Pastor Robert Karthak-The living pioneers of Christian Mission to Nepal

[ 0 ] January 11, 2019 |

Introduction

B. P. Khanal

This paper is a brief life-story on Reverend Pastor Robert Karthak who is one of the living pioneers of the Christian faith to this beautiful Himalayan Nation. Purpose of this paper is to highlight on the turning points and life-transforming experiences of his life. It is to recall the most difficult times and hardships of his contemporary men and women of God and highlight on the experiences of those early pioneers of faith. And to bring a high gratitude and adoration to God for what and how He used those faithful ones to bring the message of eternal life in Christ into this Nation. Perhaps, the time has come, and the church of Nepal should sit and look back reflecting the extraordinary works of those very simple, not-so-educated, ordinary men and women, like Pastor Robert Karthak, and join hearts in praising God for their lives and works of mission! Indeed, it was definitely an adventure, life-taking risk and most challenging endeavor for one to take such bold decision and enter the country in those days. The following paragraphs will depict about the reality of this country in those days when Robert committed his life for God’s Kingdom in predominantly Hindu monarchical autocratic country Nepal:[1]

Until 1990, the country observed a closed policy in terms of religion and cultural exchanges, excluding other faiths and officially marginalizing all practices except Hinduism and Buddhism of Hindu colored. It was unthinkable to evangelize in the country by whatever means. Preaching the Gospel in public or even in private was not allowed. The Christianity was totally banned. Missionary attempts like sharing Gospel and distribution of literatures were prohibited and that attempt would threaten the lives. Nobody was allowed to accept new faiths different than the land’s religion – the Hinduism.

The earliest account of Christian missionary works in Nepal is credited to the capuchin fathers from Europe. They served in India and Tibet, and used trek-way through Nepal. When a Newari kings in Bhadgaun (Present days Bhaktapur) granted permission to stay and propagate the Gospel with necessary provisions, the missionaries under capuchin order of Roman Catholic Church were able to win a handful numbers of native Newars in the valley during their stay and services for more than 55 years.[2] But the mission did not continue for long. Shortly after King Prithvi Narayan Shah occupied Kathmandu valley in 1768, his royal officers expelled 57 native Newari Christians of 14 families from Bhadgaun (present day Bhaktapur) because they suspected that the Christians having relationship with white-skinned Capuchin missionaries might spy for the British in India.[3] That incident promoted the close-policy for the western missionaries and all Christian attempts for more than 200 years of history in Nepal.

The Christianity was not welcome in Nepal but the missionary zeal and compassion pioneered to plant churches among migrated Nepalese in North-East Indian states like Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Darjeeling, Nagaland, Sikkim and also in Bhutan and Burma and so on. There was a huge attraction to many Nepalese to migrate in different parts of India because they would get opportunity to work, earn and have better financial supports to their families. Some would send their earnings back home and others rather chose to migrate with whole family. So there were permanent Nepali residences in the North-East and other bordering states of India as early as 18th century. Thus the missionary efforts were also made like medical centers and hospitals to penetrate the Nepali speaking areas and people groups. The missionaries and local Indian churches started mission efforts to share the gospel among Nepalese. The small number of Nepalese Christians in different parts of those places were highly assisted by foreign missionaries and Indian churches. Thus, even though the country was politically closed for the gospel, God’s work among Nepalese could not be resisted. More than hundreds of Nepalese churches were initiated and established in the Northern States of India, in Burma and Bhutan and around the bordering Indian cities.[4]

The king’s supported peoples’ political agitation against the Rana oligarchy system succeeded in 1951. Consequently, the movement resulted in multi-party democracy. But before it took foothold, another king Mahendra Shah imposed an autocratic political system called Panchayat in 1961. And till 1991, the country remains closed not to the Christian activities alone, but also any kinds of activities that would not favor the Panchayati government. Although the Christian existence which first got entry in the earlier democracy period, witnessed the new life in Christ in many towns and villages throughout the country. Ramghat Church, as the first evangelical church in Nepal was planted in Pokhara in 1953, and other two churches started in Kathmandu valley within the following year.[5] The church in Nepal experienced severe persecution in this period of Panchayat, yet in those thirty years of active monarchist so-called single-party democracy, the church grown in rapid rate in underground totaling over 120 churches throughout the country.[6]

