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Bhutanese Nepali refugees form churches, reach out to their neighbors

On a gray drizzly Sunday afternoon in November, drums and guitars mix with spirited, jangling tambourines radiating from a room in the back of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn. A jumble of shoes has gradually flooded into the accompanying hallway and more than 70 Bhutanese men, women, and children stand in bare feet and socks, worshipping in Nepali. Small boys and girls twirl and dance beneath their elders as a refrain of “Hallelujah” builds and swells.  The air becomes warm, filled by the vibrancy of their worship.

When the music ends, everyone sits upon cushions and pillows scattered across the floor and American pastor Cody Lorance stands and prays in Nepali. The walls are yellow and strung with garlands of leaves and flowers. Behind Lorance at the front of the room is an altar with crosses, candles and incense sticks.

This is TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali, the first Nepali-speaking church in Chicagoland. Most in this community are recently resettled refugees from the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small landlocked country in South Asia bordered by China, India and the Himalayan Mountains. Together, the families of the church navigate the challenges of their new life in America as they grow in their hope in Christ.
 
As Lorance preaches, Ganesh Powdyel stands to the side, translating English to Nepali after each sentence. Two years ago, Powdyel arrived in Chicago with his parents, wife and daughter after spending 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he was a teacher making 892 Nepalese rupees--or about $12.58 in current US dollars--per month.

During his first year in the United States, Powdyel worked as an operator for Global Card Services. He now works as a casework assistant at World Relief DuPage and relays important information to the Bhutanese Nepali community.

In the early 1990’s, most of Bhutan’s ethnic Nepali minority, the Lhotshampa, fled the country after the government deemed them a threat to the political order. During that time, Bhutan’s King Wangchuck enforced the majority culture and Buddhist religion while seeking to rid the country of ethnic Nepalese and their Hindu rituals. Many were forcibly evicted by the government, while others fled from the persecution or were coerced into signing “voluntary” emigration forms.

Unable to return to Bhutan or settle permanently in Nepal, more than 100,000 refugees remained in the camps for almost two decades, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since 2007, the United States has resettled 34,129 Bhutanese refugees as part of a resettlement program that includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

When Powdyel arrived at O’Hare Airport with his family in early 2009, he was greeted by Cody Lorance and Krishna Magar, who were informed of his arrival by World Relief. Magar, who came to live in Wheaton with his three children in late 2008, was Powdyel’s teacher and school principal in the Nepali refugee camp. He became friends with Lorance after his children attended the Karen Burmese congregation that also meets in Glenfield Baptist Church. Months later, six refugees—including Magar’s children—were baptized by Lorance and began meeting to study their newfound Christian faith. Both Magar and Powdyel assisted Lorance in translating his messages to the young church and became Christians later in 2009.

When Powdyel began to learn the stories of the Bible, he was impressed by Christianity’s desire and proclamation for equality, which was in opposition to Hinduism’s strict caste system in Nepal. By local law, Powdyel said members of the lower castes could not enter the house of a higher caste member. Now their relationships have changed.

“We worship together, we work with each other, help each other and eat meals together,” Powdyel said. “We’re living together now.”

Lorance said many of the caste barriers have been broken by the church’s desire to create ways for new Nepali Christians to seek Christ while continuing to be a part of their traditional culture.

“We are really striving to make following Christ not an issue of changing your culture but an issue of changing your heart, mind and behaviors,” Lorance said. “We are using cultural forms and traditions that are already there and trying to pour Christ into those.”

On Christmas 2009, Powdyel and Magar were ordained by Lorance as deacons of the growing church.

“They were trying to identify needs [in the community] and find ways to fill those needs,” Lorance said. More than just the church members came to see Powdyel and Magar’s ordination, but the wider Bhutanese Nepali community came for the ceremony. “I was really presenting them, not as church deacons, but as servant-leaders for the community.”

Another Bhutanese Nepali congregation, Anugraha Church, began meeting last Easter and quickly grew to more than 40 people, eventually moving to Glen Ellyn Evangelical Covenant Church last Christmas. This April, the church invited the local and national Bhutanese Nepali community to their building for their “Grand Musical Festival and Gospel Program” which included more than 20 performers from Chicagoland, Maryland, Tennessee and Ohio. With a full sanctuary and musical performances lasting several hours, the afternoon was a testament to the unity of the local and national Bhutanese Nepali community.

Although the Bhutanese Nepalis no longer deal with the toils of the refugee camps, challenges and struggles remain as they adjust to life in the United States. “There’s illiteracy, poor jobs, and there’s still a lot of spiritual battles that we’re facing,” Lorance said. “It’s not all ‘awesome.’ There are some awesome things that God is doing, but it’s all a tremendous struggle as well.”

Through their many challenges, TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali continues to provide strength for the community. Last year, a family’s apartment caught on fire and the church raised $500 to help with repairs and raised another large sum of money to help a family who couldn’t pay their rent one month.

For many in the community, learning English is essential to obtaining a job, communicating with coworkers, successfully creating a bank account or making doctor’s appointments. Every Thursday night, Trinity International Baptist Mission, the mother church of TriEak, holds ESL (English as a Second Language) classes run by volunteers from the church.

Powdyel said TriEak is also working to obtain more cars and arrange driving lessons so the community can have more independence to shop, use the People’s Resource Center or visit World Relief. During the long Chicago winters, cars are necessary for survival.

As pastor, Lorance has witnessed the growth of the church from the very beginning and says he is “excited to see their excitement” for reaching out to their local community and the Nepali community abroad.

“They say, ‘We’re not refugees. We’re in the US. We’re Americans now. We’re strong. If we can work together, God is with us and we can do it,’” Lorance said.

“The Spirit is working in very significant ways with this group of people.”

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World Relief’s mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. In community with the local church, World Relief envisions the most vulnerable people transformed economically, socially, and spiritually. Over the past ten years, resettled refugee families have formed 12 churches. TriEak Parmeshwar Mandali is a great example of the impact that immigrant churches can have when they take up Christ’s call for all Christians to love their neighbors and welcome the stranger in their midst.

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