We believe health care is one of the best ways to serve and share the gospel in Bangladesh," Biswas said. "Christian nurse's aides can share the love of God with the people as they care for their physical needs."
Other BEA educational programs include a school for the deaf and blind that teaches sign language and Braille, and a three-month Bible school.
Many risks come with the rewards of ministering in Bangladesh. The country, established only 37 years ago, is 90 percent Muslim and 9 percent Hindu. Recently four BEA workers at the association's main campus in the village of Sathsimulia, Agoiljhara, Barisala were beaten reportedly with the tacit approval of the local government. The locals were unhappy about the conversion of several Hindus and Muslims to Christianity.
Fortunately Biswas launched a successful appeal to the central government.
"The man who wrote the Bangladesh constitution is still alive," Biswas said. "Dr. Kamal Hossain explained to the local officials that although Islam was declared the state religion in 1988, other religions may be practiced 'in peace and harmony in the Republic.'"
The ministry founder said a tactic of BEA is to come alongside native missionaries to preach God's love in remote villages. They distribute gospel tracts and Bibles, provide emergency disaster relief, baptize new believers and establish churches.
The organization's greatest need for short-term missionaries is for doctors, nurses, teachers and preachers such as Dr. Irene Donley-Kimble, a San Bernardino Ob-Gyn, who has served poor women in remote, rural Bengali villages as a BEA missionary.
Biswas said he believes the greatest challenge in reaching the people of Bangladesh is the difference in their cultural outlook.
"They understand things a different way," he said. "As Christians we're taught to love our enemy. To forgive. To repent. Their culture teaches the exact opposite. To seek revenge. So it is difficult. Yet, there are always people who look for the truth."
Realizing the cultural differences, BEA missionaries strive to make the truth of Scripture simple.
"They've always been taught that Jesus Christ is only for Christians," Biswas said. "We tell them that Jesus Christ died for everyone."
Biswas, who now lives in Loma Linda, is a native of Bangladesh. In March of 1971 the then-teenager was attending college in the capital city of Dhaka, when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) declared its independence from Pakistan (West Pakistan). Three days later, after seeing hundreds of people killed, he escaped from his college and joined the Muktibahini, the Bangladesh Liberation Force.
While resting on the steps of a church after a 220-mile walk into allied India the exhausted youth accepted a glass of water and shelter from a Christian missionary.
"He understood my apprehension about defending my country," Biswas said. "And he gently spoke about the great Defender, Jesus, who shed His blood for my sins."
At the time, Biswas thought the missionary's story sounded like a fairy tale.
"But the Lord planted a seed in my heart," he said.
After the war
Six months later the Pakistani army surrendered. Feeling fortunate to have survived the war, Biswas believed God has spared him for a purpose. He left Bangladesh to study the Bible at Spicer College in India. It was there that he placed his faith fully in Christ.
He returned to Bangladesh and completed his studies at Dhaka University, then left for the Far Eastern Theological Seminary in the Philippines. He later studied at Andrews University in Michigan.
"At first I wanted to be a rich lawyer, live in a big house and do great things," Biswas admitted. "But God had other plans."
He earned his masters degree in religion and returned to his home village of Askor, Barisal. There he organized the native gospel mission, now known as the Bengali Evangelical Association or BEA. It is headquartered in the San Bernardino community of Bryn Mawr.
Biswas returns to Bangladesh two to three times a year to minister to his countrymen. Between trips he attends the San Bernardino Mission church, a small Bengali congregation of two dozen, whose attendance swells to several hundred at Easter and Christmas. Biswas estimates that while 90 percent of the 300,000 Bengalis in the greater Los Angeles area are Muslim, 10 percent are Christiana ten-fold increase over the ratio in his native land.
Biswas' goals for his homeland are God-sized.
"We desire to reach the entire rural population of the 68,000 villages of Bangladesh, sharing the salvation story of the great Savior."
For more information visit www.bengalimission.org.