This life-story is basically prepared by personal conversation and interview with Pastor Robert Karthak. The author had spent ample times with him and tried to dig out the information of his life. The following paragraphs is written as per person interview that was taken on his spoke to the author:

 

Early Life Story and Conversion Experience

Robert Karthak was born in 1926 and brought up in a Christian family in North-Eastern Hilly Region of Indian called Darjeeling. He was taught to pray to Christ, reading Bible and attend Sunday school classes at the church. He grew up in Christian environment. His parents, and even the grandparents were Christians. His father served to the Presbyterian Church at Kalimpong as one of the presbyters. The devotional family environment helped him to grow up as Christian boy. But the church, where his parents were nurturing his faith was not very strong in practicing what the Bible teaches. He began to notice that the church gradually reclining towards social activities than keeping the spiritual discipline and biblical mandates. The leadership would emphasize in social engagement of the Christian activities. They would require everyone should be serving the needy people around, but sharing about Christ verbally, leading the seekers to Christ through sinner’s prayer and assimilating new comers to local church were not the church’s priorities. The Scottish missionaries heavily influenced the church leadership. Some of those missionaries came to the church were not serious about ‘Christian’ witness, their conducts would not even match the Christian way of living and spiritual discipline.

That was the reason Karthak would not feel seriousness in his heart in the matter of spiritual life, though he had good knowledge of church-life, rituals and celebrations. Taking part in the weekly worship in regular basis, greeting people with “Jai Masihi Ki” (meaning, long live in Messiah), talking with them as Christian manner, putting tithe and offerings into the basket, being part of the choir group and worship, etc. were taken as normal as Christian should live, but no sense of eternity he would have. All of these were done with no sincerity. In real sense his heart was not fully committed to those religious activities. He became a swallow Sunday Christian! He was not even sure of salvation and eternal life in Christ. Being born-again was not part of teaching in the church.

During those days, a missionary named Jordan Sannad Khan, perhaps from Punjab arrived in Kalimpong area. He preached the Bible! He preach the Christ, and the Cross as the only truth for all to be saved! He preached about being born-again would be indispensable for every follower of Christ to attain the real assurance of salvation! For Robert, the missionary’s new teaching was something to grab. He and some of his companions took the new teaching as serious and openly started serious Bible studies, discussions and gradually there came a spirit of renaissance. Some young people formed a group and tried to awaken the church. They attempted to revive the church’s spiritual slackness. But the mainline missionaries and presbyters of the church opposed them. Serious fraction and conflict arose, which caused the church split. The new group started a separate church, Jehovah Nissi and later they changed their name as El-Saddhai. But he decided not join the new church, rather kept trying to revive the church-attenders’ spiritual life. In compare to the old church, the new church of strange sect of Christianity was a vibrant church. The new was very active, alive and aggressive in prayer, evangelism and discipling the new believers. They would constantly focus on prayer, worship and evangelism. Robert thought that they were more serious, diligent and obedient in reaching the lost. They would even openly criticize that Robert and his church was a nominal one. The term would provoke him into anger.

Till the age of 21, Robert had never experienced of being truly saved in Christ. He was not assured of having eternal life. In 1946, he first accepted Christ truly as his only Lord and Savior, though he was born into a Christian home, without his notice his parents had given him to infant baptism. He faithfully served the Lord for about 10 years, though still the leadership was not supportive. He and some of the young people had built a strong ministry team, and they were actively demonstrating their faith despite of leaders’ disapproval.

 

Responding the Call of God to Mission in Nepal

During those days, another missionary Mrs. Elizabeth Franklin from Jogmani Nepal border mission station visited their church in Kalimpong. She purposefully had come to learn Nepali language, so she could reach Nepalese. She intentionally led Robert and his friends to foundational Bible studies. She did not only learn the language, but oriented, trained and prepared the young people to take challenge of entering the Nepal Kingdom with Gospel of Christ. She urged them to be the light in the darkest kingdom. He responded to her constant invitation, and started praying so the Lord would conform him whether that was His call. Mrs. Franklin informed that she had had applied to the Royals government in Nepal. So she was asking God for faithful committed people to support her in this new opportunity. And was urging them that once the education ministry of Nepal shows a green signal, they should be ready to join her and they together would open a girl’s school in Kathmandu.

