Ministry Focus: Nepal
by Jonathan Schrock
This article first appeared in the September/October 2014 print edition of Daughters of Promise.
Every day during every year, generation after generation, people gather on the banks of a river that runs through the east side of Kathmandu. You would never be able to find the place on your own if it wasn’t for a helpful native or that tattered yellow brochure with the word “Attractions” printed in black letters on the front page and directions on the second. It’s not a cool fast flowing river but a slow dirty brown one that moves lazily on its way to the ocean thousands of miles away. This particular part of the river runs through a large Hindu temple compound consisting of large gaudy structures and wretched crumbling ones, their age revealed beneath the bright paint and worn rocks. Monkeys play along the ridges of the roofs and hang from the points of the pagodas; the loud calls they make and the evil stares they give make one feel like an intruder in their temple home.
What sort of place was this, I wondered as I passed through the temple gate and began the long walk down the brick paved road toward the main temple. The ground was dry and dusty and the bricks were worn and smooth. Thousands had walked this road before me. The heat bore down on me and pressed against me. The air was thick like the air in a small valley where a breeze rarely blows. The smell of garbage, and waste, and smoke, all hung in the dank air like so much wet laundry hung out to dry. I could see the smoke now, it was white against the buildings on the other side of the compound. It hung low, not traveling up but rather moved horizontally along the ground.
It was difficult to see what was going on ahead because of all the people gathered on this side of the river and because the river itself was so much farther below me. On this side there were large white steps each about three feet high that dropped steeply down to a row of pagodas. Below the pagodas, there were three large gray rock steps down to the river. I say steps, but really, they must have been each about as tall as I. They looked like a staircase for giants. Perhaps the builders made them for the gods. On these steps, people were sitting and standing as they watched a group of people on the other side of the river. The other side was a flat patio like place along the river with a few small steps leading into the water.
As I watched, it became clear what was happening. It was a funeral, and we were watching them perform the last rites of a deceased family member - a mother, someone told me. The body had been wrapped in colorful cloth, and a ritual was being performed. Flower petals were scattered around and on the body, water was brought from the river and poured over the body, and finally, the feet were submerged in the water. It all was very unusual to me, but there was definitely significance in each part of the funeral, though what that significance was, I did not know.
The screaming came then. The daughter of the dead woman had been crying loudly before, but now she was nearly hysterical, her wails echoing off the rocks and buildings. Those around her tried to comfort her but there was no comfort to be had. There was more than just sorrow in her screams, there was frantic pain. The pain I heard in her voice made something inside me constrict and left me with a feeling of desperation. It was the same feeling you get when you wake up from a terrible dream and something inside just feels off and unsettled, wrong. There was no peace for the screaming woman.
Next came the fire. They carried the body on a wooden plank and placed it on top of a log cabin stack of wood. A torch was placed on the wood and soon more white smoke hung in the air and filled the temple grounds. Beyond this funeral pier was another, and another, and another. About ten fires burning at once. When that fire finally burned low, the ashes were pushed into the river where they disappeared if they were small and floated if they weren’t small. With that finality, a person that once walked this lonely world with you and I, was no more. The unsettled feeling inside me was not quick to go away.
This is Nepal, with its different practices and different customs, but the same joys, the same sorrows, the same ache when a loved one is lost. Nepal, it is a country full of people just like you in so many ways, but also different from you in so many ways because, unlike you, so many of these people are lost. They searching for hope and meaning in a broken world that has no mercy on them. Their cries echo through the tremendous voids among the hills and snow covered mountains, almost thirty million people with the foot of poverty on their necks and the weight of pain in their hearts.
They have had a tough time of it. War has claimed many lives and it doesn’t take long to notice that there are hardly any men in the mountain villages. There are some men, of course, very old ones and very young ones, but the ones in between are strangely absent. I asked my friend Keshab where all the men were. Thousands died in the civil war a number of years ago. The ones that were left have moved to the city to find jobs or gone to India. Many more have moved to Saudi Arabia to work in the oil fields. “It’s not good” Keshab said, “they go to Saudi for three years and almost two years of that is to pay their travel agent for their ticket and work permit.” But they have no choice. Stay at home and remain jobless and starve, or take drastic steps to just to live. Families are split up in order to survive. But do they? Alcohol claims the loyalty of many too poor to support such a habit. Infidelity claims many husbands and wives separated by miles of jungle and desert.
