A group of locals huddle around, waiting for their preacher to begin the sermon in Simikot, the district headquarters of Humla. After addressing the devotees and singing hymns, George VJ, the Christian missionary, goes on to interpret the lines of a Nepali translation of the Holy Book – The Bible. Exactly at ten in the morning every Saturday, locals gather with their copies of the Bible on the first floor of a house with a tin roof.
One particular Saturday morning, half an hour after the commencement of the religious services, Chakra Bahadur Shahi hesitantly enters the room. He is late for the scheduled prayer time in the church established by Maya Sadan. Resident of Heldum VDC, an hour’s walking distance away from the district headquarters, Shahi, 26, has not had the pluck to admit to his family that he has been visiting the church every week for the last two years.
Fearing societal stigma and exclusion from his own family and community for converting from his religion, Shahi pretends to have an important work to attend to at Simikot whenever he has to go to church. His worry is justified, going by the behavior of the residents who have not converted. For instance, if anyone were to ask for the address of the church, the locals usually point in the direction with a disdainful expression.
“I was frustrated by a huge loss I suffered in farming and livestock rearing. I changed my religion hoping it would provide me some solace as people claimed it would, and my family wouldn’t have to face poverty,” says the father of three who also bears the sole responsibility for a younger brother and aging parents. “But I also don’t want to be isolated from my family and society by telling them about my (new) faith,” he adds.
Similar is another local’s story whose faith in the Bible is a well guarded secret.
Esha Dhami, a primary grade teacher at the Simikot-based Kailash Primary Boarding School, never tells anyone that she has renounced her old religion. She knows that the community will recoil away from her if they know she is a practicing Christian.
However, discrimination looms large in Humla where the Dalits are still regarded as “untouchables” by the high-caste Hindu Thakuris, and in many cases it is perhaps this discrimination that has ultimately led to religious conversion. The fear of exclusion keeps people from admitting they have changed their religion but many also believe that Christianity has given them dignity and changed their lives for the better.
Purni Mal Sarki, 40, was among the first few people to change his religion in Humla. His family, which includes his wife and an eight years old son, converted to Christianity to get away from the low-caste tag that was attached to them.
“My ancestors had to bear the burden of being born in a Dalit community and they had to live with their heads bowed. Hinduism never came to our rescue, so I decided to convert when George came to my door three years ago,” he says, looking dapper in a suit during the sermon in the church.
On one hand, Sarki had to leave his village, Bargaun, and relocate with his family to the district headquarters after his neighbors started criticizing and eventually shunning him for taking up Christianity. But on the other hand, he mentions that life has definitely become better, and his improved economic status shields his family from the constant discrimination they had to face earlier.
“There’s a thin line between people’s own inclination to change their religion and the urgency to get rid of poverty that works as a major push factor,” says sociologist Ganesh Man Gurung.
According to Gurung, someone who is financially secure might change his religion in an attempt to lead a life with renewed faith, and a person who is not economically sound might be influenced to convert if he is led to believe that it will be for the better.
Despite the fear of exclusion and isolation, many residents are taking up Christianity, albeit in secrecy. The source of their motivation behind it is not hard to pinpoint, but when questioned if their expectations have been met, they unanimously claim that the “new religion” has made their lives more meaningful.
“It’s hard to explain but we’re happy,” says Sarki.
According to the 2011 Census, its data shows that there are 100 Christians in Humla out of whom 54 are men. According to the same census, there are 1,205 Christians in the Karnali Region alone. The Central Bureau of Statistics had not even recorded the existence of Christianity in the district in its 2001 Census.
According to the records available, in 1961, there were just 458 Christians in Nepal. The number has by now shot up to 375,699 as per the 2011 census. But the National Council of Churches (NCC) claims to have two million members following the religion in the country at present.
“Many people are hesitant to express their religious beliefs. They fear of being ostracized,” says Dr KB Rokaya, Chairperson of the NCC. “There are pros and cons to every religion, but the discrimination against any particular religious belief must come to an end,” he adds.
The missionary, George VJ, who is originally from Kerala, India, also has to face a lot of ostracism from the residents of Humla but he welcomes newcomers with enthusiasm. He amusingly and relentlessly explains the importance of distributing bread and wine (sacrament) to the followers after the prayer service.
Speaking Nepali infused with a peculiar South Indian accent, the forty-years-old former civil engineer claims that Maya Sadan does not have any ulterior motive or expectation of financial gains, to put it quite simply. All it aims to do is spread the message of peace and love.
An underdeveloped country like Nepal can neither stop forceful conversion nor people’s will to seek satisfaction by adopting a new religion.
“The latter one is every individual’s life choice,” says Gurung.
The Maya Sadan Network in Karnali Zone
According to George, Maya Sadan was established for the first time in Kerala, India, 16 years ago by an advocate named Benny Chereyah.
“We, the group members, relinquished our luxurious lives to commit ourselves to the mission. We even sold our properties,” claims George who has been living at Simikot since 2010.
Since 2001, the missionary targeted the mountainous part of Karnali Zone such as Jumla, Humla and Achham where most of the people live under the poverty line. According to George, the mission has active members in 13 VDCs in Humla.
He claims that all the expenses are taken care of from the money they receive by selling crops grown in their lands in Nepalgunj and Bardiya.
His wife accompanies him in Humla. The couple also runs an orphanage which currently shelters 15 children. Their two children are actively running a church and an orphanage in Nepalgunj.
“We have a simple message, which is that God is omnipresent. If you surrender to God (Jesus), He’ll take care of you,” claims George.
The main duty of the missionary is to go to far-flung villages and convince people to come to church and read the Bible. They also try to do away with the concept of worshiping gods, contrary to what is practiced in Hinduism.
Published in Republica Daily in September 17, 2013