Once during a school vacation in 1950, Robert with his brother-in-law, Rajendra Rongong did a exploring visit to Nepal from Raxaul border.  They went up to Bhimphei a the bottom-hill gateway to then to the Kathmandu Valley. The Tribhuwan Highway or By-Road, a link road from Birgunj to Kathmandu, was under construction then. They enjoyed the landscape, people, language and the food; everything was the same as of them. There was no such cultural difference between Nepal and Kalimpong, they met few people and shared about good news. God undoubtedly spoke to Robert from His word, “I have other sheep that are not of this pen. I most bring them also…” (John 10:16). He sensed that, this was the divine call to him for his life-time assignment in God’s Kingdom.

Robert convinced himself that that was the divine arrangement. He received another arrangement to visit into Nepal, the Kathmandu valley and its vicinity in 1954. Mrs. Franklin asked him to join the trip so they could negotiate with the authorities to open her dream project, a girls’ school within the valley.

Elizabeth Franklin challenged Robert and Rajendra to join her in the Nepal mission. Robert himself was a schoolteacher then. His sister and brother-in-law, Mr. & Mrs. Rajendra Rongong were also in the same profession. And that was the real reason for Elizabeth to share that God-given vision to them so she would have right people with her. Her prayer was answered; they stood as one and responded the call. They prepared themselves to leave home and take challenges to go Nepal as missionaries of the Lord Jesus Christ. And took a bold decision to start a long journey, from Kalimpong to Kathmandu, which would take more than three weeks of difficult transportation commuting rough-crowded Northern Indian Rail service, and trekking with porters’ help. A group of 11 people started the journey for mission on 19th February and reached Kathmandu on 3rd March in 1956.

It was not socially accepted for bachelor young man, being eldest among seven children in the family and leaving old-aged parents, to go away from home. Even his father was not so well physically. His primary duty should be taking care of the households, get marry and settle the family permanently. But, the vision shared by Elizabeth now translated to be his personal vision. He somehow managed not listen any worldly voice but the heart-cry of within and being conformed of that the burden would be too heavy to carry by himself as disobedient so-called believer. He would not want to remain back home and pray from afar, the growing knowledge of how serious it was to become the ‘salt & light’ to the earth, thus he decided to leave everything behind – entrusting in God’s hand and accept the challenge.

Robert considered that the infant baptism was not a believer’s baptism, something that always bothering him of being incomplete Christian. Thus he decided to take another baptism by immersion as the believer’s baptism. Thus, in about two months later of their arrival to Kathmandu, he visited Pokhara, he asked pastor David Mukhiya, the first pastor in the country[7], for the baptism of immersion. Pastor David baptized his and awarded a baptism certificate. But so happened that United Mission To Nepal, the Christian mission organization formed by many European and American missionary society, invited Robert’s pastor to a program. The pastor visited his room and found the baptism certificate. He got offended with that and later that caused Robert’s excommunication from his home church in Kalinpong. Later, he felt so hurt when one missionary told him that the home church did not only punished him but also decided that nobody they would send as missionary because of his rebellious (?) deed.

 

Church in Kathmandu Valley

They started a poorly managed house in Bhaktapur, an oldest city-state in the Kathmandu Valley.  And started reaching the natives Newari and surrounding villages. A group of missionaries from South India, Marthoma Church had already started mission works in the valley.  They had chosen Putalisad for regular meeting place, which they later declared as church. Those handful believers in Bhaktapur too needed a place, where they could come together and have worship services in regular basis. Robert and his companions together with Late Tir Bahadur Dewan, who had been serving the needy ones through a dispensary in Bolanchhe, Bhaktapur[8] would travel back and forth from Bhaktapur to Putalisadak and celebrate the fellowship together with handful other followers of Christ there. But, in about a year, some of the Kalimpong group moved to Kathmandu when starting the said girls school there. Robert and Rajendra and some others rented a house in Dilli Bazar area.[9] In the mean time, there arose kind of differences between the church leadership at Putalisadak and the rest Nepalese from Kalimpong. Some doctrinal issue also brought in. So the leadership gave them a clear cheat saying, “You guys are not the original member of this church so we would not give you a membership here, yet you can come and worship with us!” In a way, they indirectly told them to find another place. Thus, Tir Bahadur found to be willing to separate from Putalisadak and start a small church in Bhaktapur, and later in the same year, on a Sunday in august 1957, Robert’s group also started the first church service there, 16 people attended in the first service, which at first was known as Dilli Bazar Sangati and later it widely known as Gyaneshwor Church, and now Nepali Isai Mandali. Robert Karthak from the very first day was accepted as the pastor to this church. In this way, the valley received three small churches within the period of three years.

