This essay was written for the Southern Baptist 2019 Pastors Convention in conjunction with Shades Mountain Baptist Church, about Silvanus Bhandari, a pastor in Queens, NY originally from Nepal.
Silvanus Bhandari climbed through the rugged mountains of eastern Nepal, making his way to his home village for Dashain, the largest Hindu festival and national festival in Nepal. The 19-year-old was coming home not to celebrate, though, but to do the unthinkable: to tell his family he’d become a Christian. As he stepped into his village, he braced himself for the coming storm, reminding himself, “No matter what my family does to me, they can never take away my heavenly reward.”
Silvanus grew up in a remote Nepali village, raised by his grandmother after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother taught him the Hindu rituals, and as Silvanus learned to read at school, they bonded over his ability to read her the sacred Hindu texts.
His belief in Hinduism was shaken at age nine, though, when his great-grandmother died. His family gathered to mourn. “Where’s Great-Grandma?” he asked, wondering what came after death. If she had good karma, they said, she’d reincarnate into one of the 8.4 million lives she needed to pass through. But if she had bad karma, she’d become a demon spirit. “Don’t worry, Great-Grandma’s a bird, now,” his family assured him, an answer that didn’t satisfy his questions.
At 13, Silvanus moved in with his aunt and uncle in a nearby city to continue his schooling. However, his uncle enslaved him in his restaurant, forcing Silvanus into hard labor. Every morning, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. and work until 11 p.m., when he’d try to study before falling asleep. He tried to study before falling asleep, using a textbook he’d bought with some leftover rupees.
The worst part wasn’t the work; it was his uncle. His uncle repeatedly tortured, physically beat, and verbally abused his nephew, even in front of customers. The abuse continued for years, until it finally pushed Silvanus to a breaking point. One night, tired and broken down, he wrote a vengeful letter to his uncle and in the morning set out for the jungle, prepared to kill himself.
As he walked through the jungle, his still unanswered questions around death kept coming back. What really happened when you died? Will I become a bird? He spent the day in the jungle, unable to end his life, and quietly returned to his uncle’s that night.
His difficulties continued until one day a local teacher saw Silvanus at the restaurant. After hearing about his self-education, the teacher secured him a spot in the local school and dormitory. Silvanus was ecstatic. He was finally free from his uncle and pursuing education.
Life in the dormitory changed Silvanus forever. One day after lunch, while wiping down the tables, he came across a tract titled, “Aanadit Jeevanko Baato,” or “The Way for Joyful Life.” He recognized the Christian cross and picked it up. If you wrote to the organization in Kathmandu, the tract promised, you’d receive a correspondence course about Jesus, and upon completion get your own Bible. Intrigued, Silvanus wrote.
When he received the course, the material captivated him. He learned about the Gospel, our sin, and need for Jesus’ death and resurrection. Silvanus was shocked; if this was true, it meant he didn’t have to become a bird. Several months later, two men visited, delivered him a certificate of his correspondence, and invited Silvanus to church for the first time. On April 25th, 1992, Silvanus gave his life to Christ. His life, however, didn’t get any easier. In fact, it was then the real trouble began.
When his uncle found out about Silvanus’ new faith, he confronted his nephew. “If Christianity is true,” his uncle shouted, “then prove that Jesus was God!” “I can’t do that,” Silvanus responded, “you have to believe.” His uncle scoffed at him, spat in his face, and destroyed Silvanus’ prized Bible.
Prompted by Jesus’ command to love his enemies, Silvanus knew he needed to tell his family about his faith. As he approached his family’s home, his father, mother, and two siblings waited outside, tipped off by his uncle about their son’s conversion to Christianity. The night was chaotic, with his father growing more and more angry at his now-Christian son. “You are lower than a jogi,” he yelled, the name for homeless beggars who occupied the lowest caste in Nepal.
