Three in the morning isn’t the time we usually get up, but here we are at the check-in counter, on our way to the country where they say happiness lies. Once on the plane, the flight attendants turn on the native music. Flutes and rain sticks set the mood—“Be happy here,” they seem to say, and the flight attendant urge us to pull our window shades up. We oblige, and gasp—there is nothing quite as spectacular as the sprawling mountain range outside. The pilot zigzags as we descend from the peaks to the runway. As we exit the plane, we walk past large posters of Bhutan’s beaming monarchs.
Tourism is one of Bhutan’s main sources of income; having grown exponentially since the tiny nation opened its borders to outsiders. The people in Bhutan practice centuries-old traditions, breathing in the freshest breezes the mountains can provide. And, even as we enter the small airport, it is clear—Bhutan is Buddhist, and fruit offerings to Buddha are prominently displayed on the posts.
Standing in the immigration line, we are surrounded by backpackers. But we are here for something more adventurous than a trek in the Himalayas; we are here to see friends—no, family—brothers and sisters in Christ who make up less than two percent of the 700,000 people in these mountains. Last March, two of our brothers endured prison for more than a month just because they held a Christian gathering here. One of these brothers is still on trial. We hope to be of some encouragement.
Once we cleared customs, a brother openly welcomes us. He’s “officially” a tour guide, but also a pastor of a church. As he ushers us around the capital city of Thimphu, the warmth of the locals melt our hearts. Men, women, children, and the elderly pose for us. Happiness seems to be within reach here. Everybody’s quick to flash a smile.
The next day, we visit a brother imprisoned in his home, under house arrest. His wife stands beside him, carrying their youngest son; the older ones are still in school. She serves us tea, while he thanks us for our prayers. “There is nothing as comforting as knowing that people from all over the world are praying for us,” he says. “Thank you for the encouragement. Thank you all for the cards.”
Our brother is still on trial for a Christian gathering he organized in a small village in south Bhutan. He was imprisoned for 49 days, and now he faces three more years. His time behind bars was spent in loneliness and much longing for home, but he says “The Lord taught me to be fully dependent and joyful in Him. It is the Lord who gives and takes away.” His wife adds, “I need to be strong for the boys. But I can’t imagine them growing up for three years without a dad.”
Later that afternoon, we decided to take a hike. As we trek the steep path, we silently pray as hundreds of prayer flags lining the hillside flap in sync. Our guide explains that Buddhists believe that the wind carries their prayers to the gods. The colored ones are for luck, peace, and prosperity. The white ones are pleading for the dead. We come across three devotees struggling with hoisting their flags and wonder if the deities they pray to hear as much as a whisper. We pray confidently in this place to the one true and living God.
Once at the top, our guide points to a construction project on the other side of the valley. He says they’re building a Hindu temple there. We ask how this project is allowed. “When the government transitioned to a democracy, they said they were opening the country up. They say we have freedom of religion, so they allowed the Hindus to build this temple.”
“Hinduism and Buddhism are closely related so Hindus get some degree of freedom,” he explains. “But for us Christians, this is not the case. We cannot build churches. We can identify ourselves as Christians at our own risk, but we cannot share Jesus. We cannot preach.”
“What happens if you do?” we ask him.
“They mock us. Or beat us. Or take us to jail.”
Nighttime arrives and our guide drives us to a house where the residents are hosting a secret church meeting. After three knocks, we are greeted by a man with graying hair. Spotting a familiar face, he says “Jemasi” and bows, his hands clasped together—a Nepali expression meaning “Praise the Lord.”
This secret church meets every Thursday, but they do it in this house only once a year. Not wanting to be traced, they change houses every week. But we still can’t be too obvious. The neighbors might ask questions.
The pastor, in his khaki jacket, gives us a grin. There are no bruises on his face, no wounds, no scars—but he was beaten and flogged countless times for Jesus Christ. He however shares none of this during the meeting; instead he speaks of God’s grace. There is nothing, he says, like the grace in which we stand. Songs are sung. The Word is studied. A meal is shared. Many of the people we worship with are Nepali. We learn that most Christians in Bhutan are.
Many people claim Bhutan is the happiest country in the world. Happiness, the government says, is the way to measure progress. We ask our guide if the people here are truly happy. “Bhutan is beautiful, but there is more to happiness than what we can see.”
We take a look around—prayer flags wave in the wind, a giant Buddha can be seen from afar, perched in its golden glory above the cypress and pines. A thousand smaller Buddhas will eventually be built beside it proclaiming itself to be a beacon of blessing and prosperity to the world. Yes, happiness can be found in Bhutan… but not in the way the government wants to portray it. Instead, it can be found in the hearts and lives of those who follow Jesus.
Father, the people of this land of bright happiness are living in spiritual darkness. We pray for our fellow Christians there, so few in number; that You will do a mighty work in their midst. We pray for those in prison; that You would encourage them and keep them faithful. We pray for the gospel to go forth in great might, bringing about a revival of faithfulness to You. May the people of Bhutan know the true joy of loving and serving Christ. In the name of Jesus, whose name we long to see proclaimed in might and power in Bhutan and across the globe, Amen.