In Genesis 12:3, God makes a promise to Abraham, saying, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Thousands of years later, Jesus Christ, offspring of Abraham, died on a tree to suffer for the sins of the world. When he was raised from the dead, he commissioned his followers to make disciples of all nations, the appointed way in which the blessing of this offspring of Abraham would extend to all the families of the earth. And yet, our world still holds a multitude of un-discipled nations, un-blessed families. Those who have desired to see God’s name hallowed in these nations have often left their homeland to reach groups not yet penetrated with the gospel. However, in our day, God has providentially brought these peoples into cities which are already ripe with the gospel. He has done this to extraordinary measures in Charlotte, North Carolina, giving his Church the opportunity to be a witness to unreached peoples who are now living in our neighborhoods.
One such people group is the Hill-Brahmin or Bahun people who have come to the U.S. as refugees from camps in Nepal, after having to flee from their homeland in Bhutan. During the late 19th century, the government of Bhutan began settling various Nepali-speaking ethnic groups in southern Bhutan with the aim of opening uninhabited areas to cultivation. The Nepali-speaking population in southern Bhutan grew and flourished for several generations. However, by the 1980s, Nepali-speaking peoples began to be seen as a cultural and political threat to Bhutan. As a result, discriminatory measures were taken by the Bhutanese government in order to suppress the cultural identity of Nepali-peoples. Individuals could be fined for wearing anything other than northern-Bhutanese traditional dress and the Nepali language was taken out of schools. Many ethnic Nepalis responded with demonstrations against the discriminatory policies. Demonstrations were then met with violent repression. By the early 90s, thousands of southern Bhutanese had fled Bhutan. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) established multiple refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal, and by 1992 over 100,000 refugees were dwelling in the established camps. Nepal did not accept these individuals back into their own population. Thus, the refugees remained in camps, often plagued by malnutrition and disease. In 2008, with reparation talks between Nepal and Bhutan making little progress, third-country resettlement began for the southern-Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. At that time, the U.S. agreed to receive 60,000 Nepali-Bhutanese refugees.
Since 2008, Charlotte has consistently been receiving these refugee families and more continue to come almost weekly. Among this group of Nepali-Bhutanese refugees there are more than ten different ethnic groups with various levels of gospel penetration. Some groups are largely evangelized, such as the low-caste Biswa or Darjee (in both groups over 90% of their population in Charlotte is Christian). However, other groups are entirely un-evangelized, such as the high-caste Hill-Brahmins and Chhetris. Though most of the Nepali-Bhutanese groups in Charlotte come from the same place and speak the same language, there are significant cultural barriers between them, creating the need for the Church to understand the individual ethnic groups for the sake of thinking critically about what evangelism and discipleship should look like among those in whom there is no current evangelical presence. In this profile, we will examine the Nepali-Bhutanese Hill-Brahmins living in Charlotte, seeking to understand who they are, what their lives are like, what they believe, and what their needs are so that we as the Church can be effective in making disciples of this currently un-discipled nation or un-blessed family.Population in Charlotte: Over 350 Location: Generally in apartment complexes in Charlotte’s east-side along the Central Avenue corridor. Some complexes include Shadow Wood, Mountcrest, Oakpark, Birchcroft, Cambridge, Greenbryre, Sailboat Bay, Forest Hills, and Silver Oak. Language: Nepali Religion: Hinduism Evangelical Presence: None
Who Are These People?
In understanding the identity of a people group, we must understand how they distinguish themselves from the peoples around them. For the Hill-Brahmin, the primary source of identity comes from their caste status. According to Hindu tradition, the Brahmins are the highest caste, typically receiving more education and obtaining more economic stability than those of a lower caste. Brahmins often take on roles of priests, scholars, or educators. Thus, the Brahmins’ educational, economic, and vocational identity is intimately connected with their religious identity as high-caste individuals Their caste status also directs their social identity. Traditional Brahmins see members of other castes as unholy or unclean. Thus, it is socially unacceptable for some kinds of interaction across castes. Nepalis from lower castes say that if they cook a meal, a good Brahmin must refuse to eat the food. Brahmin’s elevated educational, economic, vocational, and social status also makes them more influential politically in Nepal or Bhutan.
