In the European and American world we have a belief called “White Man’s Burden.” Something that Americans heard a lot about during the Bush Jr. years whether or not they realized it. All the talk of “Nation Building” in the Middle East was cleverly reinvented to stimulate this subconscious notion in the American people. I honestly don’t think that Bush Jr. knows the difference between a nation and a country but he was never really in charge anyway. In the Golden Age of European Imperialism and American westward expansion the White Man’s Burden refered to the belief that the white man was the patriarch of the world and charged with the duty of bringing Christianity and European ideas of civilization to the uncivilized parts of the world: Native Americans in Indian Schools, British India and Catholic missionaries in South America are just a few examples.
In Nepal I have encountered a curious phenomenon. A throwback to this age which I had lost to time. At first I almost thought it was a joke when I was told that the big building at the end of the street was a Christian mission. But I began to see white people going to and fro. I encountered them slowly. They are reticent to discuss their work in Nepal with any outside the mission, for good reason. It’s illegal in Nepal to convert or attempt to convert people from one religion to another. The government of Nepal regards the preservation of it’s culture important. In the children’s schoolbooks there is one story about a young man who moves from his village to the city and begins to emulate American culture, forsaking his Nepali heritage and how it led to his moral downfall. People convicted of attempting conversion can be expelled from the country, yet down the street is a tall building guarded by a large brick wall with double black iron doors bearing head-high crosses adorned by Hindu six-pointed stars.
My shock was first at the fact that missionarism still goes on. I have known for some time that many good works abroad are the result of financial backing and volunteer efforts from churches in the United States. I knew that much of the time this assistance came with a healthy helping of direction towards the Bible but I didn’t know that educated people from developed countries still engaged in a practice so blatantly archaic: to go across the globe with the express purpose of converting others to their religion. One day while discussing missionaries with a fellow volunteer she said “Missionaries are not moderate Christians,” she being a church-goer herself I found it a sobering reminder.
I met a Nepali man in a tea shop close to the orphanage where I’m working. He quickly engaged me in a lengthy (mostly one-sided) conversation about Christianity. Me being white he of course asked if I was Christian. He is a pastor at a local church it turned out. He explained to me how when he was a young man, broken down by drink and smoke, he was approached one day by “two tall white Europeans” who asked is he knew that Jesus loved him. The look on his face as he recalled these two men was one of marvel. This was, apparently, the revelation he had being waiting for. Nigh two decades later from when he was laying in the gutter he is pastor of his own church and currently engaged in graduate studies. He had very good english and knew a lot of academic jargon. He had been a Buddhist and his father was a witch doctor in the village he came from.
He went on to regale me with a miracle tale of how a man he knew broke his back and how the witch doctor of the village failed to heal it, even after many goats were sacrificed. That man was told by a priest that if he accepted Jesus Christ into his heart that his back would be healed within 45 days. He quickly agreed to the gambit, having nothing to lose. He returned to Kathmandu from Malaysia 45 days later on the nose completely healed and needless to say a fervent believer in Christ.
With the Pastor I sensed an eagerness to impress with his piety. He smiled a lot and seemed genuinely contented with his spiritual life. I was a white man in a Nepali suburb, he a convert. His chances were pretty good that I was Christian. In Nepal I’ve taken to identifying myself in a way I never have before: Jewish, Jehodah, as I’m told it’s said in Nepali. I’ve done this because I don’t want to engage in Christian conversation with converts or missionaries, as people so frequently do in Nepal. I’ve found however that this has an effect I did not anticipate. Those I’ve told this to have rather been more impressed, not being quite so inundated with the eurocentrism and anti-Semitism of the “old world.” They are left open to the fact that Jesus was Jewish. The pastor called me “Jesus family.”
A few days after this encounter with the pastor I was in one of the tourist neighborhoods of Kathmandu with a fellow volunteer. While waiting for him to finish in the ATM two obviously American girls approached so I engaged them in conversation. They were from the US and had enrolled to come to Nepal for five weeks and “spread the word of Jesus”. Swiftly the question came thereafter: “Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?” When my volunteer friend returned, himself a french national and convert to Islam through the Qu’ran, I was aiming to end the conversation when they engaged us in a prayer circle on the street. A lengthy one. Many Nepali walked by in bewilderment at the impromptu séance as they prayed for us and for our work with the children.
Missionaries are loathe to discuss their work in detail with outsiders for fear of exposure to the government but I must wonder and I must let my mind slip darkly but for a moment when I think of the mindset that missionaries must be in when they come. They are bringing the word of God, the love of Jesus and inescapably the hope of civilization.
It has been suggested that volunteering and charity work in developing countries is also a form of Neo-Colonialism and that it may be more detrimental than helpful. As in the case of aid packages in Africa falling into the hands of warlords. I cannot turn aside this observation for the desire to go abroad and do good work does seem to be a different answer to a similar itch. As the young people in 19th Century England going to Australia or East Africa. In my experience, however, volunteers are not the “oh, poor Africans” crowd. Half the reason we came is just to travel, to help people who have less and perhaps assuage some guilt over our comfortable lifestyles at home. We can’t help but be aware of where most of our disposable electronics, shoes, produce and assorted consumer products come from: made in sweat shops by children like the ones I care for in the orphanage. But we do not come as standard-bearers and I do not pity the people of Nepal or any other country. If anything the volunteers here measure themselves by their knowledge of the local culture and ability to adapt to it. The motivations of missionaries I cannot vouch for, but it seems the objective has not changed in some 400 years.