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Outreach among the Tibetan Diaspora

“The Himalayas” are a place as close to the edge of the world as it is possible to get on a spherical planet. The Tibetan people who have lived there for millennia are themselves a remarkable, resilient, and religious group whose self-perception is bound up with their origins as well as their culture, community, beliefs, and language. To be Tibetan is to be Buddhist (though there are a few scattered Islamic Tibetans generations removed from Persian traders with business in the region). Tibetan Buddhism itself is a distinct blend of Bӧn (Tibetan animism and shamanism) and Buddhism. Magic and incantation are as critical as endless philosophical debates on permanence and impermanence. In a nutshell, it is a worldview that is definitely Buddhist, but distinctly Tibetan. 

To refer to “Tibetans” in any homogenous or monolithic sense would be uninformed at best. Tibetans think of themselves with reference to their dialects and places of origin within Tibet (Kham, Central, Amdo), and they are distinct in current geographic context (those in Tibet itself, in settlements in India and Nepal, and international diaspora). The community has growing distinctions internally among the settlement communities of India and Nepal (settlement families, urbanites in area cities, and monastics) and increasingly both localized and independent in the West (New York, Minneapolis, Toronto, and so on). Generational differences, the digital divide, future aspirations, relevance of the Tibetan government-in-exile, sects within Tibetan Buddhism itself, and socio-economic status all come together in a deeply nuanced tapestry that is as intricately intertwined and remarkably complex as a woven masterpiece.  

At the same time, Tibetans have an incredibly resilient sense of being “Tibetan” together as a people group. While Tibet itself is now known as the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” of China, connections remain strong between families in Tibet and those in diaspora, enabled by technology as well as modern travel. A shared sense of family, of language, of place of origin, of religion, of communal identity and first and foremost, of loyalty to the Dalai Lama, have created a profound and robust sense of what is “us.” 

One challenge that Tibetans are currently facing is that of the unstoppable progress of time. As the Dalai Lama nears his passing, as generations age, as opportunities broaden, as centralized control loses both practical significance and social influence, as localized diaspora communities in the West increasingly chart their own course… the Tibetans will soon face a kind of turbulence in which historical, political, and social ties are tested. That “turbulence” can be summed up in a single word: pluralism.  

In the near future, Tibetans will face this storm without the person of the Dalai Lama as the linking figure. Rather, it is likely that at his passing, there will be a tidal wave of donations through the network of Tibetan foundations worldwide, most of which will go to the Tibetan government-in-exile… and then nothing. This is a future in which the Tibetan diaspora community is simply not prepared to sustain itself in its current form. 

Tibetans prefer to immigrate to places where a Tibetan community has already been established. In the Americas, this is currently New York, Minneapolis, and Toronto. In Europe, Tibetans are more blended into the community but still tend to congregate near cities for practical reasons. Little is known about the Tibetan presence in the Middle East, though many Tibetan diaspora members go there for work and send money back to India and Nepal. In most of these areas, local churches exist and are, in a few cases, reaching out in ways meaningful to the Tibetans themselves. In most cases, however, Tibetans are invisible and unknown to local churches in diaspora regions—partially due to the Tibetans’ preference to spend their time with their own people. 

Into that world, the call of the church is to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that Tibetan people can make a choice about Jesus. Tibetan outreach has a history that goes back well over a century. Just 25 years ago, a long-term worker told me, “There are more people who have died trying to reach Tibetans with the gospel than there are currently Tibetan Christians.” That number is starting to change as the Tibetan church itself begins to emerge, but to date that growth is slow, staggered, and very hard won. Cooperation among workers is strong and well-supported, evangelistic resources abundant, and prayer almost constant. Even so, the need at present within the Tibetan church is for not only sacrificial unity but spiritual maturity, not only for financial support but financial sustainability, not only for leadership development but leadership connection within the tiny but emerging Tibetan church. 

While all this is useful for background, we also need to acknowledge and celebrate the “bright spots” of outreach among the Tibetan diaspora. The number of bi-vocational as well as near-culture believers who have Tibetans as a clear focus of their outreach efforts has increased! Scattered reports of God literally speaking to Tibetans in dreams and visions are few but authentic. Healings and the sheer presence of the Holy Spirit in bringing reality to God’s truth when they hear it are all part of the picture! 

Resources that have been emerging over the last few decades have become increasingly useful. Translations of Scripture are now much more broadly understandable, evangelism tools make honoring and beautiful use of Tibetan art forms, and training for work among Tibetan people is increasingly informed, accessible, and practical. Media available includes multiple print and online versions of Scripture, multiple short and full-length videos, a large and growing library of Tibetan worship songs in Tibetan style, and increasingly innovative ways of making those resources available to Tibetan people. All of this is greatly encouraging and the product of God’s grace and faithfulness through his people! 

So, what does the future hold? Well, let’s start by saying that God himself holds the future. He is building his kingdom, he is building his church, and the gates of hell will not triumph against it! What is needed right now is not another video or translation. What is needed is people who know Jesus and love Tibetans enough to find ways to engage them personally, enough to walk with them through faltering steps of faith, and enough to endure long enough in the field that seeds sown find their way to good soil, hearts God has already prepared. Prayer must persist, and resources need to get from storage rooms to living rooms, and all that happens as people who know Jesus engage Tibetans who do not. There is no such thing as the standard operating procedure for reaching a tightly closed Tibetan diaspora community. Even if there was, their world is about to change dramatically.  

Our role as the church of Jesus Christ within a world of Tibetan diaspora is to find ways to do what we can to engage them, as people and as a community. Please do not approach a Tibetan with the mindset, “This may be the only chance you have to hear the gospel, so I have to give it to you now in the five minutes I have with you.” Get to know members of the Tibetan diaspora as people, as families with a story of victories as well as struggles, joys as well as pain, and while you do that, share the hope you have found in Jesus! 

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Image credit: Raimond Klavins via UnSplash.

Mac Iverson

Mac Iverson (pseudonym) served in Asia among diaspora Tibetans for well over a decade, predominantly among settlement communities. Mac has an MA and PhD in global studies, and currently serves as an outreach director at a church in the West near Tibetan diaspora areas as well as teaching at a …View Full Bio

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