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Arbin Pokharel on Gospel Hospitality in Kathmandu, Nepal

In this episode, pastor and church planter Arbin Pokharel talks with Maria Cornou about the vibrancy of the body of Christ in Nepal--land of Hinduism, birthplace of Buddha, and a caste system society--as they draw from the well of grace and practice their Christian faith so everyone can flourish.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

See all episodes in Season 2

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. In this episode, pastor and church planter Arbin Pokharel talks with María Cornou about the vibrancy of the body of Christ in Nepal---land of Hinduism, birthplace of Buddha, and a caste system society--- as they draw from the well of grace and practice their Christian faith so everyone can flourish.

María Cornou: 

Today we have a special guest visiting our class: Pastor Arbin Pokharel, doing this interview from Kathmandu, Nepal. It's morning for me, evening for him. Arbin and his wife, Bimala, have planted the congregation---they pastor , actually --- Cross-Way Community Church, and they also lead a church-planting movement called Nepali Reformed Church. Arbin is also a Calvin Seminary graduate and a professor at the Reformed and Presbyterian Seminary in Kathmandu. Welcome to our class, Arbin, and thank you very much for doing this interview with us today.

Arbin Pokharel: 

It is my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

María Cornou: 

I'dlike to start by asking you about your worshiping community. If you can describe for us the community, your role there, how long have you been involved in this community, and a little bit about the neighborhood where the community is settled?

Arbin Pokharel: 

So you mentioned about Nepal. Many people know about Nepal, but let's just begin with the country and then quickly get to our context. Nepal is just in between China and India. It's the land of the Himalayas. It's known for Mount Everest and really locked in with India on three sides and China to the north. It's a very interesting landscape, but also it's very interesting with the religious context, majority Hindu, culturally very much like India in many ways. But it's also the land where Buddha was born, and so Buddhism is also alive and active for more than 2,000 years. And so it's a very spiritual hub where we live. I live in Kathmandu, as you said. It's the capital city. So in the city, there are three districts, and we live in the southern district of Lalitpur, in a place called Jawalakhel--- near Jawalakhel, pardon---where our church is located. It's still within the very crowded city limits, but the outskirts of the heart of the city, really. So it's a place where you see lots of Hindu temples and people very deeply rooted in Hindu practices. It's a very ritualistic religion with pujas and daily rituals to yearly, just loaded with Hindu practices. People do not separate religion and culture here, so you're meshed in.

María Cornou: 

What is the percentage of people who practice Hinduism or Buddhism and Christianity?

Arbin Pokharel: 

About 80 to 85%, depending on how they allow---the new statistics are being collected right now---about 85% are Hindus and another 7% are Buddhist, but Buddhism and Hinduism have coexisted for all these many centuries. And so Christianity is very new, only about 70 years old. And so churches are young and very vibrant. It's one of the fastest-growing churches in the world, really, but because of its growth and spread, it's become a social concern in the country. And when I say social concern, I mean politically as well as socially. So churches are very vibrant here. We as a family moved into Nepal in 2004. We served in India for two years, in North India, in a seminary, and then moved into Nepal in 2004, and a year after that we began our church, Cross-Way Community Church, here in this part of the city ministering to just about everybody. So our church, the majority are converts into Christianity, but also people who have come from the villages, from the mountains, and [unintelligible] as well. The Hindu societies are made, are structured with a caste system. I don't know if you know about the caste system in India.

María Cornou: 

Could you explain a little bit?

Arbin Pokharel: 

A caste system is basically a social structure that a king who united the country in the18th century structured the society at the time in terms of vocation, what kind of work they did, and what side of the city or country they came from, what sort of career they were versed in. So he divided into four major castes: Brahmins, Vaishyas, Shudras, and the lowest are called the Dalits. So those are the four large stratums. Within each of those castes there are multiple others. They are measured in very much a hierarchical system. So people are born into caste and they can never change. So that also has a very heavy influence in how society is structured, although globalization and education and all of that has come in large ways into Nepal, but the old mindset still is very heavy, thick in social structure here. So in our church, partly because it's in the city and the way we do outreach, we have a mix of all castes, people in the congregation. So that's kind of a general overview of the context where we minister.

María Cornou: 

Have you chosen this particular neighborhood to plant the church for any reason?

