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St Patrick’s probably has the cleanest church, school, and dispensary in the whole of Bangladesh slum, all because of Mama Nemah. You will see her mopping floors, cleaning toilets, washing windows, setting up for Mass, teaching the nursery school children how to wash their hands, and washing altar linens. She has internalized the old saying, cleanliness is next to Godliness.
When she is not doing these activities, you will find her sitting on a long bench next to her cubby hole where she keeps all her cleaning supplies, reading her Bible, praying, writing in her journal, or counseling neighbors and friends who have come seeking her wisdom and advice. She is a respected elder in the community.
We were talking one day, and I was telling her what an inspiration she was for me. She laughed. I asked her to tell me her story: did she always have such a deep faith? She laughed again, then began to tell me her story:
“I was born in a good Muslim family, with good Muslim parents. When I was 14 years old, my parents arranged a marriage for me as is our custom. I did not know the young man or anything about the arrangement until it was all decided. My parents told me that the young man was Catholic, but not to worry, he had promised to become Muslim. That never happened, and it was I who was made to convert to Catholicism.
Twenty years later, and after baptizing and raising our 7 children in the Catholic faith, my husband sent me back to my parents, took our children to his parents home, and started a new life with a much younger wife. My parents told me it was God’s will that I should now come back to Islam. But my children were crying to me: Mama, will you abandon us and go back to Islam? I was very confused, but it was their need that gave me the sense of direction. I went and collected my children from my husband’s parents and told them we would find the way together. It was at that moment that I knew that I wanted to be Catholic with my children, and I promised myself that I would be a good Catholic, and help my children to be good Catholics too.
God helped us find the way. We moved into Bangladesh and I found work in a garment factory, had a charcoal and firewood business on the side, and enrolled my children in government school. My last born is now finishing secondary school. When the garment factory closed, it was at this time that Fr Dolan arrived and started St Patrick’s Church here in Bangladesh. I was hired as the cleaning woman. It has been the greatest blessing in my life.”
As I listened to Mama Nemah’s story I was even more inspired and felt the confluence of 2 spiritual traditions- Muslim and Christian- shaping her spirituality. True to her Muslim background, she turns to God in prayer often in the day, just as she must have seen her parents do, as a child. And because of her life circumstances, and true to her word, she has embraced the Catholic faith. What she is for me is a great soul, formed by 2 great religious traditions. She radiates the joy of the Divine that can’t be confined to any one religious tradition.

Erik Cambier
Erik Cambier served as Maryknoll lay missioner for 25 years, in Tanzania, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.