A small group of Asian pastors journey into the mountains of some of the most unreached peoples in the world
There are an estimated 2,000 churches in our city with an estimated average of 40 people/church. That’s 80,000 Christians, with 99% of them coming from the country’s ethnic majority. This ethnic group is considered a reached people group. That is to say that there are, essentially, enough believers to evangelize their own people through indigenous growth.
While that 80,000 is only 0.57% of the population of the city, it’s still a lot of believers. It’s hard to fathom in a place that often feels so dark and lost that there could be so many clinging to the hope of Jesus. An hour west of our city you cross a river and immediately enter into another world. This is the “T world” (I will use ‘T’ to refer to the nomadic groups that make up the largest unreached ethnic group in our province). Despite a relatively large population of believers in our city, you can count the total number of workers (or m*ssionaries) sent to T areas on two hands.
From an estimated 80,000 believers, there are less than 10 workers engaging people with the Good News of Christ among an ethnic group of nearly seven million people within their own province.
These pastors are traveling in their own province, yet they will be crossing into another world…
Once you cross the river, the terrain drastically changes from flat plains to sub-Himalayan snow-capped peaks. Many mountains climb above 20,000 feet and are visible very quickly. The oxygen becomes thin and altitude sickness can quickly set in. The people look different. Their skin is darker and many men have long hair. They are not too different from Native Americans.
The food is different. You move from spicy noodles and rice-based dishes to yak-based dairy (yak cheese, milk, butter, etc.) and highland barley. Living arrangements change. You move from 30+ story high rises in cramped cities to nomadic tents and log cabin style houses. And the language is different. Rather, I should say languages. There are at least 27 mutually unintelligible T languages in our province that have been discovered so far. The national language is the second or third language for these people.
The T people and this majority ethnic group share a very complicated history. The T people remember their kingdom being overthrown by this group because their grandparents are still alive to tell them about it. For them, it’s as though they live in Nazi-occupied Germany. But this majority has been taught a different story growing up. They are told of the “peaceful liberation of the T people,” where they freed the T people from their backward ways and brought them into modernity. For T people, truth is not communicated in this majority language because this language is the language of the oppressors. This is our context. Barriers of culture, language, geography, and racial tension/history.
But praise God! A group of local pastors are filled with humility from Jesus and desperately desire to understand the T world. Their eyes are set upon sending cross-cultural workers long-term to this region’s UPG (unreached people group) areas. But before they do so, they themselves want to understand what challenges these future workers will be up against.
Seven million T people, no established church. A group of teachable pastors willing to go learn and pray. Two young Western guys (myself and another foreigner) and two local workers from also from the majority ethnic group (one of them being our Chinese teammate, May) willing to lead them out of their comfort zone. And it is from there that we began.
With these barriers in mind, we prayerfully set out early with nine local pastors and the four of us helping facilitate the trip. Several of the pastors are extremely politically sensitive, so we were a bit apprehensive at this point. One had spent five years in prison for his faith and another currently oversees a large network of indigenous churches.
In T areas your ID card (or for Westerners, our passport) is constantly being checked. Hotels are required to input your ID into the national system, facial recognition cameras are everywhere, and regular police checkpoints are set up. At these checkpoints, everyone gets out of the car and scans their ID card. The scanners are tied into a national security system. If the scanner blinks green, you can keep going. If it blinks red, you get turned around if you’re lucky, or you get to spend the rest of the day at the police station. We could not, under any circumstances, allow the sensitive pastors among us to register their IDs. This factor alone created much anxiety among the group.
The four of us that were facilitating the trip stopped an hour outside of our city, just before beginning the climb up to the plateau, to convene at a rest stop where we would all be able to connect with the group. It was here that I was able to meet the pastors for the first time. They were filled with so much joy and were all clearly walking closely with the Lord in an infectious way. They were a special group to be around. After making our introductions, they quickly ushered me and the other foreigner leading the trip back into our car, so as not to be seen or associated with us even before we entered T areas. I remember being thankful that they valued security, unlike many locals who are oblivious to the reality of the situation here.
A few hours later we reached our first stop, a mountain T town of 50,000+ people tucked deep in a valley at just above 8,500 ft. Most of the pastors spent the afternoon driving up to a pass at 14,500 feet to acclimate while the four of us leading the trip discussed some cultural dynamics that were already creating some tension. The indirectness and “hint language” left us guessing what was being communicated and the age hierarchy left us wondering who held the real “authority.” We quickly discovered it was the oldest pastor. Age hierarchy is so important in this culture. Age threatened to become a point of conflict as the four of us leading the trip were all significantly younger than this group of local leaders. Any hint of disrespect towards them would almost certainly destroy our relationship and hope of future work together with these influential leaders.
