Last December, a 58-year-old man was baptized in New York City. Any baptism is cause for celebration, but this Bangladeshi man had been Muslim until he recently came to faith in Jesus Christ late last year. It was a quiet baptism, performed in a bathtub.
North Carolina Baptists helped that happen, through their Coats for the City project last year. The coats project, done each year over the past four years in partnership with the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, asks North Carolina Baptists to collect new or lightly used coats. Baptist State Convention of North Carolina staffers collect the thousands of coats and truck them to New York, where they are distributed by new churches in their local neighborhoods about the city.
Last November local Baptists set up tables in the Jamaica section of Queens, tables piled high with those coats from North Carolina. They also distributed hot tea as local Baptists and North Carolina Baptist volunteers talked to the hundreds of people who gathered for coats.
Jamaica is an area in Queens where many people from Bangladesh and surrounding Asian countries have settled. Men wearing turbans sip chai at sidewalk cafés; women wearing Indian saris or Islamic burqas shop for Asian clothing.
Russell grew up in Bangladesh and was a Muslim before he became a Christian. Now he is starting a new church for Bangladeshi people.
One local Christian man handing out coats who was also from Bangladesh was named Russell*. When Russell helped the then-Muslim man from Bangladesh find a coat, the two talked.
Home visits and long discussions of faith followed. Russell was happy when the man decided to become a follower of Christ and followed in baptism. Since then Russell has been meeting with him for discipleship. That has gone well; that new baptized believer has already led a Muslim Bengali woman to faith in Christ. She was baptized in June this year.
Russell said the coats project is a great idea. “The coats provide a bridge to local people,” he said. “Showing concern makes a big impact in our community. Many people live here in poverty.”
He smiled sadly as he said, “Even some of my own family who will not even talk to me [because he is Christian] nevertheless lined up to get coats,” he said.
The new believer cannot be identified for security reasons. Russell’s own background says much about the extreme persecution that can be directed at people who leave Islam to follow Jesus.
Like many others here, Russell was born in Bangladesh in an Islamic family and grew up Muslim. As he grew up in a heavily Muslim area of Bangladesh, he knew nothing of Christianity. He went to prayers as required of Muslims.
Outwardly his life seemed to be going well. He was able to study engineering in Denmark, where he learned English. He returned to Bangladesh when his mother became seriously ill with Addison’s disease.
Russell noticed that his mother often read from a book with no cover; sometimes he found her weeping as she read.
One day she handed him the book. “Read this book and be blessed,” she told him. He took the book from her, but it was two months before he got around to opening it. He was shocked to see that it was a Bible. “Mom, why did you give me this book?” Russell asked because he knew Muslims were forbidden to read it.
But, out of respect for his mother, Russell began reading the New Testament. At first he was confused at four different versions of the life of Jesus. His mother explained that the four Gospels were written by four different witnesses. “They say the same thing, therefore, it is true,” she said simply.
Russell was shaken to his soul by the powerful truths he read. He struggled between the Islamic teachings he had grown up with and the Bible he now read. He focused his study on four people Islam’s book, the Koran, calls prophets: Moses, Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed.
He quickly saw that Jesus was not just a prophet; rather, he had a divine character and spoke with divine authority. “Even in the Koran, Jesus was portrayed as divine. The others were just flesh and bone,” he concluded.
As a Muslim, he was carrying shame and guilt and was living a sinful life. He had seen peace neither in his own life nor in his Islamic culture, where he said hatred was the norm.
But when he read the New Testament, he found Jesus urging His followers to love one’s enemies. “That made a lot of sense in my heart,” he recalled.
One day he was so spiritually oppressed, he opened the Bible and read the third and 14th chapters of John over and over. He was born again. “This time was so awesome! It was like [God] speaking to me. I knelt down and I started praying to Jesus.” Russell felt God welcome him into His family. The year was 2001.
He sought out other Christians to help him grow in his faith. Amazingly, some refused to help him. He finally found an evangelical pastor in Chittagong, a port city of Bangladesh, who welcomed him into a Bible study.
Being a follower of Jesus in a Muslim land is hard. He was afraid to leave his apartment building because of persecution. He recalls being so afraid his knees literally shook.
Russell was beaten more times than he could count. He points to scars on his hands and a scar on his head from attacks, then to a tooth that was broken when he was thrown to the ground and hit with a rock.
His future wife came to faith in Christ through a supernatural dream. Eventually the two were able to move to New York. They have a young son. Now Russell, 38, is intent on starting a new church in Jamaica, Queens. “I’m passionate to reach my people for Christ,” he said. And God has rewarded his zeal, for he has seen 27 Bangladeshis become Christians.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina will be collecting coats for Coats for the City at this year’s Annual Meeting, scheduled for Nov. 14-15 at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro. To learn more, visit ncbaptist.org/coats. Each coat should be accompanied by a $2 gift to cover the cost of Bibles and Jesus videos.)