Bair Patel

Dela’s Decision

Looking out the plane window, I glimpsed misty, lush green forests interspersed with rice fields as our plane landed in Asia. On our taxi ride home, I remembered when my family and I first took this trip three years before; it was when we launched. At that time, each moment brimmed with uncertainty — we knew no one and had no idea how God would open doors in this little town bordering Himadria. This time, I knew to expect a warm welcome at Reeva’s house. Her husband would shake my hand and urge me to sit down and eat the food he had just prepared. Reeva would try to refill my plate over and over until I covered the plate with my hands.

One thing would be different this time. Ten students from villages along a remote region of the Himadri border were staying at Reeva’s house. Many families living in these villages are from Himadria, speak the Himadri language, and observe the Himadri culture and customs. These families got to know Reeva last year when four local children were sponsored to attend an Adventist boarding school. After the villagers noticed the positive changes in those children, they began asking Reeva to help their own children get an education and give their families Bible studies. In January 2022, 21 children were sponsored to attend Christian school or to study with Reeva and catch up to their grade level.

As soon as we arrived in Koki village, the students appeared, smiling shyly and greeting me with, “Hello, Sir!”
I smiled and shook their hands, recognizing faces I had only seen in pictures. Among these was Dela.

During the next day’s prayer meeting, Reeva asked everyone to pray for Dela’s family. Dela had been studying the Bible with Reeva and wanted to be baptized with the other students the following week, but her family was Buddhist. She was from Xiaong, a jungle village where her grandmother, the village witch doctor who performs all the rituals, had forbidden anyone from becoming Christian. Reeva, missionary Nathan Castillo, and I were planning to visit the villages the following week; perhaps we could visit Xiaong.

Three of the students sponsored by the Himadri project to receive a Christian education are from one Buddhist family in this village. Dela, 15, the eldest child, and two younger siblings. When Dela was younger, her parents sent her to another town with someone who had promised to help her get an education. In reality, her ‘benefactor’ had little intention of helping her. She was sent to school very rarely and given all the household work to do instead. Because of these hardships, she had only received a fifth-grade education by the time she came to Reeva in January.

That next week, during our two-hour hike, we traversed multiple valleys and loose, sand-and-rock-covered ridges, crossed the river three times, and dodged leeches along our pathway toward a distant jungle farm – Dela’s home – and the village of Xiaong.

We crested the ridge and climbed over a bamboo fence surrounding Dela’s house. Goats, chickens and children scampered about while a man with a machete cut wood for the cooking fire.

The Himadri-style house sat on stilts next to a shed that served as the outdoor kitchen. The open space under the house sheltered the animals at night. The jungle was the outhouse, and the plumbing was a bucket of water and bottles for drinking. I removed my shoes and climbed the stairs. There was one window in each wall and only one piece of furniture — a cradle. In the next room, a three-week-old baby lay in a basket hanging from the rafters. The only boy in the family sat in the doorway, gently pulling a string to swing the basket.

The family offered me boiled eggs to eat. I could not talk directly with the parents as they spoke no English, but the children who had been to school talked with me a little. I learned that the parents would like to become Christian, but the grandparents still live and want someone to perform the rituals for them when they die. So the parents will wait.

The sun began to set as we hiked out of Xiaong. Reeva had arranged for Nathan and me to stay overnight with a family in a nearby village who had an outhouse and water for a ‘pour bath.’ After supper and worship, our hosts pointed Nathan and me to the bed we would share — a thin blanket over wooden boards. When I awoke sometime later to an aching back, Dela’s face came to mind. Would she get baptized in six days, or would she listen to her grandmother?

After breakfast the next morning, we continued our hike, visiting five villages in two days. On the trek out of the jungle, we ran the gauntlet of leeches and recrossed the river three times. We picked our way over a precarious goat trail across a landslide and finally reached Koki village again.

After returning to town, the days were a blur of last-minute preparations as guests started arriving for the baptism.

Sabbath dawned grey. As the caravan of vehicles dropped members and guests by the river, it began to drizzle. We walked to the river bank, and the baptismal candidates assembled, waiting their turn to step into the churning muddy water. The candidates included students from the villages and those from inside Himadria who had been waiting for over two years to be baptized because the borders had been closed due to COVID-19. That day, eighteen people joined the body of Christ by baptism, and six joined by profession of faith, having been baptized previously.

As three pastors stepped into the water, I looked around at the waiting crowd. Church members from both sides of the border, students’ parents, cousins and relatives lined the banks. Then I noticed Dela. She was among the first to signify her decision and step out into the water for baptism. Despite the opposition of her grandmother, Dela decided to follow Jesus. Now, the village of Xiaong is no longer 100 percent Buddhist.

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