That one word is how Southern Baptist missionary Paul Biswas sums up Hinduism — the religion in which he was born and indoctrinated as a boy growing up in a conservative, higher-caste, ultra-religious family in his native Bangladesh. While still in elementary school, he learned the religion at his grandfather’s knee.
“It is only by the grace of God I was able to overcome all the hardships and persecutions of my life,” says Biswas, now 56, the oldest son in his family. Among Hindus, being the oldest son brings extra respect and responsibilities. Rejecting Hinduism as the oldest son brings absolute family rejection, legal disownment and persecution.
Biswas — 21 years old at the time — could no longer believe in a religion based on reincarnation, 300 million gods and goddesses — three major ones — predestination, and “Karma.”
“From the Bible I came to know that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone,” Biswas says. “It is by faith only. I don’t need to do Karma. I don’t need to show my good works and prove them.”
Paul’s father became furious with his son when — after becoming a Christian — Paul decided to change his last name from “Vishnu” (one of the major Hindu gods) to “Biswas,” which means ‘faith’ in his native language. It was 1973.
Disowned by his father and kicked out of the house, Biswas would endure years of persecution, humiliation, hardship and even physical torture because of his Christian faith.
“Before I left my father’s home, I told my father he could disown me, but that my Eternal Father would not disown me.”
He and his father have since reconciled but even today, his parents won’t hug him because he’s considered an outcast.
Biswas today ministers to other Hindus and Muslims as a church planting missionary and founding pastor of the Boston Bangla Church in Boston, Mass.
Paul and Elizabeth Biswas are two of some 5,500 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions, and are among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009. This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like the Biswas’s.
According to Biswas, about 1 million Bengalis live in the United States but there are only four SBC-Bengali churches nationwide to serve them. Some 20,000 Bengalis live in New England, where there’s only one Bengali Baptist church. About 7,000 Bengalis live in Greater Boston — 4,000 in the Cambridge area. He said 88 percent of Bengalis from Bangladesh are Muslim; the other 11 percent are Hindus and Buddhists. Christians are only one percent.
“The biggest challenge for my ministry here is to mobilize the local churches,” said Biswas. “We have more than 150 people groups here in the Boston area and the American churches are getting a new experience. They don’t know how to reach out to the vast number of Muslims and Hindus.”
Is it difficult to reach out to Muslims and Hindus with the gospel?
“As for Hindus, that’s my culture and background so it’s not too difficult. Hindus think of Jesus as a god.
“I don’t find it difficult to reach out to Muslims, especially in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s much harder back in Bangladesh, a country of 150 million people. But here, Muslims hear and are responsive. It depends on your approach. It’s important to speak to them in their own heart-language and to know and understand their culture.”
Language is not a problem for Biswas. He understands Hindi and Urdu, and speaks Bengali and English fluently.
“Muslims have a high regard and respect for Jesus. They consider him as one of four Major Prophets. The Qur’an has 22 different titles for Jesus — ‘Messiah,’ ‘Spirit of God,’ ‘Word of God,’ etc. Muslims cannot deny what’s in their own book!” Biswas says with a laugh. He uses the Qur’an as a bridge to reach Muslims.
Biswas prefers to preach Christ and not Christianity because the word “Christianity” is a politicized word with a strongly negative connotation for Muslims, who associate it with the Crusades and the Western world.
A key problem with witnessing to Bengalis in Boston is merely finding a time to coincide with their busy work schedules.
“It’s hard to reach the Bengali immigrants because they work so hard — seven days a week. We have one group that meets at midnight because that’s when the people come home from work. At midnight or 1 a.m. they have their Bible study meeting, eat together, go home by 3 a.m., sleep a few hours and then get up and go to work again,” he said.
Biswas said he is partnering with three local churches, but needs the prayer and financial support of four more churches in 2009. Biswas’ two biggest partners in sharing the gospel are his wife, Elizabeth, and Abu Mansur, a converted Muslim he first knew back in Bangladesh.
“The great joy in my ministry is my wife. We have worked together, serving the Lord as a team since 1974.” That same year, Paul and Elizabeth, also from Bangladesh, were married, and today have two grown children and two grandchildren.
In 1976, Biswas was called into the ministry and ordained one year later. Until coming to the U.S. in 2001, he worked in Bangladesh as an evangelist, church planter, pastor, pastoral superintendent, director of missions, writer, translator and teacher at different Bible colleges and seminaries.
Biswas holds an A.B. degree in economics from Rajshahi University in Bangladesh, an M. Div. degree from Philippines Baptist Theological Seminary, Philippines, and a Master of Theology degree in Missions from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Mass. He is currently working on his Ph.D.
“Many times we had to go through hardship and suffering but my wife always is with me and encourages me. She’s does a lot of prayer and fasting.”
His other ministry partner is Mansur, who actually left Bangladesh before Biswas did.
“Mansur is a wonderful guy with a great passion to reach out to his own people because he himself came from a Muslim background,” said Biswas. “I came from a Hindu background so that’s a good combination. I can reach the Hindus and Mansur can reach the Muslims.
“He came from an upper-class Muslim family so he has a very good knowledge about the Qur’an. He also was persecuted and at one time, his life was in danger so he had to leave Bangladesh.” Biswas said Mansur, like himself, is bi-vocational and needs extra financial support.
That’s where the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® comes in handy.
“We started our ministry in 2003 without the help of NAMB or the Annie Armstrong offering,” recalls Biswas. “Today, their support is a real blessing for us.”
While Biswas receives assistance from the Baptist Convention of New England and the Greater Boston Baptist Association, he is also a NAMB Mission Service Corps missionary and raises additional financial support through local churches.
“Paul brings a lot of expertise because he basically functioned as a director of missions in Bangladesh,” says Al Riddley, director of missions for the local Boston association. “He brings a lot of ability and is very respected. He has a real working knowledge of Muslims and Hindus alike.
“Among Southern Baptists, there are few experts like Paul, who has not only the academic background but also the experience,” Riddley said. “That’s what Paul brings. Plus, he has such a strong commitment. He’s really an evangelist at heart.”