 

Ordained Pastor to Gyaneshwor Church in Kathmandu

Robert Karthak had his one priority to serve God by being available to anyone who he could approach and speak the blessing on him or her. He would not rest from sharing the good news. The ministry works became his school for training himself as pastor. Though he wished for a theological training, he even applied for the provisions, but he never got a longtime leave from ministries. His heart would rejoice more in being among people, particularly satisfaction would come when he got chance to spend times with a non-believer and be able to lead him or her to Christ.

With little knowledge of what he had learned in Kalimpong church, he would serve the needy ones. Indeed, they did not have ideas about leadership. Having sense of lacking formal training, he attended some short-term Bible schools in Kolkata, Allahabad and England. After his return from London, one year of Bible School in 1960, he went to Gangtok, Sikkim and married with Merry Lepcha on 20th December in the same year.

But serving God was not always the matter of how much one knows, it was the matter of how the Holy Spirit guides one to services. That was the fact; he never went lack of wisdom. The word of God became to real, the ultimate source of knowledge and direction to the new church. His humility, passion and devotion to the Lord and the people around, led him to continue the role of pastor to Gyaneshwor Church.

From the beginning the church in Nepal was shaped into an indigenous Nepali church. Robert never inserted the practices from old church, where he learnt a lot about how of the church rituals. Memorizing the Lord’s prayer and chanting it in every occasion, singing particular songs, wearing particular dress and elevating the pastor from others and so on were not taken as church practices. They remained in the Word of God. They did what the Word teaches and how the Holy Spirit guides. His wife, who later was widely known as Merry Guru-Aama, was an asset to his church ministries. Many would agree that Robert just preached the word but Merry led the church. Her strong disciplined life, devotion and servitude, caring for others and confronting any lacks and weakness were the greatest qualities the other leaders learned, which basically helped the church growth to become the biggest church in the country.

Leadership development and care for the all attenders was what Robert and Merry did intentionally. They grew in numbers, the size expanded in rapid pace, daughter churches spread all over the country. Many leaders raised and took the challenges to serve the Lord. She was convinced that her husband was created to be pastor, so she always supported him. She did not only take care of households, raise the children but she would always be available robbing solders with Robert in bringing up the new generation of leaders. Everything was going so amazing despite of oppositions, difficulties and persecutions. But again, he was left alone in the ministry, because the Lord called back in 1997.

Pastor Robert is running in his 88 and yet still demonstrates the same zeal for God. Though physically feels weak, but his passion has not been withered. Now a days, his elder son Samuel, he calls him Samu, is accepted as his successor. Seeing Samu’s great zeal for the church ministries as pastor, he feels so humbled and perplexed in the spirit. It is indeed the honor for any father to seeing his own son carrying the father’s footsteps.

From what started as a humble fellowship of handful men and women of believing community of Christ.  Christmas and ester would be the best opportunities they would seize to bring church in the public places. Near Gaushala, the Hindus’ holiest Pashupatinath Temple there is a monkey jungle and a wide green ground, where they would hold Christmas meetings every year. Though preaching gospel was not allowed, they were prohibited in distributing gospel tracts and sort of Christian literatures. But they kept organizing the celebration inviting surrounding neighbors. All would be welcomed and treated respectfully, and Robert would deliver the message without any offense to other religious group but simply making Christ the only redeemer and the ultimate savior to all. Every Christmas, there would come nearly hundred people to faith.  Norma Kehrberg recalls the early experiences of the church growth in her book The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri. In one of the paragraphs of her book she write:

Even during the time of overt persecution, the Christian community gathered for worship and on the special occasions met openly in a prominent place. In Kathmandu on Christmas Day, the love feast was held in the monkey forest across from Pashupatinath Temple, the holiest temple in Nepal… … The church membership increased slowly. But in 1970, there was a spurt of growth and members increased in the weekly services. People from all parts of Kathmandu came to the service at Gyaneshwor, the home of the church started in 1957, so many that the small building was already overflowing.[10]

Until its 50th anniversary celebration Robert’s church already had grown too big to hold the church together in one place. The council body of the church named as Agape Church Fellowship, under which there are 120 plus churches throughout the country.

