Bangladesh (CAM) — The serene Bandarban Hills of southeast Bangladesh are a different universe from the clogged streets of Dhaka, located some 155 miles away. And that’s just how the Maru like it. Threatened by the push of progress, they cling to a traditional agrarian way of life set amidst bamboo houses and Buddhist shrines.
With its tropical climate and ample rainfall, the surrounding terrain is ideal for growing staple fruit crops like bananas and pineapples. It’s also perfect for producing mangoes–the national tree of Bangladesh.
The Maru (also called Mru) are among 11 tribal groups in Bandarban who had little or no exposure to the Gospel until about 20 years ago. To this day, many practice a blend of animist and Buddhist rituals that include sacrifices to appease the forest spirits.
When Christian Aid Mission learned of a church-planting ministry’s desire to expand its outreach to the Maru and other hill tribes, the director responded with a surprising request. He asked CAM to help him purchase mango saplings!
The purpose was three-fold. Planting mango groves in the area would give missionaries the opportunity to live among the tribal peoples and establish relationships with them. Local workers would be hired to maintain the trees and harvest the fruit, thus providing a source of livelihood for village families. The project would also generate income for the ministry, with the potential to produce enough revenue to support ten or more missionaries.
That was in 2006. The ministry planted some 2,000 trees that have been yielding a bountiful supply of mangoes the past two summers. Its project committee oversees the general care of the trees and hires laborers to weed the groves three times a year and harvest the fruit in June. The mangoes are then sold at a nearby market.
What is more impressive, however, is the spiritual harvest that began long before the first mango was plucked from its branch–and which has only multiplied as a result of this project. Since 1994 the ministry has established more than 40 tribal churches in the Bandarban Hill District, including two new churches in Maru villages.
Rui lives in one of the Maru villages where the ministry built a church last year. The 45-year-old man took pride in being deeply religious, faithfully following the Buddhist practices of his forefathers.
If he or a family member became ill, Rui offered an animal sacrifice to the gods and goddesses. He asked for healing and for forgiveness of any sin that may have led to the sickness.
“But nothing happened. We were not healed from our sickness. I could not get peace in my heart,” explained Rui.
A gospel worker came to Rui’s village and shared a message from a holy book he called “the Word of God.” Rui had never heard of this book before, nor had he heard about God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who had come down from heaven to give him true forgiveness and healing.
Rui knew in his heart that he had committed many sins. He constantly feared trouble would befall his family. But hearing about the Savior who gave His life to forgive and rescue sinners like Rui from eternal punishment was liberating. The message soaked deeper into his soul each time he heard the missionary speak.
Months later, Rui is a changed man. He still lives a quiet life, but he can’t be quiet about his God. He received the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and was baptized. His wife and children have also received Christ and been baptized by the same missionary pastor. Now the whole family attends the new village church.
“I am now living in peace,” said Rui. “I have received answers to prayers from the Lord God. I thank God for His love and kindness toward me and my family.”
Completing the vision
Isolated and desperately-poor hill tribes like the Maru have traditionally shied away from outside influences–including fellow Bangladeshi who hail from the lowlands and the coast. The mango project provides a practical ministry, a “fertile soil” of sorts whereby native missionaries can build trust with Maru villagers and help them supplement their meager incomes.
Perhaps more than any other group in the region, the Maru have demonstrated a growing openness to the gospel. After becoming followers of Christ, some of them have become church planters and pastors among their people.The ministry director recently thanked Christian Aid for our ongoing financial support that assists several of their 30 missionaries.
“Our evangelists and missionaries have been working very faithfully in the Maru and Chakma villages and towns, sharing and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ among the Maru people, Chakma people, Tangchangya people, Khamui people, Bawm people, and Marma people,” the director reported. “I thank the Lord that last year we baptized 10 Marus, 6 Bawm, 6 Chakmas, and 3 Marma for a total of 25 persons from different villages who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. We have led marriage ceremonies, and I have dedicated Bawm and Maru children to the Lord in the worship services. Two local pastors from a Maru village and a Chakma village were ordained in the 2013 Annual Assembly.
“God has blessed our evangelism among the tribal peoples. By the grace of God, in the near future many tribal peoples will come to Christ,” he said.
Through resources sent by Christian Aid, the ministry bought bicycles this past fall for 16 of its missionaries and obtained textbooks and materials for 24 children at a village school.
The ministry also sponsors evangelistic events and conducts leadership training for tribal pastors and elders. The November sessions were attended by 24 church leaders representing several ethnic groups.
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