Arbin Pokharel: 

When we moved back, my wife grew up---not so much in this neighborhood; her dad was in the British military. So they moved around quite a bit---but they built their house in this neighborhood. And I grew up in this neighborhood as well. And so when we moved back, we spent a year praying for where God would have us. One thing we were confirmed about was we would be moving into Kathmandu city to minister for the whole country. So we settled down, and God really allowed us to reach out to our neighbors, and people started coming here rather than God calling us to a different location in the city or in the country. So yeah, convenience, but also, as we prayed, this was the place where God would have us because we are a resource church in Kathmandu. And I say that with some intentionality, because we do church planting movement, and this is a suitable place to have a center, to be a resource church for the church planting movement, if that makes sense.

María Cornou: 

Was this neighborhood very affected by the earthquake?

Arbin Pokharel: 

Yeah. You remember the earthquake in 2015 was a major event. April 25, 2015, the whole country shook so violently. And the epicenter was only about a hundred kilometers west of Kathmandu, but the most impact was felt in Kathmandu, partly because of its population, in a location where people live so city-compact. And so overall over 9,000 people died in the earthquake, and the majority of them were in the city, in Kathmandu city. So our town as part of the city was very heavily affected. In fact, our church was so badly shaken that---it didn't fall, but we had to tear it down for a few years. So nobody from our immediate community died here in Kathmandu, but a few from our churches that we have planted. And there were several people who died because their house fell. But yes, we were affected in many other ways because what it did to the country and what it did to the minds of people because of the loss nationally, but also the whole rebuilding. And we were engaged in rebuilding of not only the church, but also the community. So that was a year of devastation, but for the church, lament and rebuilding and restoring hope to people and learning how to reach out as a church.

María Cornou: 

I asked this question because I think that in some ways, this new crisis, this health crisis that is affecting every country in the world has a different impact in communities that have already been through a major event, as in your case, and major trauma, there is some sort of resilience in the community. When you have been through a recent major tragic event as your society. Can you share with us about this particular situation, how your congregation and the Nepali Reformed churches are responding to this crisis? What's the impact of the virus there, and how have the responses perhaps affected worship services, community service---the general ministry of the church?

Arbin Pokharel: 