Brokenness is everywhere. Eyes are filled with pain that is carried from one day to the next. I remember sitting on the small front porch of a young girl and hearing her story. She was the oldest of her brothers and sisters and her father had died or left the family. Her mother, tired of being alone, abandoned her, along with her brothers and sisters, for a boyfriend who wasn’t interested in having a family. The youngest child was less than two years old. They haven’t seen their mother since she left, and probably never will. What a terrible tragedy for this girl! The pain she felt was obvious and hard to hide. Though she did not want to cry in front of her guests, she did. Her world was crushed. We listened, we cried, we prayed, but it felt so incomplete and so inadequate. Nothing will bring back her father or mother. I wanted to scream at the world for being so unjust. Why must one suffer for the wrongs of another? But then, my mind went to another, Jesus who also suffered for the wrongs of others and through that suffering was able to offer hope to this girl, the hope that he has gone to prepare a place for her, the reality that he has adopted her into a new family.
You see, she is a believer. One day, we’ll sit again on her front porch and this time we’ll talk about how her wrongs were made right, how her tears were held in the hands of a loving father, her Abba. We will talk about the peace that has been placed in our hearts by Jesus, peace not like the peace that the world gives, but peace that calms a troubled heart, and strengthens a fearful one. There is pain in her eyes but there is something else too, there is hope, there is meaning, and that is what strengthens her.
The new strength that she has been given is what Nepal needs! So many people are left in the gutter because Hinduism doesn’t care for the down trodden. Hinduism throws it in your face. The reason you suffer the reason bad things are happening to you is that you did something bad in your previous life. You are simply getting what you deserve. There is no freedom in that and a few people are turning to Christ for their hope. Christianity offers something completely different.
There aren’t many Christians in Nepal, but a small minority of people are walking in the footsteps of Christ. Incredible things are happening among believers and among Hindus. One pastor told me a story about some children that were coming to his churches’ VBS. The children learned that idols were false and couldn’t help anyone so they went home and took down the family idols. When the pastor heard this he was afraid that he would be persecuted for turning the children against their families’ and villages’ religion. However the whole family began coming to church and told the pastor that anything that made little children bold enough to tear down the idols must be worth seeing for themselves.
Nevertheless, there are so many people who have not been reached yet, so many that know nothing of God, nearly thirty million scattered in an area slightly bigger than the size of my home state of TN. Mountains and hills cover almost the whole landlocked country of Nepal, and people fill those valleys and mountains to the max. A few have heard, but thousands of villages have never once heard the gospel. These villages are remote, deep in the mountains that make up the base of the Himalayans. One doesn’t just drive there. To get to these places requires a bus ride, and a truck ride, and finally a hike over steep mountains. Easy it is not. When will they hear the good news?
Imagine the hills and valleys -the arena where thousands go through life. Imagine the people lining the mud covered city streets as they walk to their homes. Ninety nine percent of these are lost. Imagine standing on the top of a mountain at night and looking out at the lights scattered below, little glowing patches, and each one a village that makes up someone’s world. There is one, and beside it another, and another, dozens of them. Beyond the next mountain there are a dozen more just the same as these, and beyond that another valley, and another. On and on it goes and none of these villages have ever heard of Jesus. What will become of them? They don’t know the truth and so another generation will go by, the white smoke will continue to fill the valleys, and the lost will continue to die without hope until someone shares with them the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nepal is a beautiful country full of people that need something you have: freedom in Christ. Please do not forget the people of Nepal. It’s amazing how easily it can happen. I have shared meals of dal bhat with these people. I have stayed in their homes and walked their mountain trails and yet so many days I forget about their needs in deference to my own. But we have a responsibility to those in need and we now have an awareness of that need. Let it drive you to your knees in prayer for the lost. Let it push you to support. Let it build a change in your heart that in turn changes the world around you. If all would only pray, if all would only work a little bit then perhaps the one percent in Nepal will become two percent. Maybe one day it will become three. The time is ripe for it and anything could happen. There are needs in Nepal, there is a need the world over, and you have a call. Answer. It’s why you are here.
Did You Know
-Home to Mount Everest, the Royal Bengal Tiger, and 339 unique people groups, Nepal has a population of 28,922,000 people. Of those, 28,697,000 remain unreached by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
-Hinduism accounts for 82.2% of Nepal’s population while only 0.6% is considered Christian.
-Approximately 2/3 of Nepal’s population consists of young people, making Nepal one of the world’s youngest and fastest growing countries.
-Nepal has freedom of religion, but this freedom is limited. Non-Hindus are restrained from proselytizing. Doing so could mean fines, imprisonment, and possibly expulsion for those who are not natives of Nepal.
-Although Nepal has become a social democracy, it is still dominated by Hinduism. As a result, the caste system oppresses many, even though it is technically illegal. Those who convert from Hinduism to Christianity typically become outcasts as well.
-Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries. Approximately one-third of the population lives on less than $1.00 (US) per day.
-There are five seasons in Nepal: spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. Endangered species like the Royal Bengal tiger and the one-horned rhinoceros can be found in Nepal.
-Traditional marriages in Nepal are arranged by the parents after a boy or girl comes of age.