Emily didn’t fit in at her new school.
Most of the school’s 600 students were Muslims, with a few Hindus, and nine-year-old Emily was one of two Christian students. While her ‘new girl’ status made her stand out enough, her family’s Christian faith eventually made her a target in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh, where only 0.5% of the population are Christians.
Assuming that Emily was a Hindu because of her last name, a teacher asked the new fourth grader if she could eat beef. When Emily told the teacher she could eat beef because she was a Christian, a group of girls standing nearby overheard her reply. “Then it started,” Emily said.
Becoming an Outcast
At first, the Muslim girls harassed Emily by stealing her water bottle and lunch, and then they threatened to have her expelled from school. Though Emily had done nothing wrong, the girls tormented her psychologically.
“My first reaction was shock,” Emily said. “I felt betrayed. Then everything escalated. I was angry at them mostly — and at the teachers because they knew what was going on and they never did anything.”
Eventually, the girls began to insult Emily and ridicule her faith. They told her Jesus Christ wasn’t born of a virgin and that the gospel accounts were filled with mythology. Emily said that in some ways, the attacks on her faith hurt more than the personal jabs. “I would cry sometimes,” she said.
In fifth grade, Emily made friends with a Muslim girl who accepted her despite her Christian faith. Whenever they were together, the bullies didn’t bother Emily, but when Emily was alone, they pounced.
One day during lunch, six girls surrounded Emily and one of them asked her for a bite of the chicken sausage she had brought for lunch. Confused, Emily handed the girl her food. As the girl took a bite and chewed it up, the other five girls held Emily’s arms and legs while forcing her mouth open. Then the girl spat out the chewed sausage and shoved it in Emily’s mouth. “My immediate reaction was to fight back,” Emily said. “I did and got hurt.”
When Emily’s mother, Anjoli, picked her up from school that day, Emily was in tears. “She didn’t tell me what happened at first,” Anjoli said. “After a few hours at home, she finally told me.”
Emily felt increasingly isolated at school, and her grades suffered as a result. On days when her friend wasn’t at school, Emily hid from the bullies in a storage cupboard. She did whatever was necessary to get through the school day.
Learning to Stand
The bullying at school was the first personal attack Emily had experienced because of her faith, but it wasn’t the first time she had endured persecution. In 2005, when she was just a few months old, more than 50 people attacked a discipleship training school her parents had recently established. Wielding bamboo sticks and machetes, the mob shattered the building’s windows and hurled insults and threats at the family.
“We didn’t know what to do,” said Emily’s father, Barun. “We had no way to contact the police and didn’t know many people in the city. We started to pray. Suddenly, after some time, everything was quiet. They stopped banging and shouting.”
Barun never learned what caused the mob to flee, but he considers it an answered prayer. Years later, as Emily walked through her own persecution at school, her parents again prayed for God’s intervention. “I cried and fasted and prayed for her situation,” Anjoli said, “because if she stopped going to school, there would be no future for her. As her mum, you have to go and pray and tell her, ‘It’ll all be okay’.”
Emily’s parents taught her to stand up not only for herself but also for her faith. When she was in sixth grade, her parents brought a special request to her principal: since Muslim and Hindu students did not attend school on their religious holidays, they asked that Emily be excused on Christian holidays.
In Bangladesh, as in other predominantly Muslim countries, students do not attend school on Fridays, the Muslim day of rest, but attend school on Sundays.
After Barun and Anjoli repeatedly asked Emily’s principal to excuse her on Easter Sunday, the principal eventually added Easter to the school’s holiday calendar. Then the principal made another unexpected move: she invited Emily to speak about Easter during a school assembly. “We thought, ‘Okay, we have a victory’,” Barun said. “Then I thought maybe God would have more plans.”
Finding Her Voice
Emily was at first anxious when her principal asked her to give the speech, but then she saw it as a unique opportunity. “It was a good way to tell them the story about Jesus,” she said, “because no one really knew what Easter was or why we celebrated it.”
Barun helped Emily write her speech, tailoring it to the school’s largely Muslim audience, who viewed Jesus as a prophet. Barun and Emily wrote about Christ’s life, teachings, miracles and death on the cross. The speech culminated in the story of His resurrection, followed by an invitation to faith in Christ and eternal life.
The following Sunday, during an open-air assembly outside the school, Emily walked up to a small podium in front of a sea of people. Trembling with nervous energy, she held the microphone to her mouth and started her speech. Her parents stood just outside the school’s gate beneath a mango tree, listening intently.
“I was shaking because I had stage fright,” Emily recalled. “I was also nervous what my classmates would think about things I would say.”
With the assistance of loudspeakers, Emily shared her testimony with 600 students and nearly 50 teachers and school staff. Many parents were also in attendance. Countless members of the community could also hear Emily’s words through the speakers, which projected her testimony to a university, hospital, shops and residential area near the school.
As she read her speech, 12-year-old Emily heard students laughing at her words. “If I looked at the audience, I knew I would be scared,” she said. “At the end, I finally looked up.” Then she walked away from the podium, bracing herself for the backlash.
Watching God Work
Emily expected her speech to lead to more persecution, but something different happened. Immediately, and even years later, Emily saw God use her speech in powerful ways.
After her speech, some Muslim teachers approached Emily with surprising questions. Several asked for a copy of her speech, and two even requested Bibles, which her father Barun happily supplied.
The girls who had bullied her suddenly stopped their harassment, and one of them eventually apologised to Emily and asked for a Bible. More than a year later, Emily’s maths teacher attended a Christmas service with Emily and her family, who then gave the teacher a Bible.
Looking back, Emily said she learned many lessons from the persecution she endured. She now understands that God is always with her and that He does, in fact, use all things for His glory. Persecution also taught her that our personal challenges often benefit us.
“I think sometimes persecution is another way to actually grow in your own faith,” Emily said. “Even when you are persecuted and suffer, you bear sweeter fruit as a result.”
For the past two years, Emily, now 17, has attended a predominantly Christian boarding school in India. In two years, she plans on entering discipleship training before attending university.
Eventually, she hopes to work in full-time ministry, just like her parents. “I feel that it would be an adventure,” she said. “I like adventure. I also like a lot of people getting to know God. It would be a win-win.”
Emily said she would encourage teenagers or youth who want to share their faith at school to pray about it and then trust God to give them the words to speak. “Afterward, you will know that at least some people will get the message in their heart and will actually come to you and ask for more,” she said. “I would say just go for it. Don’t be scared.”