In January 1977, just over 32 years ago, my wife, Kendra, my daughter, Heather, who had just celebrated her first birthday, and I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh to begin what we thought would be a two year assignment but stretched to seven.
Our shipment of supplies, dishes and things turned up about three months later just as we were moving into our field assignment in Kamalganj, a rural area in northeastern Bangladesh. As we carried boxes of paper diapers, kid’s toys, clothes and other things that we had shipped into a small house that had originally been built for leprosy patients we began to see our world and our place in quite differently.
I am the son of a Baptist pastor and grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia where he pastored a small church. Kendra, a missionary kid was born in Barbados when it was still a British colony and grew up there and in Grenada. Neither of our families were rich by American standards—probably on the basis of money alone, we would have been lower middle class. We grew up thinking of ourselves not as poor but certainly not as rich either.
As we moved in that day, all that we owned in the world fit on the floor of one of the four 100 square feet concrete rooms that comprised our new house—almost without stacking. As our possessions disappeared into the house, however, what seemed to us minimal in the US suddenly seemed excessive. With a start we realized at a gut level that we were rich. With that personal revelation, much around us began to change. Previously we were able to read biblical instruction concerning possessions without guilt, sometimes subtly seasoned with self-righteousness. With the new recognition that we were rich, the same passages became acutely uncomfortable. Beginning with that discomfort, a two year assignment also slowly transformed into a lifelong vocation, and for over thirty years we have led others in ministry to God among the poor.
We quickly came to realize that simply providing money and goods would not in itself change the culture of poverty. If the ship bringing our shipment to Bangladesh had sunk in the Indian Ocean, we would not then have been poor, only inconvenienced for a period. Neither life nor even wealth is actually measured by the accumulation of possessions alone.
In the years since, our family lived seven year in Kenya and I have traveled to dozens of impoverished countries. None of my travels have moved me to romanticize poverty—it is terrible, rooted in injustice and eats slowly away at all that a person is meant by God to be. But I have also been transformed by thousands of hours of conversations with the poor, especially those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and come to new understandings of God’s heart.
That is why I am writing this blog—not to give answers but to chronicle my journey especially during this leg of the trip with my colleagues at World Concern.