ATLANTA (BP) —- Hari Rasaili knows persecution.
He was 14 years old when he was kicked out of his country. Now 36, Rasaili spent 18 years in a Nepali refugee camp, after being forced to leave Bhutan.
Today, Rasaili is one of 70,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in the U.S. within the last four years. And he, like many Bhutanese, has found a freedom in Christ that he could not have imagined before he left his homeland.
Bhutan is a small and often forgotten corner of South Asia that prides itself on its unique oral traditions and heritage. Prior to 1974, tourists from other countries were not allowed inside Bhutan. Even now, tourism is limited.
There Buddhism is more than a religion; it's a way of life -- and a source of ethnic conflict. The country is home to almost 700,000 people, of whom 75 percent are Buddhist. The rest are Hindu, many of Nepali descent. Conversion to Christianity is forbidden.
Because of ethnic conflict in the late 1980s, Bhutanese refugees have resettled around the world in places like Atlanta, Ga., and Oakland, Calif. The refugee resettlement agency tried to resettle Rasaili's family in Bhutan before they came to the U.S., but the Bhutanese government wouldn't allow it.
From a Hindu background, Rasaili has seen Jesus work in miraculous ways through the healing of his wife Pabitra. He believed in Jesus because of this experience.
"I have a heart to do something in the kingdom of God," Rasaili said. "My wife and I have a burden to change our community for Christ -- even go as a missionary to Nepal, India and Bhutan."
In spite of the persecution he has received from his country for being Hindu as well as the persecution from his Bhutanese-Hindu community in Atlanta for becoming a follower of Jesus, Rasaili wants to make a difference for Christ.
He now serves as associate pastor of First Agape Baptist Church in Tucker, Ga., one of five Bhutanese churches in the Atlanta area.
Chase Tozer,* an IMB representative in India, works closely with unreached people groups in South Asia, but has also partnered with North American Mission Board representatives to distribute English-Nepali Bibles around the U.S.
"We're continuing to hear reports of refugees and people who've migrated outside Bhutan becoming believers," Tozer said. "(These refugees) were never welcomed in Bhutan. They are seen as outcasts."
Refugees from Bhutan often feel like they have no culture and no country. Today, Bhutanese people are getting more freedoms, but it's been at great cost. Tozer says he's seen more reports of believers coming to faith and churches growing in Bhutan than ever before.
The government works very hard to maintain its culture and customs. It requires the Bhutanese people to wear the national dress to work and school. Buildings must be built in a certain style. Television broadcast wasn't available in Bhutan until the late 1990s. And the government strictly prohibits conversion to other faiths.
"Whether God sends Christians inside the country or takes Bhutanese people outside, he's at work among the Bhutanese," Tozer said. "His kingdom is advancing despite great persecution. It's an exciting opportunity, but in the face of a lot of adversity."
The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, but many speak Nepali, a language Travis and Ashley Nichols are trying to learn. The Nichols, founders of Ethne Global Services (www.ethneglobalservices.org), have been working with Bhutanese and Nepali refugees in Oakland, Calif., for seven years. More than 400,000 people live in Oakland, which is considered part of the San Francisco Bay area.
"They're very spiritual and super hospitable, easy to bond with," Travis said. "Many of the refugees still have ties back to Bhutan and Nepal."
It can be difficult for missionaries from a Western background to witness to South Asians because of vast cultural, religious and language differences, Travis said. Often South Asians don't trust until they see it for themselves.
Travis and Ashley live in the same community with the immigrants. This year, the first Bhutanese congregation in California celebrated their first baptisms. Next year, Travis hopes to take mission trips back to South Asia for one to three months with the refugees.
"We need to raise up more local leaders like Pastor Tek and Rasaili," Travis said. A lot of the Nepalis and Bhutanese we know have come to know the Lord through healings. They are very open to Scripture teaching, but usually don't commit to following Christ until they have experienced his power in their lives."
It's a similar story among many South Asians. Rasaili first believed as a result of his wife's healing. Tek Dharnal also saw Jesus work through the physical healing of his daughter. Dharnal is pastor of First Agape Baptist Church, which is made up of about 100 Bhutanese refugees. He baptized and discipled Rasaili, who is now the associate pastor.
Like Rasaili, most of the Bhutanese in the U.S. are refugees who lived many years in Nepali refugee camps. In Nepal, many of the refugees became Christians. Sometimes their churches even have Nepali names.
Metro Atlanta is home to more than 4.1 million people. As of 2013, 9,000 of those people are refugees from Bhutan. Dharnal himself, known to most as "Pastor Tek," spent 17 years with his family in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal.
Because of the poor living conditions, Dharnal's brother got sick and eventually died before they were rescued and taken to a camp. The Red Cross found his family and took them to the camp, where Dharnal and his wife, Ritika, later believed in Christ.
In Atlanta, Oakland and other places in the United States, refugees like Rasaili and Dharnal are free to worship as they choose. According to Southern Baptist reports, Atlanta is home to 466 Bhutanese Christians, a small, but mighty number.
In Bhutan, baptism isn't permitted. People worship God at night because they cannot worship freely and live in constant fear of persecution. In 2011, First Agape baptized 36 people.
"Currently, 10 people are getting ready for baptism in our church," Dharnal said.
Jerry Baker, a missionary with the Georgia Baptist Convention, specializes in intercultural church planting and has been working among internationals in Georgia since 1977.
Baker recently visited Pastor Tek's church and was moved by a time of prayer when people come to the front of the church.
"A married couple, who became followers of Christ, repented of turning back to Hinduism because of family pressure," Baker said. "Even though they can legally worship as they choose in the United States, their Hindu family would not accept their decision to worship Jesus."
Dharnal has a vision that extends beyond Atlanta. First Agape began September 26, 2010, starting with two Bhutanese families. Just this year, he sent a Bhutanese couple to plant a church in Kansas City, Mo., and he organizes groups of Bhutanese leaders throughout the Midwest and eastern United States.
Last year, First Agape trained 38 people: pastors, elders, deacons and Sunday School teachers, all committed to planting Bhutanese churches all over the U.S. This year, they expect 50 people from 22 states.
To date, there are Bhutanese churches in Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Georgia, Illinois and South Dakota. To see a corresponding video by the Georgia Baptist State Convention and oneMissiontv, click here .
Torie Speicher is a freelance writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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