In Bangladesh, Banzaid’s local partner is Baptist Aid-BBCF. Baptist Aid is the aid and development department for the Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship (BBCF), who are a national organisation of Baptist Churches. In February Banzaid manager, Paul Thompson, visited Bangladesh for the Centenary celebrations of the BBCF.
The Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship Centenary Celebrations began on Ekushey February this year. The United Nations have named the 21st of February International Mother Language Day. Its origin is this very day, the day Bangladesh remembers the Language Martyrs of 1952. That year the government of then Pakistan tried to introduce Urdu as the national language for the whole country (East and West). The Bengalis of East Pakistan resisted strongly. Their language is Bengali, not Urdu. In the resulting protests a number of Bengalis were shot by the Pakistan authorities, and became the language martyrs of Ekushey February. It was another 19 years before Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, but that was the start of the movement.
Pride in their language and culture, confidence in their independence typify Ekushey – an appropriate day to begin the celebration of 100 years of the BBCF as a national church organisation. As we were reminded in the meetings, there have been Bengali Christians for over 400 years, dating back to a period of Portuguese influence. There have been Bengali Baptists for over 200 years, beginning with the work of William Carey. For the BBCF this event marked 100 years of operating as a national church body, taking responsibility themselves for the life of the churches in their fellowship. They celebrated their historical partnerships with foreign mission organisations, beginning with Australian and New Zealand Baptists and later with American Southern Baptists. More recently Korean and Chinese groups have come in. Representatives of all these partner organisations joined the celebrations.
Mission organisations have always established development activities: education, health, vocational training, agriculture, cottage industries. All of these have featured in mission work in Bangladesh. Historically most of these have been instituted and run by the mission organisations. The BBCF was responsible for church programmes, but foreign missions ran the development activities.
In the 1980s the New Zealand Baptists transferred many of these programmes to the responsibility of the national church. The Chandpur and Brahmanbaria Christian Schools, and the Brahmanbaria Christian Medical Centre were handed over to the BBCF. In modern development terminology this is called “localisation”, and is a strongly promoted principle – but NZ Baptists were doing it long before it became a trend!
At the Centenary celebrations it was great to see and hear about the progress these institutions have made. The Brahmanbaria Christian Medical Centre was running the first aid tent for the conference. It is a vibrant Christian hospital, serving the Brahmanbaria community, and is functioning as a thriving social enterprise business, bringing an income into the BBCF that is used for a variety of ministries. There was a similar story in the two schools. Both have grown since the handover to the BBCF, and both are completely self-supporting, and in fact bring income to the BBCF.
Within Banzaid, we have a principle of working to support local organisations, and so in Bangladesh our partner is Baptist Aid-BBCF. Our aim is to work with them, supporting their projects. We help them design the project, and support the project with funds and consultancy advice, but it is their project and their responsibility. This was the pattern for the TCDC project, and for its successor, the Village Education Project.
Bangladesh has come a long way since independence in 1971. It has not been a smooth road, and there are still many issues facing the country. From the economic “basket case” of the early 1970s they have worked their way through political, social, environmental and economic storms to become a country that in recent years has shown consistent and strong economic growth. The church too has grown, and the BBCF has been a leader in that. As a tiny Christian minority in a Muslim country there are many challenges ahead, but the Centenary Celebration demonstrated a depth of maturity that augers well for the future. Shabash (well done!).