Of course, a people’s identity changes when individuals move from one society to another. While some Brahmins may be leaders in the Hindu temples of Charlotte, most of the Nepali-Bhutanese refugees are now forced to take low-paying, unskilled jobs, working for employers such as Ross Distribution Center. Though Brahmins may be more stable financially than other Nepali-Bhutanese refugees, they are certainly not wealthy by American standards and may struggle to pay the bills living in a country with a much higher cost-of-living. Residing in a foreign country, they are faced with the fear of losing their cultural identity, meaning that some isolate themselves from American society in order to maintain the culture of their homeland.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Nepali-Bhutanese Brahmins who live in Charlotte have lived difficult lives. Those among the older generations were born and raised in Bhutan and were forced to leave their home country under discrimination about twenty years ago. They then lived in often over-populated and ill-supplied refugee camps in Nepal for several years. Many desired to return to Bhutan, but as the opportunity for a re-unification with their home country appeared to be slim, some determined to take up the offer of third-country resettlement. Now they have been relocated to an entirely different country with a culture and lifestyle which is in many ways diametrically opposed to what they formerly knew. Several Nepali-Bhutanese comment on the difficulties of interacting with American society. The language barrier makes employment and education a difficulty. Moreover, the skills required for employment in an urban center are entirely different from those required in the society from which these refugees come, adding to the difficulty of finding and keeping jobs. Adjusting to the American “system” in general is a challenge. One Nepali man commented to me on the oddity of living in an apartment complex and paying rent monthly: “I will never own this home,” he said, “and if I don’t pay my rent one month, my family and I will be removed.” Another Nepali said to me, “Americans are good, but they are mentally ill. Always concerned with work, work, work and money, money, money. Too much busyness. No time for family or visiting.” In other words, the adjustment to certain aspects of American culture and the American way-of-life is a challenge. This tension falls on top of the pre-existing challenges of employment, education, and finances.
Hill-Brahmin households will often hold as many as four generations all living together as a result of a more family-oriented rather than individual-oriented culture. The older generations will most likely not speak any English and will typically not venture out into society or the work force, but will remain at home, supported by their children’s income. The middle generation or generations will typically have a low-paying, unskilled job at a manufacturing or distribution company. They will typically work long hours in order to provide for their family. The younger generations have been folded in to the American education system, in which older youth often struggle due to a lack of familiarity with American education and the added difficulty of English. However, the younger generations have a much easier time assimilating into American society, often causing cultural tensions between older and younger generations.
What Do They Believe?
Brahmins by definition are Hindu. Hinduism believes that “God” is the supreme eternal and every living being (gods, humans, animals, plants, etc.) is a limited part of that supreme eternal. Though there is one “God,” it is manifested in various forms, creating a vast plurality of different divinities. Every individual is an immortal soul held in the bondage of mortal matter. When the material body dies, the soul is reborn into a new body. The status of a soul’s rebirth is determined by its karma, the sum of its actions, both good and bad, in its previous life. In other words, if an individual commits many misdeeds (taking life of any kind, dishonoring parents, etc.), he will be reborn in a lower caste or as a lower animal. If he commits many good deeds (helping the poor, bettering society, caring for family, etc.), he will be reborn into a higher status. One can also expiate past sins through certain means such as attending the appropriate festivals and reading the holy books. The goal for an individual soul, however, is not simply to reach the highest possible status of being, but to achieve Moksha, the ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This is achieved when one reaches self-realization through Gyan yoga (knowledge), Karma yoga (action), Hath yoga (physical exercise), or Bhakti yoga (devotion).
Though these are the basic beliefs of Hinduism, it is important to remember that Hinduism has endless variations and expressions meaning that the religion will be different for different families.
Also important to note is the fact that Hinduism is devotedly pluralistic. Hindus are typically happy to accept any other religion as valid and true. As one Brahmin explained to me, “God is one, but there are many different ways God is expressed and understood.” Similarly, many believe that there are many different ways to God and each way is perfectly valid. This means many are happy to hear someone speak of Christianity and the corresponding beliefs and they will accept it as legitimate for some people or cultures. But as they believe all religions are valid, they see no need to leave their religion and convert to a religion of a different people. This pluralistic mind-set will not be present in every Brahmin home, but it certainly will be most common.
Given the existence of pluralism, Hindu beliefs often become syncretized with other religions. Thus, many will revere Jesus and even respect him as a god. However, they will deny his exclusivity.
Hinduism is also often mixed with more animistic or superstitious beliefs. The practice of astrology is common for some Hill-Brahmins, dictating when they set wedding dates and what they name their children. Various superstitions also govern some individual’s actions.
What Are Their Needs?
The Nepali-Bhutanese Hill-Brahmins in Charlotte have similar needs to all the other refugee communities. As mentioned above, multiple factors make education and employment a challenge for Hill-Brahmins in Charlotte. Thus, each family has educational and vocational needs. Children are often in need of extra academic assistance. Adults need help finding jobs. Most members of the family need help with English. As most families do not own cars and many individuals do not have a drivers license, several individuals are in need of transportation assistance to work, to the doctor’s, or to some other location. On top of all this, individuals need assistance becoming familiar with the American system. Many families need help understanding the letters and bills that come in the mail and brand new families may need help just figuring out how they’re supposed to pay rent. The complexities of American life are confusing and intimidating, and thus a friend who is already familiar with the system can be of great value.