We set out the next morning, encouraged by a deeper understanding of the dynamic. We were soon driving through snow at 14,000+ feet, passing alpine lakes and nomads harvesting caterpillar fungus on the mountainsides. We passed the third highest airport in the world and then plunged down into a valley at 11,000 feet where we would stay the night. This was our second T town of the journey. The farther from the city we traveled, the farther outside of their comfort zone they felt. We were going deeper and deeper into what felt like another world.
Upon arriving, we split up and visited locals’ homes where we asked them questions about their lives, economy, religion, and education. The goal here was to learn about who these people are and what long-term workers could do to bless the community in the future. My group was myself, my good American friend on the trip, and two local pastors. These pastors were our partners for much of the trip. A man and a woman, the former (Leo) having served five years in prison for being accused of leading a cult and the latter (JieJie), being a woman of fervent prayer and compassion, who happened to be the eldest of the group of pastors. I learned so much from them. They had fire and humility, and their hearts were broken for the lost in a way that I will never forget.
The first house we visited was one that my friend had been to before, although this time only the elderly grandmother was home. The grandmother’s knees were swollen and infected from relentlessly prostrating in front of idols at the local temple in a desperate attempt to earn merit at the end of her life. She had a recording of a local monk playing in the room and insisted for us to drink yak butter tea with her. When entering a T person’s home, you must sit down and drink tea if you want to avoid offending the family. The room was very dirty, the tea was old, and the grandma didn’t speak a single word that these pastors could understand. Not one word. This took the pastors by surprise and they kept repeating simple sentences over and over again to her with the anticipation that eventually she would understand. This is their province, after all. Doesn’t everyone speak their language? They then resorted to looking towards my friend and asking him to translate with the little T language he was able to speak, but it was not enough to truly communicate with this grandmother. We wanted them to experience this major barrier to getting the gospel to T people: language.
Their insistence upon communicating the Gospel to the grandmother led them to desperately teaching the grandmother to repeat the phrases “Jesus loves me” and “Jesus saved me” in Mandarin while pointing towards the sky. They were ultimately successful, and proudly recorded a video of the encounter. But when pressed on whether or not the grandmother truly understood what she was doing when saying these phrases, their celebrations deflated. The pastors’ wheels began to turn- a true understanding of who Jesus is would take a lot more than they had previously realized.
The grandmother’s knees were swollen and infected from relentlessly prostrating in front of idols at the local temple in a desperate attempt to earn merit at the end of her life.
We did, however, get to share the gospel with a T person who could communicate with the pastors on a very elementary level, though the outcome was much the same. It was in the next home that we visited where we met a man who had never heard of the continent of Asia (significant as he lives on said continent) and had no idea that Israel existed. This made framing the gospel story difficult and was a struggle for these pastors to work through. Even when the language barrier was not as insurmountable as the previous experience, they still found that they were not equipped to truly communicate the Good News without knowing the people’s heart language.
By the end of this second day, most of us had some degree of altitude sickness. I had a pounding headache and had to stop for breath after half a flight of stairs. We chose a hostel that didn’t register people, and my American friend and I slept on couches in the lounge because they were booked overcapacity. After already experiencing the exhaustion that comes from such a dramatic change in environment, we knew we had a long day ahead of us.
We set off at 7 a.m. the following morning with our final destination being the distance from Chicago to Nashville, except instead of highways, the drive was all mountain roads and switchbacks at a very high altitude where cars don’t perform well.
Just before lunch, we pulled off onto the side of the road and spent some time in prayer. The power and authority with which these pastors prayed was moving. This prayer spot looked out over a small town where a goat with a demon that resides in the local temple has killed several people in recent years. You read that correctly, a goat possessed by a demon has killed several people recently and he is under the care and protection of the local temple. And we’re less than a day’s journey away from a major metropolitan city.
As we approached our destination, we went through a police checkpoint like the one I mentioned earlier. Everyone had to get out and register their ID cards. They were clearly not happy with foreigners being there and asked us many questions. We pretended not to be able to speak with the officers (which is not easy when you can understand every word they are saying), and they let us through. The sensitive pastors simply got out of the cars and walked around the checkpoint unnoticed. No one stopped them, and we picked them up on the other side. It was as if they were invisible to the officers. We believe God was blinding the officers to these security-sensitive men.
At last, we reached what would become our home base for the next few days. We were exhausted and were looking forward to staying at a hostel that another foreigner had opened in this town. He’s an isolated worker far out on the plateau with no church around him. The other American and I stayed in a different hostel than the pastors because this area is more tightly monitored. Recent incidents of T monks dousing themselves in gasoline, walking into the town square, and lighting themselves on fire in protest to the Chinese governments’ oppression have occurred there. This is a very sensitive area. It also happens to be one of the most sacred regions in the Buddhist world.
