Wide-eyed view from Kathmandu - A 12-foot high statue of Bhairav, a six-armed manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva, symbolizing annihilation, stands in Kathmandu's Durbar Square.
KATHMANDU, Nepal - Krishna Gopal steps out in faith — every time he crosses the street.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the minister wades into a dusty road near his home in this Asian capital, choked with fast-moving mopeds, rickshaws and the occasional cow.
He passes a merchant selling tiny tomatoes from a basket on his bicycle. Across the street, at the multi-story Citycentre mall, movie posters boast the latest Bollywood imports from neighboring India — plus James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 3D.
Gopal, 63, dodges his way through the dizzying mix of antique and modern, fast and slow, and arrives at a red-brick hospital. A member of the congregation he shepherds, the Kamal Pokhari Church of Christ, is in the intensive care unit after a drug overdose. He talks with a nurse to make sure the patient is improving.
For 41 years, Gopal has preached, conducted Bible studies at kitchen tables and sat at the bedsides of the sick in this nation of 29.8 million souls, home to the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. He and his coworkers have planted dozens of churches across Nepal — in Kathmandu and the remote villages in the Himalayas.
“My two passions are trekking and preaching,” he says.
An ethnic Newar — an indigenous people of the Kathmandu valley — he grew up like most of his people, worshiping the god Taleju.
Walking through the city’s historic Durbar Square, he points to a large pagoda with elaborate carvings of the multi-armed goddess. He used to sleep in the temple as his parents participated in weeklong ceremonies dedicated to Taleju, known as Durga in India.
Much has changed since the days when Nepal’s king lived in a grand palace near the pagoda.
Today the palace is a museum and the 239-year-old monarchy is history, swept away in 2008 after a decade-long insurrection by Maoist rebels. The Maoists, bearing the iconic hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, are part of the country’s new government, which struggles to write a new constitution.
Gopal’s life also has changed since the days when he slept in the temple near the royal palace. As a young man, he found a pamphlet that told him about a different, eternal kingdom.
“I was worshiping a dead god,” he realized after reading it. “I need a living God.”
He searched for a Bible and found only one shop in Kathmandu that carried them. He swept the floors of the shop for a month to earn enough money to buy a New Testament in his language.
“I read it and was really touched by the message,” he says.
He shared the message with any who would listen. That got him in trouble with Nepali authorities, then opposed to public evangelism by “that cow-eating religion” from the West.
He spent three years in a jail near the pagoda where he once worshiped Taleju. In 1971 he was released, undeterred. Soon he met missionaries from Churches of Christ and was baptized.
“I don’t want more. I don’t want less,” he says. “I just want the Church of Christ.”
A COUNTER-CULTURAL FAITH
It’s not that Nepalis are opposed to Christianity, says Susanna Phoboo, one of Gopal’s three daughters, sitting in the upper-story living room of the family’s home, near the Citycentre mall.
“On Dec. 25, all the malls of Kathmandu are lined with Christmas trees,” she says. But during a Hindu holy month, celebrated with animal sacrifices, “the streets are awash in blood.”
Outsiders mistakenly think of Nepalis as Hindu or Buddhist, Phoboo says. Most are both — incorporating elements of the two faiths — and have no problem including Christian principles into their pantheon of belief.
“Really living like a Christian — that’s a problem,” she says.
Believers don’t participate in the rituals or eat meat sacrificed to idols. They must exclude themselves from their people’s culture — often a source of friction in Nepal’s tight-knit families.
When Gopal and his wife, Kamala, became Christians, his father-in-law refused to eat in the same room with them. The couple had become “untouchable,” the minister says.
Patiently, Gopal tried to raise his family with Christian beliefs. Eventually, his example bore fruit, and his father-in-law was baptized. He took the statues of his former gods and cast them into the river near his home.
To his father-in-law’s relief, nothing happened. Soon the whole family was baptized, including Ichabod Shrestha, Gopal’s brother-in-law.
Shrestha now works with a small Church of Christ in Chakhu, a village near Nepal’s border with the Tibet region of China. When asked why he went against his culture and became a Christian 26 years ago, he answers quickly.
“Because I wanted to save my spirit,” he says.
FROM MAO TO CHRIST
Below the family’s living room, the Kamal Pokhari Church of Christ gathers for Wednesday night Bible study.
The Christians pour over 2 Timothy 2, in which the apostle Paul urges his apprentice to “join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
The 25 souls in the small room, like Gopal and his family, have suffered for their faith.
Suraj Bahadur Basnet, who leads the Bible study, grew up in a Hindu family. He knew that leaving the faith would alienate him from his parents, but as he studied Scripture, “slowly, slowly I accepted that there is a Savior, there is a God,” he says. Now he spends weekends and vacations from his job to preach in Nepal’s rural villages.
When she’s not studying the Bible, Bimala Shrestha Ghimire goes from house to house, checking on people who have visited the church and inviting them back. Her husband is not a Christian but accepts her beliefs.
“The brothers and sisters here, their love makes me stronger,” she says.
Kamal Panta was a Maoist before he met Gopal and studied the Bible.
“I learned the truth and the real life in Christianity and a real God,” says Panta, a taxi driver. Now he and his wife, Sabitri, are members of the church.
Their son, Bimal, grew up in the congregation.
“I have spent so much time here since my childhood,” the 21-year-old says after leading the closing prayer after the Bible lesson. “Society here is so different from the people I am friends with. Most of my friends are worldly people. They say, ‘You are my best friend, but don’t try to preach to me.’”
Increasingly, Nepali society reflects the West — from movies to clothing, he says. Modern Kathmandu faces new forms of idolatry, including money and self-indulgence. Big-city problems accompany these idols — including petty crime and drug overdoses.
Despite the temptations, Bimal Panta and Susanna Phoboo say they remain loyal to the eternal kingdom for which their parents sacrificed.
“Going to another religion is not an option,” Phoboo says. “There is only one truth.”
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Dirgha Raj Prasai
Dillibazar, Kathmandu - Nepal
July 11, 2012
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