(published 2003, Adventist Review)
Ten feet tall, it stands in my front lawn on a well worn patch of dirt, symbolizing the differences between the worlds on either side of the fence. The basketball hoop is as uncommon a sight in Banepa as is a 225-pound, 6-foot, bearded 17-year-old. And it doesn’t take long for a crowd of children to gather on the other side, wagering on Jez’s shot and his age!
The differences between both sides of the fence are many, caused mainly by the dark cloud of inescapable poverty that hangs over the other side. Undernourished and underprivileged, children here are small in stature, resigned to their fate and starved for fun. Often they have only their imagination and someone else’s trash to provide entertainment–A bicycle wheel turns into a hoola-hoop, the discarded wheels of a chair convert to a skateboard. I’ve even seen a rock take the place of a ball! Such is their life–void of childhood, forced into the role of breadwinner before reaching puberty. In their world only the fit and tough survive and principles are dictated by the lack of equity: For example, it is acceptable to take from those who have more; it is foolish to aspire to be more than what your caste dictates; it is unnecessary to say thank you when the gift is given out of abundance. Theirs is a world where life is what the gods have predestined one to have—or not to have.
Befriending those on the other side sometimes has a negative effect on their already low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority. One-on-one relationships oftentimes only emphasize the disparity that is very real and cannot be combated with gifts or goodwill. In an effort to address this bleak, fatalistic attitude, the Club was begun by the Shrestha family where the father is Nepali and the mother American. The Shresthas’ bicultural environment helped steer the kids across the fence into a non-threatening group setting, away from the seeming opulence of our lifestyle.
They came in little groups—curious yet intimidated by and apprehensive of the mixing of the worlds. Soon The Club was the talk of the town. There was basketball, volleyball, parties, games, crafts, and lots of fun. However it wasn’t long before they discovered that in order to experience the “fun,” they had to sit through a Christian meeting. This was a “Pathfinder” Club!
Like forcing dinner down just to have dessert, they sat in polite silence through our worship. This was understandable since the majority of them were Hindu and what was said had little relevance to them. But a few months later, they began to show some interest: They actually listened to the stories, asked questions, memorized verses, and even came on time for worship. A few more months went by and they were attending Friday night vespers and Sabbath School classes. By the end of the first year, several joined the pastor’s baptismal class and some formed a music band called “Mukti” (Salvation).
When the Shresthas moved back to the US, Jez took over as Pathfinder leader. Watching him take pride in his “children,” I remembered his days as a member of the Spencerville Pathfinder Club in Maryland. Of course, the Pathfinder Club of Banepa SDA Fellowship cannot be compared to the one at Spencerville where fun involved ski trips, theme parks and Camporees. Here donations are needed even for the paper needed to make airplanes. And the Banepa kids will probably never get to a Camporee. However, be it The Club in Spencerville or the one here in Banepa, the end product is the same: an environment that fosters relationships– with Jesus and with one another.
The Club here initiates young men and women into a new kind of life and gives them a fresh perspective. At The Club they learn that life has possibilities, not limitations; that talents are to be nurtured, not stifled; that fulfillment comes from sharing and not hoarding; that the future is what you make of it, not what is handed to you; that God is not someone who sits on a pedestal but one stays beside you—no matter what.