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Looking at the Gospel Through Buddhist Eyes

By Jewel Showalter – From the April 2016 Beacon

William and Rebecca,* RMM workers in East Asia, are often tempted to discouragement. For the past 18 years they’ve worked among a particularly untouched mountain people group. They’ve learned two very difficult languages and clung to a variety of visas as they’ve labored to be present in this harsh setting.

They first entered the region in 1998 on a student visa, and for two years they lived at the university and worked to learn the local language and understand the unique Buddhist worldview. They prayed and reached out in friendship.

There was little interest. People were puzzled or amused by their attempts to share faith. Sometimes God moved to heal, but more often not. One of the people who came to faith in the early years and led a small house group, died of congestive heart failure—in spite of their prayers and medical assistance.

After two years as students, William and Rebecca began working for an NGO doing community development. Each year they spent months away from home—out in the countryside where they helped to install micro hydro systems, build village schools, and train teachers.

“During these years some of our closest friendships developed,” Rebecca said. “We really learned to know the farmers, the nomads—how they live and think. We solidified our language skills. Dialects differed from region to region, valley to valley, so communication was an on going challenge. This work also gave us a wonderful opportunity to build deep friendships with our local co-workers. Some of those friendships continue today.”

Then the government forced their NGO to scale back its work. William and Rebecca moved to another city to learn a second language and give their young son a chance to grow at a lower altitude. The focus of their hearts never changed during this time.

As William and Rebecca made plans to return to their home in the highlands they received a job offer in management from a Christian businessman who owned several cafes there. They took the job and have been working in that capacity ever since.

William oversees the work of 23 employees who staff the cafes and an off-site bakery. Rebecca got involved in training the staff. The 21 female employees are village women who are mostly illiterate.

“I taught them how to bake with our recipes by drawing pictures of cups, spoons, and other symbols,” Rebecca said. “We’re glad to provide jobs for these at-risk women. Some of our former employees have even started their own businesses.”

For three years, the young family relocated outside of the highlands to aid in the healthy development of their children and for the birth of a fourth child. This move to a larger neighboring city meant that William would need to travel regularly to manage the cafes. During this season of frequent separation, they began opening their home to nomads who came to the city for medical treatment. One of the first groups that came included a young woman, Betty,* and her boyfriend, along with an old Grandma who could hardly walk.

“We had a ‘no smoking’ policy for guests,” Rebecca said, “But Grandma was a smoker—and couldn’t navigate the stairs to go outside for her smokes. As I grumbled to God about this difficult situation with my four young children and my husband’s absence, I heard God say, ‘take them as my provision during this season.’”

“As Christians we see the prejudice, the ugliness, and injustice all around, and we’re guilty of these sins ourselves. But that’s why we’re here, to show the love of God that breaks down these barriers.”Surprisingly Betty and Rebecca became good friends. Betty saw the tremendous need there is for medical hostels for nomads. She went on to start her own business, opening two guest apartments and helping illiterate people navigate the complexities of medical treatment.

Rebecca continues to befriend and partner with Betty in the hostel ministry. This year Rebecca arranged for Lily,* a Christian Indonesian woman, to live with Betty and assist at the hostels. One day Lily became very angry with Betty when she saw how unkind and prejudiced she was toward needy people who were not from “her neck of the woods.”

Rebecca said, “I told Lily, yes, it is wrong, but you have to let it go. As Christians we see the prejudice, the ugliness, and injustice all around, and we’re guilty of these sins ourselves. But that’s why we’re here, to show the love of God that breaks down these barriers. Betty does not know Jesus. She’s never experienced his amazing grace. But we pray that someday she will.”

William and Rebecca long to see a healthy, indigenous church established in their region. Currently they meet with a group of four to six semi-literate women who are believers. The women often bring their teenage children along. And sometimes a few men straggle in. Together they have a time of worship and Bible study led by William and one of the local women.

“All the women have heart-wrenching stories,” Rebecca said. “I knew that one had been severely abused by her husband, nearly strangled to death. But she’d never felt free to share it with the group. One day we were studying 1 Cor. 7, and they all started sharing about their marriages.

“While the women were telling their stories, the abused woman sat crying. Finally she felt free to tell her story. The group gathered around and prayed for her. They really bonded.”

“All these women are at the bottom of the social structure,” Rebecca said. “But now they’re ‘daughters of the King’ and leading others to Christ.”

In addition to participating in the home Bible study William also meets with two different men to study the Bible in a more scholarly way. These studies are highlights for him.

William said that Phil,* one of the men, has been around Christians for 15 years. He first got curious about Christianity when a German woman sponsored him by giving up her daily coffee. Until she died she gave up coffee. When she died she left him $2,000—which he actually received. Most of his countrymen who live in exile have been sponsored by Christians.

“Christians and Buddhists have many of the same ideals,” Phil observed. Yet while attracted to Christianity, he could not bring himself to take the step.

William explained that the local religion gives people a strong identity and morality. It makes them unique and significant. They cling to their religion. You can’t have a high status in the culture without having a high status in the religion.

“A year ago I invited Phil to study the Bible with me,” William said. “He doesn’t want to just dump the old system. Christianity needs to make sense in the Buddhist context. For example, the Buddhist idea of ‘karma’ is very close to the Christian law of ‘sowing and reaping.’”

William said, “One day I repented in front of him for something I had done. Phil was surprised.”

He said, “You mean you don’t believe that ‘what’s done is done?’ How can you undo the past? In Buddhism there is no redemption. We know we’re supposed to have compassion for others, but who is there to show us compassion—since we don’t have a God? Maybe Buddhism isn’t all wrong. It just doesn’t have the whole picture.”

“He’s helping us reframe Christianity,” William said. “We’ve really sensed the Holy Spirit moving. Phil and some of our other friends are having dreams. He was also healed. We can’t make God show up, but he does, and it’s a privilege to walk with people and help usher them into the presence of God.”

“These experiences encourage us. We are energized to present the good news in ways that make sense in this setting—to look at Christian concepts through a Buddhist lens.

“During this season we’re seeing lots of opportunities to share our experiences and ideas. We are astounded by the ways we’ve been received. It has taken a long time… we’ve been working at this for 18 years, and in some ways it feels like we’re just getting started. Please pray with us for a people movement to Jesus in these mountains.”

*Names changed or omitted for security reasons.