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Open and shut

"Open and shut" Continued...

Issue: "Who will be the next pope?," April 16, 2005

Miss Swensen, one of very few Americans living full-time outside the capital, has learned to live with the cyclical nature of civil war, even to blend in. Long ago she dyed her long, sandy brown hair a raven black and began wearing brown contacts to mask her American-made blue eyes. She even pierced her nose when Nepalese friends persuaded her it was the final ingredient to assimilation. "A nose ring was one of those things on my list of things I would never do," she recently told an audience of high-school students. "But God is going to intervene with that kind of list, and so I have a nose ring," she said. She knew her Nepalese-language skills had become better, too, when a visiting American complimented her "improving" English.

Work in Nepal began just as rebel/government clashes intensified. In that time Miss Swensen has lived in villages with no Westerners or English-speaking people for several months at a time. Families who host her typically live in a three-room hut made of mud and manure. Wood, their only fuel source, requires a three-day hike usually undertaken with yaks to carry back firewood.

Under cover of internal strife, Christians in Nepal are making strides. The world's only Hindu kingdom, Nepal outlawed Christianity until 1993. No Christian was officially allowed to live in Nepal before 1960. Now there is freedom of religion, technically, but conversion to another religion and proselytizing remain illegal. And since nearly every Nepalese is regarded as Hindu by birth, becoming a Christian remains a treacherous choice. Official records indicate that Christians are less than 2 percent of the population.

Those stats are not stopping the Christian minority from laying plans to send out some of its first missionary teams. If Nepal's civil war has regional implications, so has its church growth. This month a team of a dozen or so will make their first trip to Tibet in search of ministry opportunities. Many Tibetans have lived as refugees in Nepal over the years of China's communist oppression in Tibet, and the cross-cultural exchanges are paving the way for evangelism opportunities. Nepalese Christians also hope to soon launch similar work in Pakistan.

"The Nepalese view is so incredibly strong that they can be missionaries to other places," said Miss Swensen. Persecution in their homeland has prepared them to work in areas that are even more oppressed, including Tibet's Buddhist enclave and Pakistan's restrictive Muslim environment.

The start of the country's own missions movement is the main reason Miss Swensen is eager to return to Nepal-and plans to this month. Another reason is she's fearless.

She traveled to Tibet and Pakistan earlier this year. In Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, she learned from international nongovernmental organizations that any cross-border community development work would have to win permission from Beijing. So she made a 54-hour train ride to Beijing, where she met with communist party officials, securing government forms and initial approval to pursue work in Tibet.

Later, in Pakistan, she traveled unaccompanied-but properly covered-in strict Muslim areas and was abducted, incredibly, three separate times in one 24-hour period. Each time she managed to go free: the first, when a Nepalese recognized her familiar "accent" and came to her aid; the second, on a side street where she escaped by hitting her assailant in the face; and the third, after a man grabbed her and shoved her into a van, she jumped out when the van halted at a train crossing.

"It's the extreme of experience," Miss Swensen said of life in Pakistan for women. "They did not know I was an American. I was simply in trouble because I was out on the street alone. This is what Pakistani women deal with every day."

Culture clash showed her that, despite the East-West barriers she has already surmounted, there are still more obstacles ahead. The first: returning to Nepal given the current clampdown. Nepal's border patrols remain wary of allowing foreigners in or out, and Miss Swensen has a record with authorities. Two years ago she was arrested for her activities, given a three-month jail sentence, thrown out of the country after serving two days, and allowed back in two months later.

"I could get stuck in India but that doesn't bother me," she said. "It bothers me not to know what is going on in Nepal. When God says go you don't question; you just go. I believe very firmly that I will go, to stay."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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