That's really a good question. As a pastor, it's so heavy in my mind all the time. So I think Nepali people have learned to be resilient over years of hardship, of poverty, of this kinds of devastation. You know, it's a country where there are lots of NGOs and INGOs; it's really a good career for people to work for NGO/INGOs, partly because it's a poor country, but also very much prone to natural disasters like floods, landslides because the mountains and lots and lots of rivers, basically glaciers coming out of the Himalayas affecting communities. So the Nepali people are known to be resilient in that sense, but also the the situation that majority of the population, people in Nepal live off of subsistence farming in the Himalayas, so terrace farming and so forth. Having said that, when we plant a church in context, we reach out to people who have learned to be resilient with these things. So when we preach and we teach and we lead a church, how to be a local church in context, that's kind of my bread and butter. Right now we're doing just about daily lessons for all our pastors and leaders over Zoom, and just this morning I was talking about how do we pastor a church in times like this---this as in we're in the middle of COVID-19 locked down in Nepal. If I may just kind of touch on the past several months: so until about August, the infection rates were very low, extremely low because Nepal started lockdown in the third week of March already. And then there were only a handful of infections. In fact, we were counting a few a day. And so that proved to be very effective, but that had other impacts in the society. So people who were living abroad---a lot of Nepali people go outside of the country to work, to send money for their family, and they wanted to come back in. So mostly in India, but also in the Middle East and Eastern Asia like Malaysia and South Korea, et cetera. And so when people started coming back home, then the infection rates started going up very fast. When Nepal started opening up its lockdown and so forth. In fact, we're still rising right now, about 1,500 to 2,000 infections a day, that's over 7,000that's tested. So death rates are still lower. I think it's still under 500, but it's rising faster than we'd like. So three weeks of complete lockdown again in August. And just yesterday, it opened back up again after three weeks of complete lockdown. So we're learning over the course of this six months how to be church in context. So right from the beginning, we as pastors met and talked about how we need to go mostly all online, as far as providing church services, preaching and message. And about a week later, I began just one or two messages just sharing with people how to make sense of this new reality as Christians with our faith in God. And everybody's asking, What is God doing here now? Is he judging us? Is he going to do something and what should we be doing? So people who are already new in their faith were scared, and were learning how to basically walk by faith, and all of a sudden they're facing this new situation where they were so dependent on church for their spiritual nourishment, and that's not there anymore. And so we felt as pastors, we need to speak to these people on a more regular basis. So what we did was mobilize. We have small group leaders we have been training over many years to be the pastors. I told them, we had been talking about this, but now you are the pastors, and call your small group members and families that you're in touch with and listen to them. How are they feeling? What are they afraid of? Things that they held dear to their heart, what are they afraid of losing? But also help them understand, with the Bible, what God is doing. He's not judging, but this is the effect of sin, and we must help them to understand that. And God says to not be afraid. So with that close touch through the small group leaders, and as pastors, we continue to go to church and listen to each other. The top of the agenda in our leaders' meeting has been member care. How do we care for them? So that's a topic we talk about a lot. So just when the lockdown started, we were talking about in our preaching series gospel hospitality, and as we finished that series, we were forced to practice that. And the question was, in small group meetings and family gatherings, how do we do that now? And so we went on to talking about the Christian faith in COVID-19. So where we are, how do we make sense of Christian faith? So as leaders, we're thinking, how do we help people define this new reality? So Saturday we have a church service we record on Thursday, and it's provided to everybody by Saturday morning for church service ( we meet on Saturdays in Nepal) and throughout the week, we tell them, please discuss these matters with your family and with your neighbors, with your small group, if you can. And so people started doing that. So that kind of conversation going on was very helpful for people to see a church in action. In fact, I've gone as far as to say, look, Jesus lived in times of crisis, and gospel disciples started the church amidst crisis worse than what we're facing. And perhaps that gospel makes the most sense when we speak it with our heart to our neighbors in times of crisis and pandemic and talking about historical examples of how Christians cope with pandemics, not being just sitting locked down, but caring for the neighbor, and however you and we can do that is what we've been called to. So having said that ... our church is very diverse. There are people who have almost no education, and they're from the lowest caste or social structure. And we have, you know, PhD doctors who come from Australia and the UK and other places. And so we have this mix of people , members of our church, helping each other make sense of this. So we began relief work as well, right from the second week of lockdown , which was the first week of April. As we approached Easter, when we were talking about how do we reach out to our neighbors, over 500 families that we reached through basically making food packages, those who lost their job, or they're on daily wages. And so let's do this. Those who can give, give; those who can volunteer to go out and distribute these food packages let us do that. And pastors, all of us were involved in the relief work as well. And this lockdown over the last three weeks has also caused some of that distress in the family. So we've started doing that again. In fact, two weeks ago , one of our pastors met people on the street and some friend that he met suggested that there's a Red Cross who was cooking food for these homeless people on the street. And they came in front of a Hindu temple and they were looking for food, basically. So our pastor told us, can we do this for them? So we started cooking in our church, and every day at 4:30 we'd take out food, dal and curry and rice, in the car and we'd go there. And there's usually only three or four volunteers from our church , deacons and youth. And so we go there and they have a setup. They ask people to sit one meter apart from each other. And when I went there a few days ago, there were 60 to 80 people coming every day for food, just warm food, one meal a day. And, well, that's part of worship. You ask about worship, but part of how we're doing ministry during this time. I might have covered more than you asked!

María Cornou: 

No, it's fascinating because I think one of the unique things about your community is also the fact that you have a lot of new converts and what you say makes a lot of sense, the concern for pastoral care when people in your communities, many cases are new to the faith, but also this other social structure that makes your context very different from the U.S. or other countries that are visiting our course these days.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin . edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

Considering this uniqueness, I want to ask you about not only the COVID crisis, but in general, the worship in your community. Because you have already lived in the U.S., you can perhaps more easily contrast cultural values. Is there any particular cultural value from your local context that is reflected or has shaped worship in a different way to what we are used in the U.S.?

Arbin Pokharel: 

So, as in contrast ... how we worship, are we talking more about like the Sabbath worship?

María Cornou: 

This is a very interesting point. I'm asking you this question because we are exploring also cultural values and how these values are reflected in different worship practices or in different worshiping communities. For instance, you have mentioned the socialist structure, and I wonder about this community-oriented culture, the Nepalese, in contrast to more individualistic cultures and how it is for someone to convert when it means perhaps leaving the religion of their family, of the community they belong to, and the high price they pay to move away from that tradition of religion to Christianity. So in different ways, for people the experience of being Christian and worshiping in your context is different from our experience here. So I'd like just to ask if there is something in particular that is contextualized, that reflects more the way of living in your society that reflects in church and in worship.

