Who Am I? Where Do I Belong?

We rattled along the road to a centuries-old Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a rickety Japanese van. The latest hits on the U.S. charts blared on the stereo. We shouted in a mix of Hindi, Urdu, English, Nepali, and Ladakhi, trying to be heard over the racket of the music and the van bouncing over the less-than-perfect roads.

A scene from Ladakh. Credit: Matthias Gergan

This memory of my first summer after starting engineering school illustrates globalization’s rapid impact on the Himalayas, my homeland. This crescent-shaped area includes Sikkim in the east, Dehradun in the middle, and Ladakh in the north – even before globalization, an extremely diverse region in India. For example: Sikkim, which was an independent kingdom within my mother’s lifetime, mixes Nepali, Lepcha, and Tibetan cultures. (Lepcha is an indigenous tribe to which my mother belongs.) In addition to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, regional tribes practice their own varieties of animism. In this mix, Christianity is often seen as a foreign religion.

Recent, rapid globalization has intensified our region’s diversity. Consequently, Himalayan Christians like me face stark questions about being and belonging: Who are we as Himalayans, as migration rapidly changes our culture? Who are we as Christians? Are we Indian enough? Are we Himalayan enough? Where do we belong in the Global Church, and what does our experience of globalization say to the rest of the Church?

Recent & Rapid Globalization

Unlike other areas of India, the Himalayas have only seen change very recently, within my own and my parents’ lifetimes. During my childhood, Dehradun was a sleepy city known for “green hedges and grey heads.” It had schools, scientific institutions, and the Indian Military Academy. It was not a business destination. After lives of quiet research or civil service, people retired there. However, in 2000, the Indian government made the region a new state – Uttarakhand. Dehradun became its capital and morphed into a bustling business hub. An information technology park, colleges, and malls dot its green hills, and international food and clothing chains fill those malls.

Our history involves many movements, including military invasions. Much more commonly, people left the Himalayas for better pastures (sometimes literal pasture for raising cattle), jobs, education, or a more comfortable life away from the sometimes-harsh environment. By contrast, today we see many entering the area to pursue tourism and businesses. Many, weary of the rush of life in big cities, seek the mountains’ serenity.

The Himalayan landscape of Ladakh. Credit: Matthias Gergan

My own life demonstrates this tendency. I have lived in the Philippines, India, and Kentucky (U.S.A.) in the past decade. Whenever I come home, I’m reminded of my travels as people react to my hints of different accents and ever-changing phraseology – “Ya’ll” from Kentucky and “Grabe!” (an expression of extreme emotion) from Tagalog. These words make no sense here but are now part of my vocabulary.

Christian Diversity & Unity

No matter how far I roam, I’m still family. Indeed, Himalayan Christian communities include people from many cultures, castes, and callings. As a child, I worshipped in a Pentecostal church in Dehradun. In the summers, my family attended a Presbyterian church in Sikkim. Historically, my family was part of a Moravian church in Ladakh.

This diversity is not unique to my family. In Dehradun, non-Christians and Christians from many backgrounds attend the Pentecostals’ annual convention. At Christmas, churches come together for a big parade. In Ladakh, historically, the Moravian mission contributed improved farming techniques; today, its education is respected across the region. And the Sikkimese church serves the community through development and relief projects. An unapologetic evangelistic fervor pervades all these activities. Christians express this unity during the pandemic as they help one another across denominations. Pastors have prayed for, counseled, and conducted funerals for those who are not members of their congregations.

Of course, our churches are not ideal. They argue and sometimes even split. Yet our situation as a minority within the Himalayan region, whose people are themselves minorities in the broader Indian landscape, pushes us together despite our differences. Even Protestants and Catholics come together under one identity: Christian.

Unique Pressures

Perhaps Himalayan Christians welcome one another so warmly across cultural barriers because, when a Himalayan declares faith in Christ, we often suffer alienation from our other communities. One of my acquaintances is still seeking acceptance in his family decades after he declared his faith; he is fighting for a share in his family’s ancestral lands (a crucial part of his identity), but he is looked upon with suspicion every time he returns to his village.

The rise of Hindu nationalism has exacerbated Christians’ sense of alienation: as “being Indian” comes to mean “being Hindu,” Christians become outsiders in the very land of their birth. While the Hindutva narrative has long been influential, its power in the Himalayas has grown in recent decades through systematic efforts of Hindu right-wing groups. This narrative excludes Muslims and Christians from the Indian (i.e., Hindu) identity because of their supposed allegiance to lands other than India through their religions. Though Christians may have faced persecution in Himalayan communities before, they were not seen as outsiders. Now, becoming Christian implies losing one’s Indian identity, as well as one’s property. The situation is further exacerbated by many evangelical churches gravitating towards contemporary Western worship patterns – choices that make Himalayan Christians seem even more “Westernized” and less “Indian.”

So Himalayan Christians face multiple levels of alienation – alienation as Christians within a Hindu majority; alienation as Himalayans, who are never quite equal to other Indian citizens.

Being & Belonging for the Global Church

Perhaps we can share some lessons from our situation with the Global Church.

First, globalization – especially as manifested by increased interaction with others – can bring us together but can also make differences even more pronounced. For example, students coming to Doon Bible College from their villages grow in a sense of connection to the Global Church. However, they also go home with a heightened awareness of their situations being vastly different and, in some ways, unequal. A Garwhali student from a village in Uttarakhand might interact with the son of a megachurch pastor from Kerala. They see their interconnectedness as people of God yet also their differences in language, food, and outlook. This tension between distinction and togetherness grows even more pronounced as they return to their homes, continuing to interact with each other but facing very different realities: one leads a megachurch with strong connections to the West (and the financial and technological benefits that can bring); the other struggles even to gain acceptance in his village and relies on barely functioning internet as his only connection to the outside world.

Doon Bible College students. Credit: Matthias Gergan

Second, Christian unity goes beyond surface-level niceties – and it does not have to be perfectly harmonious. Himalayan churches often quarrel. Yet, as they work together to bless all of Himalayan society, they stand as one under Jesus Christ: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

Third, Himalayan Christians welcome people irrespective of their backgrounds. This welcome is seldom perfect, but it is genuine. We embrace new Christian believers into a new place to belong and a new way to be – a life of active, honest service to all. We are one people, united by God’s mercy, serving our communities in practical ways.

Finally, as an extreme minority, Himalayan Christians show us the importance of the community of faith. Surrounded by different, often violently opposed visions of reality and the good life, Christians are drawn even more strongly towards fellowship with each other. This love of being together has been seen clearly during the pandemic. Many churches have taken risks, and paid a price, to meet in homes for fellowship. These actions emphasize our faith’s communal nature.

As we all – Himalayan Christians and Global Church alike – grapple with questions of being and belonging, I recall the apostle Peter’s words: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). We have been made a people by the mercy of God and can rejoice in and live this reality despite our struggles.

Matthias Gergan

Matthias Gergan has family across India’s Himalayas as well as friendships in the Tibetan Buddhist community. Called to leave a career in engineering and IT to serve the Church directly, Matthias began his PhD at Asbury Theological Seminary in Intercultural Studies in 2017 with a SCHOLARLEADERS LeaderStudies scholarship. His research helps the Himalayan Church understand its identity in Christ despite increasing political, social, and ethnic tensions. He has also served as faculty at Doon Bible College in India.

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