 

Smuggling the Bible

Legally Nepal was banned for any religion except from Hindu and Buddhist.  The law prohibited any act of proselytization and conversion from Hinduism. Thus any ‘Christian’ activity was questioned, but the Christians did not oppose or raised voice against it, yet they never cease to pray together as a church, silently but taking risk of being within the jail, they never thought of leaving the work undone. They continually visited the new villages, if the situation was favorable; they even held crusades in public places. Thus Nepali church stood bold of her faith. The leaders, particularly Robert served willingly as leader, not only to Gyaneshwor church but he is considered to become a spiritual model and guidance to other. He remembers how wonderfully they would escape from the eyes of police while carrying the Bible and other literatures.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Yet he thinks of the church today and senses heaviness in his heart because the church is still not getting the stature of her maturity and readiness to meet Christ. He always thinks about the spiritual condition of many church-attenders, who faithfully and actively vision weekly worship services, and yet they might not sure of why they are doing so. For many of them, Christ is a healer, a God who listen prayer in need. They know, going church is something they have built their habit, and thus they do not want to miss any weekly worship and special events of the church, but perhaps they are not very much assured of being saved in Christ Jesus. And more on this, he urges that the leaders must be responsible for this spiritual slackness of the church today. He argues that a new believer is left nowhere, one he or she trusts in Christ, the leaders does include them into the membership list and after that there is no much intention to disciple and mentor the person. Believers’ personal spiritual development is what forgotten by many leaders. His concern is how the spiritual revival could be brought back again.

Bibliography

Cindy Perry, A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Church History Project, 1990 (3rd Edition 2000).

Das, Kiran. The Growth of Christianity in Nepal. An article by, Bible Living Ministries Inc.; accessed from http://www.biblelivingministries.org/nepal_missions on 5th May 2013.

Kehrberg, Norma. The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri. Kathamndu: Ekta Books, 2000 (reprint 2005).

Khanal, BP.  Amruwali Kanchho: A biography on Pastor Tir Bahadur Dewan. Kathmandu: Samdan Publication with ISPCK, 1998.

          . Prithak Bichar (Uncommon Thoughts on Contemporary Christian Leadership). Kathmandu: Bachan Books, 2012.

Knoble, Stephen J. eds. Nepalko Sandarbhama Mission (Nepali). Kathmandu: National Mission Commission of Nepal, 2011.

Lindell, Jonathan. Nepal and the Gospel of God. Kathmandu: The United Mission to Nepal & Pilgrims Book House, 1997.

Rongong, Rajendra K. Early Churches in Nepal: An Indigenous Christian Movement Till 1990. Kathmandu: Ekta Books, 2012.

[1]Some of these introductory lines are taken as were from an assigned paper submitted to the course History of Christianity (CATS934) Professor Dr. Daniel Jayraj at SHUATS, Allahabad, UP, India by BP Khanal, dated on 15th May 2013.

[2]Jonathan Lindell, Nepal and the Gospel of God. Kathmandu: The United Mission to Nepal & Pilgrims Book House, 1997; p30-31

[3]Cindy Perry, A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Church History Project, 1990 (3rd Edition 2000); p8.

[4]Kiran Das, The Growth of Christianity in Nepal. An article by, Bible Living Ministries Inc.; accessed from http://www.biblelivingministries.org/nepal_missions on 5th May 2013.

[5]BP Khanal, Amruwali Kanchho: A Biography of Pastor Tir Bahadur Dewan. Kathmandu: Samdan Publications, 1998, p34

[6]BP Khanal, Prithak Bichar (Uncommon Thoughts on Contemporary Christian Leadership). Kathmandu: Bachan Books, 2012, p192-201

[7]BP Khanal, Amruwali Kanchho: A biography on Pastor Tir Bahadur Dewan. Kathmandu: Samdan Publication with ISPCK, 1998. p37.

[8]BP Khanal, Amruwali Kanchho: A biography on Pastor Tir Bahadur Dewan. Kathmandu: Samdan Publication with ISPCK, 1998; p38.

[9]Rajendra K. Rongong, Early Churches in Nepal: An Indigenous Christian Movement Till 1990. Kathmandu: Ekta Books, 2012; p68.

[10]Norma Kehrberg, The Cross in the Land of the Khukuri. Kathamndu: Ekta Books, 2000 (reprint 2005), p107 8.

 

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