The neighbourhood is different from the rest of the city. Young men, wreathed in burgundy monk robes, walk briskly down the street. A woman sells prayer beads, the strands of wooden balls clattering and swaying in her hands. Incense, unmistakable in its specific, sharp scent, floats into the streets.
Esther and James live in this part of town as well; the two are SIM cross-cultural workers who have been living and serving in this Asian country for more than a dozen years. Their work focuses on reaching the Bonba people, one of the least reached communities – that is, most of the Bonba people have never been introduced to Jesus Christ.
To build relationships with the Bonba people, Esther and James have had to do two of everything: learning the language and culture of both the Bonba and of the wider population of the country. They also have to travel into the Bonba lands from another part of the country because foreigners are not allowed to live there.
After all this time and effort, Esther and James might have been forgiven for expecting more gospel results – but God hasn’t delivered them.
When Esther and James talk about results, they would love people to come to Christ but know that the Bonba are strongly resistant. They’re looking for steps along the way, better opportunities to share the gospel and make disciples.
One example is with Esther and James’ friends, former Buddhists who have now professed faith in Christ. But their friends still struggle with the two different religious and cultural understandings.
When the friends’ niece was suffering from depression, it was easy for them to seek the counsel of a lama, one of the honoured religious leaders of Buddhism, instead of praying to God and seeking help from a mental health professional. Esther and James would love to show them that the one true God is far more able and real than any other idol or god.
“Their life and community is centred on the lama,” James says. “They rely on the lama. They go to the lama for guidance. They listen to the lama.”
It’s a disappointment for Esther and James. As much as they understand their friends have a long history with the lama, they wish that God was the new centre of their friends’ lives and community. But it didn’t even occur to their friends to think of God as someone they could depend on or turn to for help.
Esther says: “I asked our friends: ‘Would you really believe in Jesus if God heals your niece?’ At that point, they couldn’t agree to that. Our friend, her faith is really struggling. I’ve been wrestling with this, wondering why didn’t God heal her? If he healed her, they would believe.”
Esther and James acknowledge that things are not that simple, especially when the price of becoming a Christian can be terrifyingly high.
Buddhism is the looming barrier to any Bonba becoming a follower of Christ – but not just Buddhism the religion. It’s Buddhism, the national, cultural, and familial identity.
Buddhism has trickled into the very core of the Bonba identity, both collectively and individually. Though some statistics count the Bonba people as 98 to 99 per cent Buddhist, many do not even bother with the quantification – it’s generally understood that if you are Bonba, you are Buddhist.
“Their life and Buddhism is inseparable,” Esther says. “You are not Bonba any more if you are not Buddhist.”
Even when a Bonba person accepts Jesus Christ, as with Esther and James’s friends, it takes time for Christianity to filter down into the core of their identity in the way Buddhism is already embedded.
“We know a Bonba Christian who was a monk,” James says. “It was only after five years that he could say: ‘Now I truly believe.’”
Such an understanding of religion and self is interlocked with familial, national and cultural identity. To turn from Buddhism to Christianity raises fears of a backlash.
James says: “They worry, ‘What if other people despise us? Or reject us in our community?’ If someone who comes to the city becomes a Christian, it’s almost impossible for them to be able to keep the faith when they go back to their communities. That’s why we are hoping to establish family churches so that families can worship God and grow together.”
Another danger is that they will believe in God, but fit him into a Buddhist worldview.
“They have many gods in their religion, so it’s easy for them to just add God too,” Esther explains. “There is no concept of what it means to ‘accept Jesus.”
“This is the hard part for the Bonba people,” James says. “Their worldview cannot be changed simply. It takes time.”
There isn’t much room left for Christianity to take root, and frankly, the Bonba people may not want to make room either.
The introduction of Christian cross-cultural workers to their previously closed homelands have come on the coat-tails of political upheaval.
The Bonba homeland, a vast expanse jostling between several Asian countries, is currently governed by the central national authorities.
“For the Bonba, in their hearts they think they lost their country, so they have a lot of bitterness in their hearts towards the majority people,” Esther says.
It is no wonder, then, that introducing Christianity to a people group which has already experienced such an imposition in the seizure of their homelands, is a delicate matter. It takes time – for Esther and James, 12 years and counting.
It also takes something more: true discipleship born out of deep friendship and love.
“The people are so generous and kind. We have known them a long time,” Esther says of their Bonba friends. “So it breaks my heart that spiritually, they don’t know the truth about God.”
Amanda, Esther and James’s co-worker, saw that love for the Bonba and it moved her.
“I was watching this video that James had made about their outreach and he did a voiceover,” she says. “And he said: ‘These are the people that we love and this is why we’re here and there are so many people who are living and dying without the gospel.’
“And I just started crying. I couldn’t fully understand it, but something in my spirit recognised this is it.”
She loves reaching out through friendship.
She says: “Here, when you realise just how much spiritual darkness there is and all the gods the Bonba fear and the demon possessions and all the rituals, I don’t think you’re being a good friend if you don’t venture to share the gospel when you get the opportunity. For me, Jesus is the best thing.
“And I’m not going to stop being friends with them if they don’t believe, but absolutely I want them to believe what I believe.”
James grew up in Buddhist family, and he remembers the spiritual darkness his family felt when they were Buddhists.
He says: “My mother was always afraid, and of all sorts of things – evil spirits and dreams. When she started going to church, she cried, thinking: ‘How could I have not known about God before?’ After she accepted Christ, she’s never been bothered by those evil spirits,” She has freedom.”
That is what they want for their friends - freedom from the fear of the many gods they worship and, instead, a true relationship with Jesus Christ. James, Esther and Amanda are all prepared to invest time and energy into building these friendships and relationships.
“He’s promised there will be people from every nation, tribe and tongue that will worship and love him and that includes the Bonba people,” Amanda says. “I never doubt that God will do what he’s promised, but I have no idea how he’s going to do it.”
God’s methods may not be so hidden, though. It goes back to the friendships that are so important to them. Esther and James share about how their friends, after going to see the lama, were instructed to pay for traditional medicine, buy a new idol for the local monastery and make a prayer flag. The niece is still sick.
“Because the lama hasn’t delivered the results our friends wanted, if God healed our friend now, then they will really know it’s him,” Esther says.
“We think God has something planned for this family through their niece’s sickness,” James says.
In his statement, there is such hope and unwavering commitment. This love for the Bonba people and the friendships that are so vital – that’s how God is going to do it.
- For God to reveal himself to the Bonba people by whatever means he chooses
- For more workers to be raised up to take the gospel to the Bonba and other Asian peoples who do not know Christ
- For our workers to rely on God's strength as they minister in these tough places