That first evening we spent some time in a café debriefing what we had seen and experienced to this point. There was a collective shock and sadness regarding the lostness and isolation of the T people. I thought to myself, “Maybe the pastors are starting to get it!” Many of us shed tears as the pastors began asking God for forgiveness for their lack of love for their T neighbors. They asked, “Why are foreigners the ones coming and getting this done? Why aren’t we doing the work?”
The next day they visited the largest monastery in the world that is home to 10,000+ female monks (nuns). A new tunnel had opened, cutting the travel time down to two hours and making the trip there and back possible in a day. All along the entire trip, I was thankful for the government for paving great roads along the plateau. Although they may have other motives with these roads, they’re also unintentionally opening up access to extremely isolated places for gospel workers.
“Why are foreigners the ones coming and getting this done? Why aren’t we doing the work?”
Six kilometers before the monastery of nuns, they encountered a police checkpoint. I say “they” because the other foreigner and I had to stay behind for suspected security issues such as this. Conveniently, as I was battling pretty significant altitude sickness that day. This checkpoint wasn’t one you could avoid getting out and walking around. The police miraculously skipped over the most sensitive pastor. They asked for everyone else’s ID except for his. But our friend Leo didn’t get off the hook as easily.
His ID card showed red, and he was pulled out of the car and told not to go any further. The other pastors continued into the nunnery while he spent the day at the police station. They questioned him about what he was doing, why his card had shown red, and then out of curiosity asked him what Christianity was. He shared the gospel with the police officers, who then took a liking to him and invited him to eat lunch with them. He spent the afternoon in the break room talking and laughing with the officers on break and jumped back in the car with the pastors on their way back out. It’s hard to imagine that friendships could develop from such an encounter, but it’s real.
The next day we anticipated traveling to a nomad trading town, but we again gathered through “hinting language” that they weren’t very comfortable with us white guys joining. Though we didn’t feel it would be a problem, we recognized that it’s not about the logistics. It’s about our long-term relationship with these pastors. We again stayed behind and began to wonder if they didn’t want or need us going along at all anymore.
That evening we suggested letting them go on without us foreigners just to see how they’d respond. They immediately agreed and emphasized that it would be safer if we weren’t around, a sure sign that we needed to leave. There was no strain in our relationship, but this particular group felt they were already high profile enough without having white faces around. This decision was an easy one for us to make as our local partners were equipped to lead this group.
This trip would not have been possible had it not been for our teammate, May, and the other local that helped to lead. This is true for both before and after we parted ways from the group. They were a clear image of how vital it is to raise up local mobilizers to call their local church into greater eternal purpose, into the Father’s heart for redeeming every nation, tribe, and tongue. We, as foreigners, were a possible security threat to the trek into unreached areas, yet the national mobilizers were able to continue leading this group with confidence because of their commonality in culture, background, and language.
After planning the final days of the trip with them we headed back to our city early the next morning. One of the sicker pastors came back with us as well. The driver sleepily picked us up at 5 a.m. to begin our 13-hour journey home, the first quarter of the trip spent traveling through a snowstorm atop mountain passes. Between the car packed full of people, snow falling so heavy you could barely see in front of you, and the driver occasionally dozing at the wheel, it was quite an experience.
A few days later, the rest of the pastors and the two local mobilizers came directly from the plateau and met us at a friend’s restaurant in the city. It was there that we hosted a debriefing dinner with other local and foreign leaders who had helped organize and facilitate the trip on the front end.
We went around and shared stories from the trip. There was, despite the tremendous exhaustion and stress, still a great unity among the group. It was so encouraging! People were cracking jokes and the atmosphere was full of fun and thankfulness for what the Lord allowed them to experience. I wished that my language was better to more fully participate in the conversations going on.
One of the co-leaders of our trip, JieJie, as well as three others from the group, emphasized their commitment to seeing this region reached, saying: “Here I am Lord, send me.” Others in the group emphasized that they would do whatever it takes to see long-term workers sent to this region.
They all accepted and rejoiced in their role as mobilizers. This group collectively could have influence over several thousand (potentially tens of thousands) believers in our province, and they have already identified more than 30 “goers” from their congregations!
This is a big deal and is worthy of celebration! The Lord is already moving among the 2,000 churches and 80,000 believers in our city, but there is still so much work to be done!
If the sleeping giant awakens, it has the potential to be the largest missions-sending movement the world has ever seen.
Lord, let it be so!