Believers in South Asia* face many challenges. There are socioeconomic obstacles that hinder church development; there are threats and attacks against precious lives; and there are forces of nature that create chaos. What does it mean to rely on God? The answer may be radically different for different people. But just maybe it has to do with where we put our confidence. Where we think the ultimate power is. And what we do with fear.
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings in Nepal
Sanjay was 13 years old when he decided to follow Jesus, after reading a pamphlet that a Brethren in Christ missionary left in his home 16 years earlier. He knew that the decision was not going to assure him of an easier life. Members of his family and community, who practiced a mix of tribal faith and Hinduism, rejected him. He left home to live with an uncle. For the next two years, he suffered alienation and rejection. Then, due to his witness, others in his family began to understand the truth he had responded to and became believers themselves.
Sanjay has served the BIC Church in Nepal as a pastor, teacher, and chairman for much of his adult life. In September 2008, he and a fellow church leader were kidnapped by the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), a faction looking to re-establish Nepal as a Hindu nation. We were taken to an unknown place in a jungle,” Sanjay recalls. They were held at gunpoint while they were verbally assaulted and interrogated by their captors: “Why do you preach? Why do you convert people to a foreign religion?” Never given a chance to answer any of the charges, Sanjay and his companion were released after a five-hour ordeal, along with a demand for payment and an order to stop preaching and converting Nepalese people.
“Life in Christ is not easy, and we have chosen this life willingly, and no one has forced us to follow the life that is full of challenges,” the faithful pastor says. “Opposition and persecution are not the end of our life but it is headed to the glorious life in Christ when we meet Him face to face.”
For hundreds of years, Nepal was officially a Hindu country, ruled by a Hindu monarchy. Many Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians who lived there have been imprisoned, driven underground by threats and violence, or beaten, dragged to the Hindu temple, and forced to bow to idols. Since 2000, prayer and worship outside the Hindu faith have been allowed, but preaching and evangelism still are considered serious crimes. A new constitution declaring Nepal a federal republic nation is scheduled to be approved in May 2012 and may guarantee religious freedom to the people of Nepal.
Yet until that happens, Nepalese Christians remain in danger.
Difficult paths in west India
Since 2000, Dan and Karen D. have lived part time in a thriving tourist beach town in West India. But it has not been a vacation. As North Americans serving as affiliate global workers through BIC World Missions, the D.’s have faced intimidation and a bureaucracy that makes every forward step a major accomplishment. Even securing access into the country is not a given. Due to restrictions on their visas, Dan and Karen must leave the country every six months. And the Indian government once revoked the visa of a friend simply because he listed his employment as “clergy.”
One vital dimension of Dan and Karen’s work has centered around starting a new congregation, All Nations Center. As a part of their church planting, they have served as visionaries and mentors while identifying and developing a team of national leaders to carry out the work of the church. This model mitigates the potential of dependency upon North American workers and resources, and it equips new ministers. It also sustains the church during the time when Dan and Karen must leave the country, as their visas require.
With all the challenges of financing a ministry in an area with limited financial resources and of raising up new leaders in the church, Karen shares, Still our greatest concern is local organized groups from the Catholic community coming against us.” In other parts of India, persecution comes from other religious and political groups. But in their area, the predominantly Roman Catholic community teaches that any Jesus-followers who are not part of the Catholic Church are heretics. This plays out in many areas of day-to-day life. For example, landlords may be pressured by priests of the local parish to refuse to rent to those outside of the Catholic faith or even to evict them from the homes they currently rent.
At times, the tension has escalated to include physical threats. One night, the church had rented a hall to present a drama to communicate the Gospel. A truckload of men arrived and stormed the hall, smashing chairs, throwing things, and breaking every window in the place. The terrified children were forced into a closet, and two adults suffered bodily injury. Before the attackers left, they stole microphones and electrical cords, putting an end to the program. It turns out that a local priest had instigated the attack. The police, whose allegiance was also with the local Catholic parish, came to the scene but stood by without acting.
Yet the Lord has provided help through an unlikely means: The next chief of police to take office was a Hindu man who had read about the account in the newspapers. When he got to town, he followed up on the story and learned about the harassment that these believers were experiencing. He gave church members his private cell phone number and welcomes calls when they hear news of potential threats.
Now, this influential member of the community serves as an advocate for tolerance between faith communities. And so it has been that, as a result of trusting God while facing opposition, the family of believers there has actually gained a measure of security.
By the waters in Bihar, India
Brethren in Christ brothers and sisters in Bihar, India, struggle with hostility and persecution from other religious groups in the region, but they also do battle with natural disasters. Each year brings heavy rains to the villages along the Kosi River at the base of the Himalaya Mountains. For some time, flood control efforts had addressed the problem. But at the end of the rainy season in 2010, the river—which was unintentionally diverted by the engineering—breached its banks and brought disaster to communities in which several Brethren in Christ churches exist.
Homes and businesses were destroyed. Food and clean water were in short supply. Travel was severely inhibited as both roads and railroads were impassable. The flood had affected everyone, causing many deaths and leaving survivors in great need.
In the midst of overwhelming personal and communal loss, a group of young leaders in the BIC Church of Bihar stepped out of their own suffering and offered to serve their neighbors, many of whom had disregarded them previously because of their Christian faith. These young people volunteered as members of a first-response team with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches that offers disaster relief. In the past, MCC has worked through another local agency to administer aid, but this time they chose to accept the offer of the BIC in Bihar to act as a direct conduit for assistance.
Kenneth Hoke, executive director of the International Brethren in Christ Association, says, “These were people in their 30s and 40s who were able to come with aid and resources that clearly made a difference in the lives of some very hurting people.”
The Brethren in Christ believers saw the need of their neighbors. They took the opportunity to bring their faith into the public and show God’s love in a very tangible form.
Hindus, Muslims, and spirit worshippers who had carried a low opinion of their Christian neighbors began to see them in a different light. They realized that Christians are, in Ken’s words, people who are responsive to who they are and what’s happening in their lives.” One leader in the Bihar Church even commented to Ken that people in the community were suggesting that some members of the team run for government office!
Relationships have improved because the Church in Bihar took a risk, trusting God to honor their efforts.
In John 16:33, Jesus recognizes the existence of fear and suffering in life, saying, “In this world, you will have trouble.” Right on the heels of this acknowledgment, He offers this hope: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In South Asia, challenges and struggles are a reality for Christ-followers. Yet many are using this time to turn from fear and “take heart,” putting their confidence in God’s provision and guidance.
In Sanjay’s words, “God empowers believers to be able to stand for faith and bear the persecution. It is hard to face these situations, but at the same time, it is a precious opportunity to come closer to God. As I come closer to God, it reminds me how much more Jesus had to go through. The life and death of Jesus is more meaningful when I face certain opposition and persecution. It helps me live a daily life worthy of my calling.”