Outside Govinda Awale’s family home in Kathmandu, men throw bricks to the ground as they dismantle a condemned building damaged in the earthquake of 2015. Just past the nearby square, where throngs slept for months in fear of collapsing homes, sits an ancient Hindu temple adorned in bright red, yellow, and blue prayer flags. The shrine is one of hundreds in the city, markers of a religion that has shaped Nepal’s culture for centuries.
Inside the house, Awale stops at a portrait of his late grandmother. The rims of his eyes turn red and tears begin to well. Leaving her was the hardest part of his decision to move with his wife and two daughters to the United States. And he was in America when his grandmother died. There’s a gnawing sense of regret over that as he mentions her passing, because if it weren’t for her, his family wouldn’t know Jesus. A dedicated believer, she laid a spiritual foundation in a land where Christianity has largely been absent. But Awale had to leave—he knew God was calling.
In the same vein of obedience, Awale recently found himself back in Nepal for the summer on mission, delivering the In Touch Messenger to his people. Friends tell him the device has become an invaluable tool for spreading the gospel throughout Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha. In rural areas, where information is transmitted via oral culture, the audio Bible is helping Nepali Christians share the gospel with those who have never heard it.
Awale has brought along his wife Jamuna and daughters Meriya and Marina, for whom this is the first return visit since moving to the U.S. five years ago. Their two-month trip is already packed with plans, including visits to the group homes Awale supports through Allow the Children, the organization he works for in Lynchburg, Virginia. Before leaving Nepal, he’d spent weeks in prayer over whether to move, but a health scare with Jamuna cemented his decision: A botched surgery had caused serious problems with her bile duct, and she needed specialized care. Jamuna finally received the necessary treatment at the University of Virginia, and though healthy now, she needs regular checkups there.
In choosing to work at Allow the Children, Awale left his job at Koinonia Patan Church, where for years he served as the right-hand man to senior pastor Dr. Mangal Man Maharjan. On their first Saturday back, the family joined more than 600 people who packed the three-story church for worship. Awale stood at the entrance, greeting attendees as he once had while on staff.
There are many new faces at the church as Christianity spreads in Kathmandu. According to a 2013 study from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Nepal is home to the fastest growing body of believers on earth. Once the only Hindu kingdom in existence, Nepal is seeing a rapid growth of Christianity where it was previously stifled. The country was completely cut off from the rest of the world until the 1950s, when it opened its borders to tourism, primarily because of mountain climbing. Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, draws thousands of people each year.
The end of the Nepali monarchy in 2008 made way for a secular government, which in turn has made some room for Christianity. According to Dr. Maharjan, proselytizing is illegal, but the law is difficult to enforce. For Christians, possible imprisonment is a reality, but it’s also a price they deem worth paying to follow Jesus. And yet Awale and other Nepali Christians believe in obeying governmental authority when it doesn’t compete with directives found in the Bible.
The aftereffects of the 2015 earthquake continue to plague Nepal. The disaster occurred on a Saturday, the day Nepali Christians attend church, and Dr. Maharjan was leading a service when it struck, throwing him from the pulpit. The church building suffered minor damage, but other structures didn’t fare so well. Several UNESCO heritage sites were destroyed. Sindhupalchok, a region already facing the effects of poverty, was hit hardest. Overall, nearly 9,000 people died in the destruction.
Due to a lack of funds, the government’s response has been limited. That void presented churches like Koinonia Patan the opportunity to serve fellow Nepali as many rebuild their homes and lives. The Messengers Govinda brings often end up in the hands of these people, bringing hope in a dark time. In Sindhupalchok, house churches are popping up everywhere.
Throughout the summer, people—including his lifelong mentor, Dr. Maharjan—have asked Awale when he’s coming back for good. Though it pains him to disappoint anyone, he usually laughs it off and changes the subject. He knows the question is a sign of how much he and his family are loved, but it also reminds him of the conviction that he’s done the right thing. From his organization’s home office in Lynchburg, Awale is able to do more good for the Nepali orphans and children experiencing poverty.
When in Virginia, Awale feels the peace of knowing his family is where they need to be, but they miss their friends and extended family in Nepal. So when they’re back in Kathmandu, they waste no time in having everyone over for dinner. In the kitchen, Jamuna helps prepare a traditional Nepali meal—water buffalo, spicy potatoes, and crispy chickpeas. Family members continue to file through the house and hugs abound. Since Marina was only 6 when they left, much of this is new for her.
Up on the rooftop, Awale gathers with childhood friends to enjoy the nice weather and a sprawling view of Kathmandu. With Marina sitting in his lap, he jokes with them, telling stories from growing up around the corner. Awale later says that some of them are dealing with serious difficulties in life, so he’s making an effort to spend as much extra time with them as possible. Every moment for him and Jamuna is filled with people, which is tiring, but Awale feels compelled to give all he has.
There’s no telling what Awale’s going to miss when he returns to the U.S.—he acknowledges much work remains to be done in Nepal but is confident the local believers will fill in where he cannot. Yet he feels the weight of his sacrifice—something his grandmother understood well, even if she missed his presence in her final moments. He knows she would have done the same, had God instructed.
As the sun lowers behind the foothills of the Himalayas, Awale takes a break from the conversation to watch the sky burn into its darkening. The others soon join him, and he soaks it in, knowing the moment won’t last.
Photography by Ben Rollins