Hill-Brahmins face immense cultural barriers to the gospel due to their identity as a high-caste group. One cross-cultural worker in Charlotte explained it this way: “Here you are, king of the world, and someone comes along offering a religion that will strip all that from you and make you spiritually equal with those whom you consider to be the lowest of the low. That’s not very attractive.” Members of lower castes find it much easier to leave Hinduism and convert to Christianity because they are leaving one religion which belittles them and marginalizes them for a religion which frees them from the bondage of Hinduism’s broken social system. High-caste Hindus, on the other hand, have more at stake in their cultural and religious identity. They are thus more guarded about retaining that identity.
There are many implications for how they interact with Christianity and Christians. Because they are more aware of their cultural and religious identity, they may be less likely to willingly send their children to participate in Christian outreach events and organizations; something the children of a large number of refugee families are happy to do. Hill-Brahmins will often see Christianity as a foreigner’s religion, and thus do not want to be infiltrated by it for fear of losing their own cultural identity.
Moreover, they also see Christianity as a low-caste religion since several members of lower-castes have converted to Christianity. Because of the caste difference, several Nepali-Bhutanese Christians who come from lower castes have expressed that it can be difficult for them to share the gospel with Brahmins, as Brahmins may not be willing to listen or to fully consider the gospel coming from a low-caste individual.
The ministerial implication seems to be that Brahmin ears may be more open to the gospel if it comes from both Nepali-Bhutanese individuals (thus showing that Christianity is not just a foreigner’s religion) and American individuals (thus showing that Christianity is not just a religion for low-caste Mongoloids).
Refugee children are often more accessible and easier to minister to given that they aren’t working long hours and they speak better English. However, as stated above, Hill-Brahmin families may be less likely to send their children to Christian ministries. Moreover, since the main barrier to the gospel among Brahmins is in cultural and religious identity and the older generations are the primary guardians of that identity, it seems that for the gospel to really penetrate into Hill-Brahmin communities, the older generations need to be targeted.
One obvious opportunity is in need-based ministry. As refugees, Nepali-Bhutanese Brahmins have several felt-needs, giving churches and ministries opportunities to use benevolence as a door for gospel proclamation. However, the language barrier with the older generations may make gospel proclamation from American churches and ministries largely impossible. Thus, there is an added need for partnership between American churches and individuals with Nepali-Bhutanese churches and individuals. In addition to giving a cultural balance to the gospel proclamation, partnerships between Americans and Nepalis seems advantageous given that American churches may have more of the resources to be able to assist a family in need, while Nepalis already speak the language and are more knowledgeable about the cultural factors involved.
In addition to need-based opportunities, the hospitable nature of most Asian cultures provides a huge door for gospel proclamation among Hill-Brahmin families. Most Brahmin families in Charlotte are more than happy to invite complete strangers into their home to sit and converse for a few hours. This is an opportunity for anyone who’s willing to go into their homes and bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ with the whole family.
Whatever strategy is implemented, when sharing the gospel Christians should be aware of how significant religion and culture are to most Hill-Brahmin families. Thus, it is important for Christians first to meet Brahmins where they are culturally, first seeking to understand them and their background. They ought to know that we, as Christians, care about them and are interested in them as people, that we are not simply a group of foreigners attempting to force them to change their religion. Expressing interest in them as people first by asking questions about their culture and religion, may then cause their ears to be more open in hearing what a Christian has to say about religion and Jesus.
At the same time, while we express interest in them, their culture, and their religion, we should beware of any sort of pluralistic acceptance of their, “way to god.” Most Brahmins will be perfectly fine with Jesus Christ and Christianity, accepting it as a viable religious option. Thus, there is a need for Christians to make clear the biblical exclusivity of Jesus Christ. He is not simply another god in the pantheon, he is not simply another path up the mountain, he is the only way, the only truth, the only source of life. We should not hate our Hill-Brahmin neighbors by failing to uphold Christ’s supreme exclusivity.
Finally, any attempt to evangelize and disciple Nepali-Bhutanese Hill-Brahmins must be undergirded by hearts which are desperate before our sovereign God in prayer. Unless the Holy Spirit works to soften the hearts and minds of Brahmin men and women, the Church will have no success in evangelism and discipleship. At times, it may seem impossible that a Brahmin would deny himself in order to take up his cross and follow Christ, but we ought to remember that we serve the God who raises the dead. Hill-Brahmins are dead in their trespasses and sins, but God, who is rich in mercy, can make them alive together with Christ. Until then, let us be prayerful as we intercede on their behalf, let us be thoughtful in determining effective strategies for evangelism and discipleship, and let us be faithful in proclaiming the mystery of the gospel boldly as we ought to speak.