Arbin Pokharel: 

Worshiping in Nepal ... Now, the background is people who come to faith have come through different struggles in life, in society, in family, inside themselves, and in a searching, studying. Very often it's people who are more marginalized , who struggle. So in the past, it used to be people would come to church through an experience of healing. So a lot of churches that grew very fast and across the country are Pentecostal churches; Assemblies of God is a very large denomination in Nepal. Almost every denomination, every national church, independent churches also, were just very active in preaching the gospel to their friends, to their neighbors. When I was gone from 1992 until 2002, churches were already vibrant. In the '70s and '80s, churches were persecuted because they were very small and minority and the political condition, everything provided just that environment for Christians to be persecuted because there's monarchy and the king was revered as god and people---anybody who wouldn't worship or who would get away from that kind of culture were targeted by cultural leaders, whether they're priests, Brahmins, or high-caste people, or well-to-do people in communities, even different castes. So churches were persecuted in the '70s and '80s. And in that time, in the '80s, churches grew quite fast, but the decade from '92 to 2002, churches just exploded. When I came back, I couldn't recognize most of the Christians. And so that trend of church growth and persecution has not subsided because churches continue to grow and move across every cultural line, any lines of religion or culture or tradition, certain caste, where they worship household gods, animism and so forth. So when churches became active in reaching out, that evangelism era of God's Spirit moving across the country set the pace for church from that decade to the next as well, and we have, in a sense, as third-generation church leaders, we're reaping the harvest of the blessings of God's Spirit,moving here and leading a church in this time and context. People of the second-generation leadership, they were very strong in contrasting church with the Hindu society and culture. So the things that differentiated them was highlighted more---not so much building walls, but also distinguishing their identity: who we are, they would define it by who we are not. So, "We don't do that. We don't do pujas. We don't do ticas." Cultural elements that they're separated from was highlighted as opposed to now, in a third generation of church leaders, we're trying to say, okay, that that was fine because we came out of persecution and we had to identify ourselves and give proper ID, but let's not define ourselves by who we are not. So with good theological education, with good study of scripture, and preaching in a more biblical way, it makes us become appreciative of what we inherited, but also to say, but this is what gospel is: it's not about who or what we are or are not ...

María Cornou: 

So it's less apologetic and more catechumenal, let's say.

Arbin Pokharel: 

Yes. So as a leader, and I'm not the typical Nepali pastor, as you can tell, but with good education that I could have in the States, and theological institutions, I lead from a position of, okay, we have great theology, but church is about practices. How we bring the learning into the habits of the church, how we shape, and how we can put on imagination. When God's kingdom comes, then, we're not to just say we're culturally "not that, not that, we don't do this" and just create our own walls and our own towns, but what you imagine, how to live in this community so that everybody can flourish. And so we do that being Christ-centered. So without compromising that evangelicalism, what we have inherited, the work of God's Spirit, but then we say, okay, as Reformed---as I've been here teaching in Presbyterian and Reformed theological institutions this many years, 15, 16 years, the leaders before me always wanted to protect their doctrines, their theology, their system, their denominations, et cetera. And so many times I've stood up and said, okay, thanks and praise be to God, we have this foundation. Our job is not to build walls and protect the foundation. We have that. God wants to build something strong and beautiful on this foundation. So let's do that by being the church, the body of Christ. And let's build on that. so align with students in the seminary, but also our church planters, pastors, and leaders to say, you know, we have that. God is with us, and we're not to just kind of hang on to that for life, but yes, let's build on that so that me, my immediate community, and our society can flourish, people here can flourish. So yeah, the imagination is a beautiful thing, but then be committed to these practices. How does change come? How do we bring change in this society, in this community? I mean, I can give you plenty of examples of where we live and our neighbors and our church. I think people look at us saying, "These guys are not stuck up like the Christians we used to know," because Christians were looked at in that---like I said, they came out of persecution and struggle. They feel protective;they want to guard what they have and not lose. But then we have in the third generation the privilege of saying yes, but then let's be gracious. Let's be open to going out to the community. My wife has been amazing as a social activist. She's so well- n etworked; people from all high places, in all parts of society, know her Higher Ground Ministries, several businesses, and other ministries. So she goes out and she's fearless, and it's been a good partnership in ministry to have that as an expression of our faith, going out and reaching people. So, I know you asked about worship and culture, and I'm kind of giving more of a broader perspective.

María Cornou: 

It's very helpful. And I'm sure all of these features shape the worship, the preaching, and the practices of a community. So resuming the topic of this COVID crisis---and this is my last question---is there a new learning or some wisdom you could share with our students, with us as a learning community, something you'd like to encourage us, or that could inspire us in our own journeys?

