It has taken us awhile to realize why, but walking in Kathmandu is a totally different experience from walking a similar distance in Newton. In Newton we would often take a walk to relax after a hectic day, or as a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon; in Kathmandu we need to find a stress-relieving activity after walking. The difference is in part due to infrastructure. Nepal is a poor country, so roads and sidewalks are in various states of disrepair or stages of repair. A few people own cars, many own motorcycles or bicycles, various sizes of vans, buses and trucks join them on every street and alleyway raising dust and often spewing black diesel exhaust. In Newton, it is pleasant to greet the occasional person on the bike path or while walking residential streets. In Kathmandu it is rare to walk more than 50 feet without having to step off the curb and dodge traffic or pause by a light pole to accommodate fellow pedestrians.
We have come to the conclusion that the major difference is population density. The city in which we live and work is Lalitpur aka Patan, the second largest city in the Kathmandu Valley and separated from Kathmandu proper by the Bagmati River. The population of the valley is about 1.5 million and of Kathmandu 1.03 million. Lalitpur has a population of 227,000 in an area of 5.96 sq. miles, or slightly less than half the area of Newton. To put this into perspective imagine Newton with its current population, then have everybody from Wichita move in, then everyone from Derby, North Newton and Hesston, and finally all of Hutchinson. In total 479,000 people within the city limits of Newton which currently houses 19,000. The population density of Lalitpur, (and our imagined Newton), is over 38,000 people per square mile. As another comparison this is 40% more densely populated than New York City, the most densely populated city in the U.S. It is little wonder then that we are in constant interaction with this population.
And yet… many residents of Lalitpur are first generation from the village and maintain their agrarian sensibilities. We continue to be amazed that every available square foot of land is planted, often with vegetables, occasionally with flowers. Over the last couple of weeks poinsettias have become spectacular. Families without access to land line their balconies and rooftops with potted geraniums, crown of thorn plants and chili peppers.
And yet… there is a gentleness in the bustle. In the midst of traffic there is often a wonderful grace offered. I inadvertently cut in front of a car while crossing an intersection on the motorcycle and the response of the driver (after slamming on his brakes) was a simple smile and head nod. There is always room for one more passenger in a micro bus and people graciously rearrange themselves to accommodate.
We have much to learn. Last Sunday at the coffee shop we were visiting with a Fellowship International missionary who has worked in Nepal for eleven years. He gave us a big compliment by saying we seemed more relaxed/comfortable than he’d ever seen in folks who had only been in Nepal for two months. The easy answer was that we’ve had years in Africa and India, but I don’t think that is the entire explanation. We have experienced the warmth of the Nepali church next door, which Dale and Bethsaba helped start. We have worked, laughed and prayed with the staff of the Top of the World Coffee Shop. We have seen the respite that a good cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll or a piece of pumpkin pie can provide to a stranger far from home.
We are not blind; there is also a dark side within the high population density in the valley. Human trafficking is rampant. There are occasional outbreaks of cholera. Infant mortality is about 8 times as high as in the developed world. Unemployment is high, so it is common for families to seek jobs abroad leaving a single parent or grandparents to raise children.
And yet… God is at work reconciling all of creation to God and God has entrusted us with the work of reconciliation. As Marty Troyer puts it:
The gospel is about far more than me or you. It is about far more than forgiveness of personal sins and connection to the afterlife. It’s about who—and how—God is in places like [Lalitpur] on a daily basis. It is about the goodness of divine activity experienced most potently in Jesus the Christ. God is passionate about addressing both spiritual and physical starvation, and about bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as it can be.
God is restoring all things, and when the New Testament writers say “all,” they mean all—as in “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Colossians 1:20)…
The Kingdom is present, the Spirit is active, we are participants.