I’m enjoying a peaceful late evening sitting alone next to the side rail of the upper deck of the overnight riverboat Shurobhi-7, heading north to Dhaka. I’ve just spent two days with one of my former theological students, now a lay pastor serving a rural congregation in southern Bangladesh. I went to encourage him in his outreach to the sick, and together, along with a parish elder, we visited several homes in their village.
Tonight’s cool breeze and the moon’s reflection on the river are helping keep fresh within me the peace I felt as the three of us walked through the lush green rice fields and bamboo groves that lie between the village homes.
Yet, mingled with this peaceful memory is the sorrow we felt as we listened to the stories of those who were sick, such as in a Hindu home where the father had had a stroke. He wept as he spoke of his incapacity, frustration and fear. Our sitting and listening to him and my looking over his medicines and assuring him and his family that they were managing his illness in the best way brought peace to his household. In gratitude, they served us fresh mangoes and dates.
But now on the Shurobhi-7 I am heading to a place that does not engender such peaceful feelings: the teeming and polluted metropolis of Dhaka. There you must persevere through a tense and dangerous environment to carry out your ministry and trust that God will lead you into moments of peace.
On occasion the students in my Healing Ministry class at St. Andrew’s Theological College get to experience such moments, even in some of the roughest places in Dhaka. The course is based on the premise that ministering to the sick is fundamental to the work of the church and bears fruit for God’s kingdom, regardless of the setting.
The course is a continuous component of the three-year curriculum for all the residential students at the college. This year I have 11 students in my class; the other 34 students at St. Andrew’s are in the five-year, non-residential program.
Although my class meets only once a week, over the three-year period this adds up to a significant amount of time the students get to learn about the Christian ministry of healing. Last year we looked at how the Hebrew word rapha is used in the Old Testament to identify certain biblical concepts of suffering and healing. Some of these concepts are not easy to comprehend, such as God’s role in causing suffering as well as alleviating it.
This year we’ll explore healing in Jesus’ ministry to the sick and in his parables, such as his story of the Samaritan who cares for a man attacked by robbers and left half dead on the road. Later on we’ll examine healing practices in the history of the church, particularly the roles of elders and deacons in ministering to the sick.
My students learn that there is no such thing as an isolated disease or remedy. Illness lays bare the interconnected physical, psychological, social, environmental and spiritual dimensions of our lives. The church must consider each of these dimensions in depth if it is to address the root causes and broader effects of disease and human suffering.
The course has a practical component too. The students periodically visit the sick Cindy and I have gotten to know through our clinics in the area. Through these home visits the students get to experience and explore the challenges of ministering to those who suffer.
In Dhaka one special challenge is simply getting to the where the sick live. To visit them the students must walk through an area of Dhaka that is home to criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers. For almost all the students it is their first time to enter an urban slum.
Then, of course, there is the challenge of taking the ministry to people of a different faith. No Christians live in the area the students visit. Although there are a few Hindus, almost everyone is Muslim and most know little about the Christian faith. Since the students are part of a small Christian minority in this Muslim-dominated country, visiting the sick in Muslim homes is a big step for them.
So the ministry of healing brings us to places we would not usually go and often leads us to the bedside of people who are quite different from ourselves. It is here, however, that God reveals why he has sent us and lets us taste the fruit of this ministry.
One of my students, Suvojeet Mondal, last spring visited 3-year-old Dighi, a Muslim girl, lame from cerebral palsy, who lives in a poor area about a 30-minute walk beyond the Buriganga River in south Dhaka. Our class rule is that you don’t visit alone, so my wife, Cindy, went with him.
At first little Dighi was uncomfortable seeing these new visitors, and Suvojeet was concerned that he was not going to be able to relate very well to her. But after they sat a while and spoke with Dighi’s mother, Cindy encouraged Suvojeet to take Dighi onto his lap. When he did, Dighi broke out in laughter!
She and Suvojeet immediately became friends. He handed her a cellphone and then called her with another from just outside the window, and Dighi had great fun talking to him as she held the phone up to her ear. In his report on the visit Suvojeet wrote, “I never want to forget that peaceful moment.”
Through my own experience in the ministry of healing and now in teaching it, I have come to believe that Christ gave this ministry to his church for its own good as well as for the benefit of those to whom it ministers. Whatever our context, whether it be a lush green village or a filthy urban slum, visiting the sick brings us face-to-face with the realities of the human condition in all its dimensions.
The work is not easy and it can be risky, but this ministry allows the church to understand better the breadth and magnitude of Christ’s grace and experience more deeply his peace.
Looking out at the silent river from the upper deck of the Shurobhi-7 and thinking of my former and current students visiting the sick in the name of Christ is a moment of peace I never want to forget. Thank you for helping make it possible for me to teach and encourage these servants of Christ in Bangladesh.