Arbin Pokharel: 

Well, I have been disproportionately blessed even with this crisis---not to be selfish in that sense, but just acknowledgin how God really helped us bring out what we had been teaching, like the gospel hospitality, , being the body of Christ in context, being a local church. These are the terms I keep speaking to our leaders, and how do we be church in this context? And so I found that church became vibrant because we go small group, we go home to home. We go, let's speak the basic values. So the cultural establishment has been dismantled in some sense because we were locked down, but we as pastors made this an opportunity to be the church. And so, saying that, other leaders and pastors---there's four of us who are pastors at Cross-Way, and we're of the same mind---how do we reach out? How do we bring the gospel to the people? So services went online. People are listening and learning. They're watching much more than what we're giving to them, but that's good. But we help them make sense of that when they come to listen to us or watch us, and then we help them make sense of the realities, the new realities. And like I had been saying, small group leaders, you are the pastors, really. Because this is how church is going to be. We're not popular church. We're not fancy things. We just built our new building, moved in in December and shut down again in March. So for three months we were in the new, big building, but I had been saying, it's not about the building. Thank and praise God we have this. We are a resource church. Our vision says we are a well of grace we will draw from and serve. And the second part of our vision says, "Christ-centered churches will be planted in the 75 districts of Nepal." So the second part is intentionally passive tense. We're not doing it. Our job is to draw from the well of grace because, well, water just comes as a resource here, so we draw and serve; we're stewards of God's resource. And as we serve, plant churches, God plants Christ-centered churches. So this has been a great opportunity for me, things I had been saying, people were not listening; all of a sudden they're listening. At least I think that, right? Maybe not true. But at classes this morning I had---this is probably the third class I've taught on Nepali ecclesiology. So doctrine of the church, a theology of the church for Nepal, and as part of my doctoral thesis that I wrote for Fuller Seminary, I determined to write a book in Nepali about Nepali ecclesiology. And so lockdown has provided me time and the space and the concentration. As somebody who has ADHD, I was distracted. Now I'm locked down. So it has been helpful.---So I'm teaching to 25 students from all across Nepal on Zoom and they're so attentive. They would never pay that much attention if I had them in class otherwise. So it's been a lesson in that sense to see the hunger for God and wanting to learn, but also for me to be able to teach these people and say, let's do this together. I could share more about that as somebody who came back with a theology degree from the U.S.; there's a false perception that this pastor, he's well - off, and he can only speak for himself. But it's not true. We're trying to be the body of Christ here in Nepal in this time and situation. So I've been blessed with that. Again, small groups and families have become active in reaching out. If it was a popular church, we should be very unpopular after six months of not meeting in church. But I'm thinking, our church says, it won't be 100%; it will be 120% when people come back to church because also relief work we've been doing. I do a little bit of it, but our pastors and small group leaders do that. We said "We'll help you and your neighbor if they need help. So go watch, look around. And if anybody's in need, tell us, but it has to be your immediate connection" so that we're not giving INGO-styled relief aid. We're basically saying, "You reach out to your neighbors, and if you can pray for them and call them alongside with you, we'll provide relief aid for them," because we're also a limited church. And so we want to be that kind of a community in this situation. So lots of prayer,;there's chain prayer going on. So basically somebody starts at 5 a.m., and the prayer goes until 10 p.m. And I'm the one allotted for 9 to 10 p.m. So my prayer time is going to start in half an hour.

María Cornou: 

We'll be ready. And we will be praying for you and for your community. We are very grateful for this opportunity. And I think that if I can summarize all these new opportunities you are mentioning and inspire us, it's this gospel hospitality. I'd like to close our interview with this phrase, gospel hospitality. It's a lesson we can learn from Nepal.

Arbin Pokharel: 

Yeah. People are suffering. Another thing that we've been talking about is basically how do we lament. N. T. Wright's new book, and Todd Bolsinger from Fuller, his new book Leadership in Times of Pandemic, something like that, have been good resources. And for our church it's the 15-year anniversary; for our seminary it's the 20-year anniversary, but we're not able to celebrate because---and I've said we will do it as a form of Christian celebration with lament. Can we do that? Can we have Christian hope brought into this mix and say, can we celebrate, because of so much death, so much crisis, so much hardship all around us. We as the church are called to be the genuine presence of Christ in people's situations, so let us lament, but with the hope of Christ in us and perhaps that way we can celebrate, because our joy, our hope is founded on something different than what the world gives us. That's been another theme that we've been focusing on. So, yes, gospel hospitality; let us celebrate with lament.

María Cornou: 

Thank you very much, Arbin. Thank you for joining us for this class. And we pray for you and for your community. And we hope we can have a time of celebration together in Nepal or in the U.S., a time to celebrate all the good things the Lord is doing among you. Thank you very much, Arbin.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website@worshipdotcalvin.edu, to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology history and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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