By George Henson, Staff Writer
Published: June 02, 2011
COLLEGE STATION—The Health Environmental Learning Program that Tim and Lani Ackerman began more than a decade ago still is helping the people of Nepal help themselves, even though the Ackermans each only spend two weeks a year in the Himalayan country.
Women learn how to read thermometers in a basic health class taught by HELP-trained teachers. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of HELP Ministry)
The Ackermans of College Station launched HELP in 1999, but it didn’t really take off until after the couple exhausted their savings and returned to the United States, they recalled. But they were not especially troubled when they left Nepal, because they sensed the Nepalese leaders they had developed were ready for the task.
“When we left, the impact of HELP and the way we reached out in one year doubled. And within two years, it tripled. And within five years, it was 10 times what it was when we left. That has to be God,” Lani Ackerman said. That sustainability mirrors the vision statement of HELP from the beginning: “To empower national believers to reach their unreached through community development.”
The Ackermans journeyed to Nepal out of concern for the people there without the backing of a missions-sending agency, even though they received support from a Southern Baptist church and its members. They went as “tentmakers,” missionaries who work at regular jobs in the country while also seeking to serve Christ—she as a physician and he as an ecologist, both of them teaching to earn a living.
They discovered Christians in Nepal live a very hard life.
Residents of a remote Nepali village learn literacy skills taught by HELP-trained workers. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of HELP Ministry)
“When people become Christians in a Hindu or Buddhist society, they are ostracized,” she said. “What Tim and I saw in our development work was that the Christians were among the poorest and most despised. So, when no one liked them, they were just thrown out of the community.”
“Even though in India and Nepal there is no caste system according to the government, culturally there is a caste system. It’s ingrained in them,” her husband continued.
“Christians were at the lowest point of that—to the point where they couldn’t use the water tap with the Hindus, they couldn’t use the washing areas, they certainly couldn’t share food or go into the houses of Hindus. So that was the thing about the Christians—they were not only uneducated and poor, they were despised.”
HELP began offering literacy classes in 2000 with about 20 students. Recent years have seen about 1,700 students in the classes.
|A teacher offers instruction in a HELP-sponsored literacy class. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of HELP Ministry)|
“We also saw the health issues, the environmental issues, the starvation,” Mrs. Ackerman said. “The Christians couldn’t focus on growing in their faith because their children were dying of diarrheal diseases.”
As HELP began its classes in the basics of health, agriculture and literacy, the gospel always has been a key component. And it’s working. Of the 1,700 in the annual literacy classes, about half already are Christians. Of the other half, “We see over half of those people come to Christ,” she said. “We see multiple churches planted just through literacy.”
Because Nepal has one of the highest maternal death rates during childbirth in the world, the average life expectancy for women living in the villages of the western part of the nation is only 36 years. To combat this, HELP offers health training in birth assistance.
Other health training components include general hygiene, building smokeless stoves to replace open-fire pits in the homes and construction of toilets.
“One woman became a Christian and was ostracized,” Lani Ackerman said. “She went to a literacy class and learned of the traditional birth assistance class. When she came home from the class, before the night was up, someone came to say a woman was dying in childbirth.”
A family in Nepal builds a pit latrine out of bamboo, using sanitation-improvement methods taught by HELP-trained instructors. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of HELP Ministry)
The woman went, prayed over the woman, and then put the skills she had learned to work, saving the lives of both the mother and baby.
“Overnight, she went from being one of the most despised people in the village to being the hero, and it gave her a platform to share the gospel that was phenomenal,” Lani Ackerman said.
Similar results have been seen in the agricultural training.
“It’s very interesting that here’s these Christians who are despised, they come to our agricultural trainings, they learn how to do things a new and improved way, and they go home and their crops are bigger, greener and produce more than their Hindu and Buddhist neighbors,” Ackerman said.
“They see the difference. And all of a sudden, the Christian’s socioeconomic status and even spiritual status is so escalated that Hindus are coming to them, and they are a vital part of the community’s agricultural education. And, again, they have a platform to share the gospel.”
The people use their newfound relative wealth to support their churches.
A Nepali woman sits by her smokeless stove, using cooking skills she learned from HELP ministry. (PHOTOS/Courtesy of HELP Ministry)
“We’ve seen hundreds of churches become self-sustaining because we teach them how to raise mushrooms, how to raise goats and also their churches grow when they invite Hindu and Buddhist neighbors to trainings they hold at the church,” Ackerman reported.
HELP employs about 20 full-time trainers to lead classes at churches throughout the country, paying each about $100 a month.
The Ackermans receive no salary and pay their own administrative costs and expenses for their trips to Nepal.
The $140,000 total HELP budget also includes an orphanage for about 40 children.
Everything HELP does is to help Christians reach their neighbors for Christ, often not through preaching but through helping their neighbors see the love of Christ through action, Lani Ackerman noted.
“No one is pressured to become a Christian,” she said. “They are loved into being a Christian.