Pastor Narkaji Gurung of Pokhara's Zion Grace Church and second-generation believer Sradda Thapa of the Areopagus Congregation talk of their beliefs and on being a Christian in a Hindu-majority society.
Narkaji Gurung: Before1990, according to official government reports, the numbers of Christians were small. However, there may have been more who were closet Christians due to the fear of opposition from family, community, and the government, and other who were unaccounted for. Post 1990, many of these closet Christians have come out. Moreover, now that we are able to freely evangelise, more people have the opportunity to hear and receive Christ as their saviour. So yes, the 2010 census will be revealing in this regard.
Sradda Thapa: One of the basics of democracy is freedom of choice, including that of religion, so it would seem natural that with the end of the criminalisation of Christianity, more Nepalis would be open to exploring their faith or admitting to it. As for the census, any minority group would naturally hope for an accurate reflection of reality!
Why do you think so many Nepalis are willing to convert now, and which communities are they concentrated in?
NG: Conversion is a matter of personal free will. People may convert for various reasons, some of which may be self-motivated but in the course of time those who are genuine converts will be revealed.
I don't think conversion is concentrated in any particular community though generally the poor have been more receptive to the message of Christ's deliverance. This not surprising considering they are the most oppressed. Our small church of around 80 represents nearly all strata of Nepali society.
ST: I'm not sure if more Nepalis are willing to convert now or if the removal of a state religion (which labelled others as un-Nepali and hence 'illegal') has permitted Nepalis to be more open. But we've come a long way since the bugging of Christian leaders' phones and open threats.
What is it like to be a Christian in Hindu-majority Nepal? Is there suspicion towards the community, and what would you say to Hindus who may feel that in a secular state they are 'losing their religion'?
NG: It is a great privilege and also at the same time challenging in a positive way. Personally, I think the Nepali community as a whole is very welcoming and friendly to Christians. One thing that must be made clear is that Christ did not come to start a new religion so the Nepali people should not feel threatened that they will lose their religion. However, truths in the Bible do challenge us to revaluate our religious concepts and practices, whether be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or even Christianity itself.
ST: Since my childhood, when I was scared to proclaim my faith, to my teenage years, when non-Christian Nepalis perceived me as less of a Nepali at best and more of a traitor at worst, things have gotten better. These days, well-travelled, educated and urban Nepalis are more open to the idea of freedoms, so there are opportunities to learn about each other's faiths. Actually I feel Christianity can help expand Nepali culture; we sing Christian hymns to Nepali tunes, wear traditional clothes and serve Nepali meals at our functions.
Institutionally Ė from the state that still frowns upon proselytising to media houses that run Dasain specials but not Lhosar, Eid or Christmas specials to schools that do not post 'Merry Christmas' on bulletin boards like they would for 'Vijaya Dashami', minority groups obviously realise that they still reside in a 'Hindu' state. But I don't think I feel threatened or consider it malicious Ė it's been an opportunity for me to experience how it must be like for Hindu Nepalis in culturally Christian countries elsewhere. It's made me consider how to make spaces more comfortable for the marginalised and minorities of any kind.
What about the accusations about missionaries who 'bribe' or 'take advantage' of poor people, converting them with promises of money or material benefits?
NG: Some of these accusations are valid because sad to say, there are those who do follow such practices. It could also be a lack of wisdom on the missionaries' part; they have a genuine desire to share Christ's love but they may do so without proper discernment. However, in some cases missionaries are not to be blamed but those who come to them with various expectations of personal gain. Many times it could just be that the missionary is addressing a need someone may have and those who are envious make accusations.
Would you like to share your personal experience of finding Christ?
NG: I came to Christ in 1996 shortly after a two-month backpacking journey in India. I bumped into two English missionaries in Shimla. We decided to travel together for two weeks, at the end of which they gave me a Bible as a gift. After returning to Nepal, I began to read the Bible and found that it answered some of the deepest questions I had been struggling with regarding my origins, identity, purpose and destiny as a human being. It also provided the forgiveness, acceptance and love I sought in the person of Jesus Christ. My conversion was a simple affair. One evening I was reading the Bible and I came to a portion of the Scriptures, Romans 5:6, "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man we would dare to die. But God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." After reading this I felt convinced that Jesus was the one who would save me from my sin so I said a short prayer in my heart, accepting Him into my life.
ST: It's nothing exciting Ė my parents found the Lord when they were in their early twenties, so I was born into a Christian home. But since Christianity isn't a religion you inherit from your parents or forefathers I made the conscious decision to accept Christ as my saviour when I was 12. I waited till I was 24 to get baptised as it was the most important decision of my life.
What are you (and your congregation) doing this Christmas?
NG: The week leading up to Christmas Day we have been singing carols in the neighbourhood where some of our believers live. On Christmas Day itself we will have a service in the church in the morning with prayers, hymns, and a message celebrating the story and meaning of Jesus's birth. We will have a simple meal afterwards. The service is open to everyone, both Christians and non-Christians. If you happen in to be in Pokhara that day, you are most welcome to join too!
ST: We have had caroling at different church members' houses in the evenings this past week. We will have a special program at church in the 25th and have been raising money and dipping into our church funds (comprised of members' tithes, or 10% of our earnings) to buy clothes, bedding, stationery, and toys for a small orphanage.
Anything else you would like to add?
NG: Though there are differences among churches as to when exactly Jesus was born, most important to us is that His birth is a historical fact and He was born to dwell among us to reconcile us to God. And when we celebrate Christmas we celebrate Christ so actually for us every day is Christmas!
ST: Contrary to popular belief and the commercialisation of this season, it's not about gifts and partying, as much as about remembering God's largest sacrifice to mankind, the sending of his son, Jesus Christ, to be crucified for us and our sins.