“My parents sent me to Calvin for a good education, not to become a Christian,” said Bimala Shrestha Pokharel ’00. That’s but the first of many surprises in the story of how a practicing Hindu girl from Nepal came to be the founder of four Christian micro-enterprises in Kathmandu.
Another: She met her husband, Arbin, in Grand Rapids when he was a student at Dordt College, though she had lived two blocks away from him in Kathmandu. After her conversion, they began dating, married, attended Calvin Seminary together, and then, in 2004, returned home to plant Crossway Church. While central to the new church, Pokharel has, from its beginning, had her own vision, one that began to take shape during a January 1998 interim class with Professor George Monsma in Kenya.
“Listening to the ladies in Kenya, I really felt the call from the Lord to get involved in micro-enterprises, training women without opportunities in Nepal,” she said, “though I had no clue what it takes to start one. It all became real one day in April 2006.”
That’s the day Pokharel took ownership of Higher Ground Cafe, a small coffeehouse run by a Christian couple who were emigrating to the United States.
“The day I signed the contract,” she recalled, “the whole country shut down for almost a month because of the civil war, so we couldn’t open. There were riots every day. I said, ‘Why, God, is this happening to me?’ But after two months business picked up, and it has always been profitable since.”
The cafe employs five women and two men and serves as a meeting place for Christians in a country where Hindu fundamentalists sometimes threaten. “It’s a safe place to talk about faith and to disciple other people,” Pokharel said.
A year later Pokharel started a second micro-enterprise. Higher Ground Bakery employs seven women and three men and manages to turn a profit despite unreliable supplies of ingredients and daily power outages that sometimes last as long as 18 hours. Also, general strikes called by the Maoist political group frequently paralyze all business and commerce in the country.
Almost every day Pokharel turns away women who come to the bakery or cafe for work. One young woman she was able to hire provided the impetus for the third Higher Ground micro-enterprise.
“She was a young girl raised by a single mother and had a very hard situation in life,” Pokharel said. “I talked with her about her dreams, and I could tell she wasn’t interested in baking. She told me she liked making jewelry. With the cafe and the bakery and two small kids, I had no energy to start anything new, but I started praying about it. I told her, ‘If you really want to try, I can go out and buy some raw materials and we’ll just experiment.’”
Pokharel sent the jewelry to Calvin friends who sold it at home parties. Now 10 women gather every day around tables of beads and semi-precious stones at Higher Ground Crafts. Several have escaped prostitution and the growing sex trade in Kathmandu. Others are single mothers with no education. The jewelry they make is now sold through a partnership with Women At Risk (WAR) International.
Besides the dignity of earning an income and learning a skill, Higher Ground Crafts offers the women prayer and biblical teaching on personal transformation, though some are not Christians. “Low self-esteem, anger and jealousy are deep-rooted in the hearts of many,” Pokharel said. “We also teach them how to be godly mothers.”
Involvement in their personal lives has meant that Pokharel is often called to help with family problems or receives threats by men to whom the women are connected.
“I have seen a lot of changes in people’s lives,” she said, “women who have come to know the Lord and even one who was freed from demon possession. That’s something that really keeps me going, seeing that God is working powerfully in their lives.”
Most recently Pokharel has reached out to a village on the outskirts of Kathmandu where Crossway Church has planted a daughter church. There she’s begun a goat-raising micro-enterprise.
“It has challenges too,” she said, “but it’s a joy to follow the calling. I learned that at Calvin: to follow the calling from the Lord rather than my own heart.”
To learn more about Higher Ground Micro-enterprises, contact Pokharel at email@example.com or Becky McDonald at warinternational.org. To see jewelry made at Higher Ground Crafts, visit the Calvin Campus Store or www.warinternational.org.