Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

Congregation in Nepal Thrives Despite Religious Restrictions

By Paul Jeffrey (UM News)


Although official restrictions on religious work create challenges for church leaders in Nepal, migrant workers are returning from abroad with a robust faith that invigorates the small Christian community there, according to a United Methodist pastor in the mountainous country.

The Rev. Jeewan Lama is pastor of Hebron United Methodist Church in Lalitpur, a city in the Kathmandu Valley. The growing congregation currently has a fluctuating membership of about 100. Though it’s constantly losing members who leave the mostly Hindu nation in search of work elsewhere, it regains members when other migrants return having come to know Christianity in foreign lands.

Nepal is a poor country with few work opportunities, Lama said, so people go elsewhere – especially to the Gulf states and Malaysia.

“They often grow discouraged there. They are overworked, underpaid, isolated and sometimes put in prison, and it’s often Christians in those places who provide them with help and shelter,” he said.

“As a result, many come to know the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They convert to Christianity. When they come home, they want to share their new faith.”

Christians comprise only about 1.4 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people. Over 80 percent of the population is Hindu; the remainder are mostly Buddhist and Muslim.

The United Methodist congregation rents a small plot of land tucked into a residential neighborhood, and constructed a building where it hosts Saturday morning worship services. Because Sunday is a work day in Nepal, most Christian churches gather for worship on Saturday.

It’s a tough neighborhood for the evangelically oriented congregation.

“We live in an area dominated by Brahmins,” Lama said, referring to an orthodox Hindu class and caste. “In our 17 years here, no family has come to know Christ, despite our knocking on their doors. The believers in our congregation all come from other communities.”

Lama and his family also live in the neighborhood, and he said they’ve at least earned grudging respect from their neighbors. But if they go to other neighborhoods, he said, they may have stones or bottles thrown at them.

“The elites will have no contact with us. They hate us,” he said. “But when they are sick and there is no other option, they come to us secretly and ask us to pray for them. And once they are healed, they don’t talk to us again.”

Lama and his wife, Sabina, founded the congregation in 2005, one of several that emerged from a short-lived mission initiative of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. It’s the only one that remains United Methodist today.

Lama said evangelism got tougher in Nepal when the country adopted a new Constitution in 2015. Reflecting rising Hindu nationalism both in Nepal and neighboring India, the Constitution proclaimed that no one was allowed “to convert another person from one religion to another and shall not take actions or behave in a way that would create disturbance in another’s religion.”

Laws passed in 2017 tightened the restrictions, declaring that any Nepalese who encourages or is involved in religious conversion can face five years in prison. Foreigners guilty of such activity can be deported.

Lama said the restrictions changed how he and his congregation approached their neighbors.

“We stopped public evangelism. We share in church, or one by one when we meet people personally. And, of course, anyone can come to the church,” he said.

Lama said Christianity spreads more easily among the poor, who find acceptance in the church that isn’t offered them in larger Nepalese society, with its strict stratification based on caste and class.

“It’s mostly the poor who convert,” he said.

For the same reason, he said, Christianity has special appeal to marginalized women, even though few churches welcome women leaders.

“Nepali society is male-dominated and, even in the churches, women find it difficult to take leadership roles or even to express themselves in front of men. But our church is not like that. Women take responsibility and leadership, and they teach and preach. We are trying to empower women to come out of their cages,” Lama said.

Meena Moktan coordinates the women’s program of Lama’s congregation. In May, she received her Doctor of Ministry from Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Her dissertation focused on obstacles to women’s leadership in churches across Nepal. She and Sabina and Jeewan Lama have traveled as a team to several communities around the country to help churches encourage a greater role for women.

“There are women who are left out, who aren’t given opportunities, and I want to reach out to them to let them know they are special, to help them understand that although their society may not appreciate who they are, although they may think they are good for nothing, I want to raise them up with the love of God,” Moktan said.

The congregation calls itself United Methodist and has a cross and flame on the front of the pulpit. It has been considered to be the Nepal District of the Baguio, Philippines, episcopal area. Lama has received support for his ministry from several United Methodist agencies, including funding from Discipleship Ministries for outreach to youth during the pandemic. United Women in Faith – formerly United Methodist Women – recently supported an ecumenical workshop for women held at the Lalitpur church.

Yet since the retirement last year of Bishop Pedro M. Torio Jr., Lama said he has had no contact with denominational officials.

“No one has contacted us to tell us about our new bishop,” he said.

Bishop Rodel M. Acdal, the new bishop of the Baguio Episcopal Area, told UM News in an email that he has so far had no communication with Nepal.

“We are willing to visit and restart our communications and conduct ministry/training to our churches, pastors and lay leaders there if we can get support from our agencies,” he wrote. “The long-term goal is to strengthen the Mission District to be recognized as a full district and eventually become an annual conference.”

Lama said the uncertainty doesn’t concern him.

“We are a United Methodist church. If others want to support us, we don’t mind. But in our hearts and minds we are United Methodist,” he said. “Though we are neglected and isolated and forgotten by the whole UMC community, we are The United Methodist Church in Nepal.”

Paul Jeffrey is a photojournalist and founder of Life on Earth Pictures. He lives in Oregon. We are grateful to Mr. Jeffrey, as well as United Methodist News, for this story.