Through it all, his family had one message for him: “You are now dead to us, and we are dead to you.” The next morning word shot through the village, “Silvanus is a Christian!” Not only that, but the lie was spread that he’d been eating beef, an unforgivable offense in Hindu culture. Silvanus was shunned, which in rural Nepal meant no one could receive anything he’d touched or allow him into their home. Silvanus’ parents allowed him to stay with them, but he left a few days later, hated by every family member.
As Silvanus climbed away from the village, he looked down the mountain and prayed for the family and friends who hated him. “Lord, would you open my family’s eyes to the truth; may they come to know Jesus.” Silvanus was alone at that moment, except for God and his promises: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great.”
Silvanus soon became an evangelist, visiting villages and sharing the Gospel with Hindu youth, hoping to help others receive the new life he had found. As the years went by, he occasionally saw his parents, even though they maintained a fierce hatred of Christianity.
When civil war ripped through Nepal in the late 1990s, Silvanus’ father joined the communist rebels, assuming a leadership role in their militia. As the war dragged on, the government sought to arrest and execute his father for his role in bombing a government building. When his father fled, the government warned anyone who assisted him, they’d also be executed. Afraid of this threat, the family refused to let him stay with them, and Silvanus’ father had nowhere to go.
Silvanus’ father reached out to his Christian son, who welcomed his rebel father despite the grave danger he brought into his home. Silvanus’ father lived with him for three months, seeing his son pray, read the Bible, and worship God. His views on Christianity remained unchanged, though; Jesus was just another failed political rebel, and Christianity was merely an American power-play used to manipulate people in developing countries. “If the communist rebels ever gain control of Nepal,” he subtly threatened his son as they parted ways, “Christians might meet an untimely end.”
Six years later, in 2007, Silvanus’ uncle and father attended his wedding to an Indian missionary serving in Biratnagar. It was the first time they’d experienced the kingdom life of a Christian community. A road had been washed out, and both men and women, young and old, worked together to rebuild it. Silvanus’ father was amazed. “This is the kind of society I’ve been looking for,” he remarked. “But it’s not from the government, but the people?” “We’re doing this,” they told him, “because we’re Christians.”
In 2009, Silvanus’ father visited him again and saw the church his son planted. “Where are you getting the money for this church?” he asked Silvanus, sure that it was from America. “We’re raising it ourselves,” Silvanus answered, “through the offering each week.” Again, his father was stunned.
By 2013, Silvanus’ grandmother, who had raised him, lay on her deathbed, writhing in pain during what doctors said were her final hours. With the family gathered, Silvanus invited his church to come to his uncle’s house and pray for healing. After a day of fervent prayer, her pain disappeared and she rebounded. “It’s a miracle!” Silvanus’ family exclaimed, astonished at her reversal. When his father saw the change, he came to Silvanus alone and asked a shocking question, “Could you get me a Bible?”
Silvanus left Nepal to move to New York, to plant a church among the Nepali in Queens. Before he left, he had one final talk with his dad. “Every knee is going to bow to Jesus,” Silvanus told his dad, “The only choice you get is whether you do it voluntarily in this life, or are forced to on Judgment Day.” Nothing changed in his father’s life, though, on that day on in the years following.
But, on April 25, 2015, exactly 23 years after Silvanus came to Christ, the unexpected happened. An 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal, flattening villages and killing almost 10,000 people. While Silvanus’ family all survived, he flew home to help them rebuild. A second quake hit the day Silvanus arrived, and the next morning his father came to him privately, “Silvanus, I would like to follow Jesus Christ.”
Silvanus couldn’t believe his ears. “Are you sure?” he asked, wary his father’s decision might not be genuine. “Yes, I’m sure.” Silvanus was amazed. “Then you need to tell mom in front of the family.” When Silvanus’ father told his family the news, they were shocked, but as they talked about the Gospel and Christianity together, they decided to give their lives to Christ as well.
There was great joy that day as Silvanus, the persecuted son, led his father and family in receiving Jesus. God’s kingdom broke through a lifetime of hurt, rejection, and brokenness, working new life in previously hardened hearts. “You said we were no longer family,” Silvanus told his family, beaming, “but now we are an eternal family!”