We spent a week in Pokhara, Nepal, where I met with a group of expatriates from the International Nepal Fellowship. Pokhara, at the base of the Himalayas, has a 3000-foot elevation, and the mountains just fifteen miles away are 26,000 feet. Most impressive but, sadly, we saw them only in outline form. The whole country is covered with haze and pollution. We last visited here in 1982, and the deterioration in the air and in general poverty since then is unimaginable. Nepal usually ranks as one of the ten poorest countries in the world, and you can see why immediately.
Right now more than half of the land area of Nepal is controlled by Maoist guerrillas (a few years later the government reached an uneasy power-sharing collaboration with them). The army is everywhere, and if you go across town in a major city you’ll be stopped five or six times at Army checkpoints. The day we got here the Maoists had called an internal airlines strike, so we got to travel from Kathmandu to Pokhara by van. To give you an idea of the road conditions, it took us seven hours to travel 120 miles! Then, during the week the Maoists called a five-day general strike, banning all vehicles except motorbikes. The strike put a real hardship on conference attendees, who had to walk an hour and a half to get to the conference grounds, many with small children. Fortunately, the strike only held for two days, then fell apart. People find it too disruptive and start appearing on the street, and the whole thing breaks down. The Maoists did explode a few bombs and burn a few buses though.
The missionaries are most impressive. Most of them are medical workers, and many of them specialize in leprosy. As a result, many of them knew Dr. Paul Brand, my coauthor on three books and a leprosy specialist. These are genuine heroes. They live very simply, dress like Nepalis, put up with no hot water, erratic electricity, prevalent disease, and other hardships. They have the compensations of great scenery (when the sky clears) and the satisfaction of seeing explosive growth in the Nepali church. The first Nepali Christian dates from only 1951 but by 1990 there were 25,000 Christians. Now there are 600,000 and the Nepali church operates with virtual independence from any foreigners. It’s marked by healings and signs and wonders. About 80 percent of Nepalis say they became Christians because of seeing healings after Christians have prayed; the remaining 20 percent credit the compassion of Western missionaries. Nepal is the world’s only Hindu kingdom, and in early days all Christians spent time in jail. Now the Hindu substructure is breaking down, under influence of the Maoists and also the general dissatisfaction of life under the caste system (more practiced here than in India).
We had one night in Kathmandu, and hosted Sundar and Sareeta Thapa, two Nepalis who have spoken at our church in Colorado. They supervise 270 evangelists, paying them $50 per month, which Sundar makes as profit from his real estate development. They head a church that has three daughter churches, run two orphanages of about 100 street kids, rescue girls from sex-slavery in India, run a couple of schools, and feed street children (there are 15,000 in Kathmandu). They do all this with very minimal financial help from the West. They’ve also studied at Fuller Seminary, and Sareeta is one of the most articulate Christian Nepalis we met.
As I’ve said before, I am invited to bring encouragement and inspiration to groups over here. Instead, I come back humbled and sometimes ashamed by the complacent and “corporate” church in the West. Here’s where the Spirit’s action is really taking place.
The missions conference went very well. The mission has very few Americans, mostly Brits, Australians, and Europeans—15 countries in all. We toured a leprosy hospital they run, and saw unbelievable sights. It’s about the only place in Nepal that can offer long-term care and rehabilitation to people with spinal cord and other debilitating injuries (they’re branching out as leprosy becomes less of a problem). We met patients and heard stirring stories of rebirth and hope. Doctors here work very hard, but they love it: no insurance forms to fill out, no malpractice, and the certain knowledge that they are making incredible differences in people’s lives.
I can’t say we’re sorry to leave the rather spartan conditions we’ve been living in the past week. But we do leave encouraged, moved, and grateful that our time among God’s unheralded soldiers was well spent.Copyright © 2004 by Philip Yancey