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All in God’s time

Ministry within the Twin Cities’ large Tibetan community

The complexity of being Christian thrives in Columbia Heights, where St. Matthew Lutheran Church (LCMS) offers space and volunteer time to Tibetans.
Yet the church proceeds with caution. “It matters to us that there are more Tibetans in Minneapolis than in any other U.S. city outside of New York City,” says St. Matthew Pastor Bill Hugo. “None of them are Christian.”
Nor are any likely to be. Norman Piatti of Concordia University in St. Paul studies Tibetans and prospects for their conversion. He estimates the number of Tibetan Christians worldwide at about 70.

Norman Piatti of Concordia University in St. Paul is studying Tibetans and the near-zero rate at which they convert to Christianity. Photo provided by Concordia University St. Paul

Tibetans in the United States are exiles from a mountain-bound homeland in south-central Asia. Their spiritual and temporal leader is the Dalai Lama, whom they regard as the reincarnated Buddha. (Many people of other faiths follow this 1989 Nobel Prize winner with interest. His books are even available on!)
Expatriate Tibetans see their nation and their faith as one and the same. A Tibetan named Kalsang lives in Columbia Heights near St. Matthew. “I like to go to church, actually,” says Kalsang, who uses a single name. Born in India, he was sent to a Christian school in India’s north. “I was very excited to go to church,” says Kalsang. “But I’m Buddhist.”
Buddhist Tibetans are likely to stay Buddhist. “Alignment as a Tibetan,” explains Piatti, who coordinates a masters-degree program at Concordia University in St. Paul, “is equal to being a Tibetan Buddhist. Not being a Tibetan Buddhist means to them not being a Tibetan.”

Surrender and uprising

Mount Everest separates Tibet from Nepal, its neighbor to the south. Isolated Tibet was long independent, a religious kingdom where Buddhist monks held control. When communist China took over in 1950, Tibet surrendered sovereignty but kept regional self-government and religious freedom. Chinese rule, however, provoked an uprising in 1959. The revolt failed, and 80,000 Tibetans fled to India, including the Dalai Lama. Many perished on the way, or later died in the unaccustomed heat. Nonetheless, refugees established a government-in-exile at Dharamsala in southern India.
In 1990, the U.S. government agreed to accept 1,000 Tibetan immigrants. Many moved to Minnesota, where sponsoring agencies have a significant presence. Now about 3,000 Tibetans live in the Twin Cities area. Columbia Heights is one area of concentration.
The Chinese communists, says Piatti, have gone to great lengths to discourage Tibetans’ devotion to their own culture and religion — including, he says, public torture of Buddhist monks.
Politically, the issue of Tibet is delicate. President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in February drew a hostile response from China. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told a Reuters reporter that the visit “violated the U.S. government’s repeated acceptance that Tibet is a part of China and it does not support Tibetan independence.”

Bob Nikl, left rear in red cap, led a group from Trinity Lutheran Church in Janesville, Minnesota, to help with painting at the home of Kalsang, standing in front of Nikl, in Columbia Heights. Photo provided by Bob Nikl

Tibetans worry about family still in Tibet and are careful of media exposure. Christians in the U.S. who work with Tibetans are wary of any appearance of trying to convert, because Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan nationalism are so closely identified.

Expatriate Tibetans see their nation and their faith as one and the same.

A priority for Tibetan exiles is to regain control of Tibet — and converting to Christianity, explains Concordia’s Piatti, may become another reason for the officially atheist regime in Beijing not to relinquish control. Other reasons for not converting, says Piatti, are as compelling: “family shame,” in his words, and “cultural shame.” Tibetans are a proud people.
So if Tibetan children going to regular children’s events at St. Matthew come home expressing curiosity about Jesus — parents may pull them out of the program altogether. Hence, St. Matthew proceeds with great care.
Bob Nikl led St. Matthew’s effort for a time and befriended Tibetans, who may work second- or third-shift jobs. “You’ve got to be available when they are,” explains Nikl, now a deacon at Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s King of Kings in Roseville, Minnesota. “They work Sundays. It’s hard to go to church.”
An initial outreach effort in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood eventually landed at Trinity First, an LCMS congregation near Franklin Avenue. In about 2007 the initiative moved to St. Matthew in Columbia Heights, another LCMS church near where many Tibetans live.

Too harsh?

So what should a good Christian do under such circumstances? Follow the Great Commission in Matthew 28?
Maybe — but the Bible offers other ideas too.
Jesus himself gives direction: “And whatsoever place shall not receive you, and they hear you not, as ye go forth thence, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony unto them,” he says in Mark 6.
Too harsh? How about Acts 13? Paul says this to listeners in Antioch: “For so hath the Lord commanded us, I have set thee for a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the uttermost part of the earth.”

Now about 3,000 Tibetans live in the Twin Cities area.

Ironically, Acts 13 soon dusts up: After Paul’s message, Gentiles praise God — but Jews are displeased. Paul and Barnabas shake off the dust and leave.
When a people won’t listen, why not give up and move on? For all their charm and industry, Tibetans — from the uttermost part of the earth — seem to be unmistakable examples of a people who just won’t convert.
Concordia’s Piatti counsels patience. The patience of Job? No. The patience of God. “I think God’s mission,” says Piatti, “is to bring all his people back to him. It may take lifetimes.”

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