Adventist education is being called the path to people’s hearts in Bangladesh as the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Bangladesh celebrates 110 years in the southern Asia country.
World church president Ted N.C. Wilson and other church leaders gathered with more than 1,200 church members and students at Bangladesh Adventist Seminary and College, the church’s premiere educational institute outside the country’s capital, Dhaka, on Friday to commemorate the establishment of the Adventist presence in what was then East Bengal in 1906.
That first mission station — founded by Lal Gopal Mookerjee, the great-grandson of the first Christian baptized by British missionary William Carey in India, and his wife, U.S. schoolteacher and Bible worker Grace Kellogg — paved the way for Adventist education to blossom in the country.
Today Adventist schools are thriving centers of influence across this country of 162 million people, with some 10,000 students attending 174 village schools, 10 city schools, and nine boarding schools.
“Our church in Bangladesh is basically schools,” said Milton Das, communication director for the Bangladesh Union Mission, who has worked closely with the local Adventist education system for years. “Education is the strongest medium to reach the people of Bangladesh. Where there is a church, there is a school.”
About 60 to 70 percent of the students are non-Adventist, and the figure rises to 99 percent in city schools such as the Dhaka Adventist Pre-Seminary School, which teaches 1,535 students in the country’s capital.
Adventist education is in high demand, with parents from various faiths wanting their children to learn Christian values, Das said.
“There are many more children waiting to go to school,” said Das, who worked as principal of the Dhaka Adventist Pre-Seminary School for five years and oversees Bangladesh Children Sponsorship Services, a department of the Bangladesh Union Mission that covers the tuition costs of 3,000 underprivileged children annually through partnerships with the General Conference, Adventist supporting ministry Asian Aid, the Czech branch of ADRA, and other agencies.
Das himself received 16 years of Adventist education after an Australian woman paid his monthly tuition costs through Asian Aid. He said 90 percent of local church leaders were also sponsored as children.
“This is our challenge: to serve and minister and educate for this world and the world to come,” Das said in an interview. “We need more people to partner with us in this great ministry in the 10/40 window where 90 percent of the people are Muslim. It’s a challenging field, but the Lord has helped us come through 110 years and expand in various ways.”
One of those ways is on display at Dhaka’s Adventist International Mission School, which was established by U.S. philanthropist Garwin McNeilus in 1996 and reopened this year after a major expansion funded by Asian Aid’s Australia branch. The school, which has 330 students in grades one through six, aims to increase enrollment to 900 by 2024 and generate enough income to pay the tuition of 300 village students a year.
School principal Krishna Kanth Baidya took a Adventist Mission visitor on a tour of the sparkling eight-story school building with classrooms filled with neat rows of desks and smiling teachers. Happy children shouted and ran in an outdoor courtyard during a 20-minute break, and several approached a visitor to inquire where he was from and to ask to take a photo with him.
Baidya said only five or six students come from Adventist families. The parents of the others, he said, chose the school because they especially appreciated the biblical morals exhibited by the teachers and the Adventist health message.
“In this way we can reach this community,” he said.
Educational Centers of Influence
Across town on the campus of the Dhaka Adventist Pre-Seminary School, principal Anukul Ritchil said parents have expressed similar reasons for sending their children to his school. Parents tell him: “You are teaching morals, how to pray to God, how to be more religious minded, and how to overcome temptations,” he said. They also like the fact that Adventist teachers don’t spank or beat the children.
“They see that the quality of Adventist missionary schools is different,” Ritchil said.
People have noticed that something is different about Adventist schools for decades, veteran church workers said. When the first Adventist schools opened, people made fun of their grading system, saying, “What is this A, B, C, D?” said Shova Rani Bayen, Ritchil’s mother-in-law and a retired schoolteacher who served as a pioneering missionary in remote areas of eastern Bangladesh in the 1950s and 1960s.
“But now the Bangladesh government has developed this A, B, C, D grading system,” said Bayen, 76. “People say Adventists are advanced because we did it here first.”
Bayen told of how Adventist education had changed the lives of the Santali people living near Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. She said the people wore nothing more than scant cloths to cover their genitals and ate all living creatures — including snails, rats, cats, and dogs — when she first arrived in the area with her husband, evangelist Narottom Bayen. The adults had no desire to live differently.
“But then we opened a church school,” Bayen said. “The younger generation started to change. After the children finished third grade, we sent them to boarding school. Many of those children are now church workers, pastors, and evangelists.”
The church has 29,802 members worshipping in 123 churches and 291 companies as of late September 2016, according to statistics provided by the Bangladesh Union Mission.
Narottom Bayen, who served the church for 35 years as a missionary and evangelist, said Adventist education continues to change lives in Bangladesh.
“We are here in this world for only a short time,” said Bayen, 86. “If we are busy living for our own desires, we will just lose. We have a responsibility to give something back to society, to impact someone’s life by sharing with them the joy of Jesus.”