Names and other personal details in this story have been changed for security reasons.
This is where the Bonba people live; many have come for work or school. The Bonba live as minorities, enclave-like, simultaneously blending in and remaining distinct from the majority people in varying degrees.
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 the Asian country of Chago 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.
In order to build relationships with the Bonba people, Esther and James have had to double everything: learning the language and culture of both the people of Chago and the Bonba, as well as traveling to and from Chago to the Bonba homelands (foreigners cannot live in Bonba Land).
And after all this time and effort, Esther and James have desired results – but God hasn’t delivered this the way they imagined.
When Esther and James talk about results they aren’t talking about conversions – though those certainly remain few and far between among the Bonba. They’re talking about healing for their friends, a Bonba family whose niece has been struggling with depression. It is an ongoing battle not only with mental health issues, but also between two different religious understandings.
Esther and James’ friends have actually converted from Buddhism to Christianity, but it was clear the conversion wasn’t deeply rooted. Esther and James had hoped their friends would seek the help of a mental health professional and also be praying to God for help, but their friends sought the counsel of the lama, the honored religious leaders of Buddhism.
“Their life and community is centered 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 that their friends have a long history with the lama, they wished that God was what their friends’ lives and community is centered on. It didn’t even really occur to their friends to think of God as someone they could depend on, to turn to for help.
“I asked our friends, ‘Would you really believe in Jesus if God heals her?’ At that point, they couldn’t agree to that,” Esther says. “Our friend, her faith is really struggling.
“I’ve been wrestling with this, wondering why didn’t God heal her?” Esther says. “If he healed her, they would believe.”
If only it were that simple though, and Esther and James acknowledge that it isn’t, especially when the stakes for conversion are terrifyingly high.
“Their life and Buddhism is inseparable,” Esther says. “You are not Bonba anymore if you are not Buddhist.”
Even when a Bonba person accepts Jesus Christ, as with Esther and James’ 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 as well. To turn from Buddhism to Christianity raises much fear of potential backlash.
“They worry, ‘What if other people despise us? Or reject us in our community?’” James says. “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.”
Or, they will believe in God, but within a Buddhist worldview.
“They have many gods in their religion, so it’s easy for them to just add God too,” Esther says. “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 coattails of political upheaval. The Bonba homeland, a vast expanse jostling between several Asian countries, is currently governed by Chago. Following a failed resistance, the country of Chago has claimed Bonba Land as part of their nation; others would say that Bonba Land is in a state of illegal occupation. The political and religious leader of Bonba Land has had to flee and is still living in exile.
“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 of Chago,” Esther says.
It is no wonder, then, that introducing Christianity to a people group who has already experienced such an imposition in the seizure of their homelands, is a delicate matter. It takes time – in Esther and James’ case, twelve years and counting.
t also takes something more: true discipleship that is 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’ teammate, 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,” Amanda says. “I couldn’t fully understand it, but something in my spirit recognized this is it.”
She loves doing outreach that is founded on friendship, saying that friendship should operate that way anyway.
“Here, when you realize just how much spiritual darkness there is and all the gods the Bonba fear and the demon possessions and all the rituals,” she says, “I don’t think you’re being a good friend if you don’t venture to share the Gospel when you get the opportunity, because 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,” she says.
James grew up in Buddhist family, and he remembers the spiritual darkness his family felt when they were Buddhists.
“My mother was always afraid, and of all sorts of things – evil spirits and dreams,” he says. “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,” James says. “She had freedom.”
That is what they want for their friends: freedom. Freedom from fear of the many gods they worship and true relationship with Jesus Christ, and they are all prepared to invest the 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.