Radio Ministry Breaks Ground in Tibet
We’re republishing this as part of our 25th anniversary series featuring favorite stories from our archives. This story by Doug Hsu appeared in ANM’s Voices in the Wilderness magazine in 2008. Enjoy!
By day, Tsering labors as a farmer breaking up the hard Tibetan ground to cultivate it.
By night, he is an avid short-wave radio fan, listening secretly at home to a Tibetan Gospel broadcast which is breaking up the hard ground of the Buddhist heart.
Last year, Tsering took a break from his labors. He wanted to see his children, who were studying at a special school in India for Tibetan refugees. So he made the long journey through the Himalayas across the Chinese border into India.
During his visit, he inquired about the Indian radio station that producsed his favorite radio program, Gaweylon (Tibetan for “Good News”). To his surprise, he learned it was just nearby. Within a short while he found himself sitting with one of the radio ministry staff.
Tsering could not contain his excitement. “I listen to your program regularly in Tibet,” he shared. “In fact, there are many people in my place who listen to your program. We are not free to listen to foreign stations, especially those that broadcast politics. People are eager for news and other information. Your program carries at night, so we listen at home using earphones—as we are not sure whether anyone will report us to authorities.”
He eagerly continued, “I like the Christian messages you give in the program. These messages give us hope and peace for the world. I am unable to write to you form Tibet due to the difficult conditions there. Since I had come to India, I just wanted to meet you personally!”
The roof of the world
For centuries, Tibet has been one of the world’s most mysterious and forbidden lands, where few outsiders could enter. Mention Tibet, and various exotic images immediately come to mind: rugged Himalayan peaks, red-robed Buddhist monks, wooly yaks roaming across arid plateaus, etc.
In 1950 the Chinese government annexed Tibet. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama fled to India and set up the Tibetan government-in-exile. Along with him fled a large number of fellow Tibetans, who ended up as refugees in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The majority came to India, where the government helped settle them in various refugee camps and permitted them to set up their own Buddhist monasteries and schools. There are an estimated seven million Tibetans worldwide, with six million in Tibet and one million as refugees outside.
Tibetan Buddhists have proven to be one of the world’s most difficult ethnic groups to reach with the Gospel. Western ministry efforts in Tibet began over a century ago but yielded very little fruit. Missionaries found that Tibetan Buddhism permeated every aspect of daily life and could find virtually no way to break spiritual ground there. Following the Chinese annexation of Tibet, the area has been even further sealed off from the Gospel, due to censorship and strict government rule.
But these days, Tibetans like Tsering are voluntarily tuning into Gospel on the airwaves. Across the Tibetan plateau and in refugee camps throughout India, Nepal, and Bhutan, tens of thousands of Tibetans are daily learning about Jesus Christ through the Gaweylon radio programs.
Finally, Tibetan ground is being broken.
Gaweylon ministry staff regularly travel across India to Tibetan refugee camps and monasteries to meet with program listeners. During a recent field visit they heard the following comments from a head monk at a Buddhist monastery.
“I came to India from Tibet, and I have lived in this monastery for 44 years. Gaweylon is my favorite program. Along with many others I listen regularly. The health information is very useful. I learn so many new things every day. The monks listen to Gaweylon and other Tibetan broadcasts. They later sit and discuss the contents of the programs. I respect all religions and I find the Christian religion similar in some ways to the Buddhist religion. Christians show love and compassion to others and help the poor and needy. I have not accepted Jesus openly, but I believe in Him with my heart.”
In the late 1980s a group of missions organizations who had been trying—mostly unsuccessfully—to reach Tibetans with the Gospel met together in Nepal. Realizing that it was time for a new approach, they discussed the possibility of joining forces to start a new Tibetan radio ministry. Why radio? Because Tibet had been closed off after the Chinese takeover, and because they knew that many Tibetans regularly scanned their short-wave radio sets for any news from the outside world.
Out of these meetings the Gaweylon ministry was prayerfully birthed, and the late Stephen Hishey (himself a convert from Tibetan Buddhism) was appointed as its director. In 1990 the India-based ministry began broadcasting a daily 15-minute short-wave radio program. God blessed this humble endeavor: listener response was so encouraging that within two years the ministry had to upgrade it to a daily 30-minute program.
A growing ministry
The broadcast area covers Tibet, India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and over the years the listening audience has steadily grown. Last year the ministry received a whopping 20,000+ responses from listeners—through letters, telephone, e-mail, and personal visits. Each response is carefully followed up with the help of 12 full-time staff.
Unlike Christian radio broadcasts in the West, which generally contain 100% religious content, the Gaweylon program features a creative blend of topics in order to attract Tibetan listeners from all backgrounds. Each thirty-minute program consists of a mix of health information, general knowledge, Tibetan culture and music, and Christian teaching. As such, programs listeners—the vast majority of them Buddhist—find this balance helpful and extremely stimulating.
During a ministry field visit to a Buddhist monastery North India one of the resident monks hared the following: “I listen to the Gaweylon radio program regularly in the evening. All the monks in our monastery don’t have radios, so they gather together with those who have radios and listen. I like the programs, as I get useful health information and I like the messages that you broadcast. The messages teach us to live in peace and also to respect and love others. I heard about Yesu [Jesus] before, but it is through your programs that I have come to know about His life, teachings, and sacrifice on the cross. After all of us listen to your program, we discuss with each other the contents and compare the beliefs of both religions.”
Letters pour in every day from listeners—mainly form Tibetan refugee camps and monasteries in India, but occasionally even from Tibet. Usually they contain a request for more literature, whether health-related or Gospel-related. Here is a typical sample, sent in from a Buddhist monastery in South India by Lobsang Tharchin: “I like your program very much. I get peace of mind when I listen to your program. I have been sick for the past two years and am bedridden. I have read all the books that you have sent me. I thank you all for your good programs which encourage me. Please send me more books on the life of the Lord Jesus.”
In the 21st century, is radio ministry still effective? According to the Gaweylon director, Ani, absolutely yes. “Of course in India and Nepal things are changing,” he admits. “These days young Tibetans [in India and Nepal] are more interested in films and TV and everybody—even monks—can visit Internet cafes. But some young and many older Tibetans—those 40 and over—still listen to our programs, because they can’t get traditional Tibetan music, health or cultural features anywhere else.”
Ani continues, “But in Tibet, it’s a different story. Tibetans like to know what’s going on in the outside world, but all foreign broadcasts (TV and radio) are barred. So many listen to shortwave radio secretly via headphones, so they won’t get reported to the authorities. From time to time our friends visit Tibet and we get feedback from them. People from Tibet also visit us here and we get feedback. That’s how we know people are listening to us. In fact, in many parts of Tibet we are simply known as the ‘Yesu [Jesus] program.’ Ultimately, we know the impact our radio programs are having through the thousands of responses we get regularly from our listeners.”
Ani clarifies that although it may appear that Gaweylon is only concerned with Gospel radio, the broadcasts are just one facet—albeit the most prominent one—of the ministry. “From the beginning, our aim has always been to first communicate the Gospel to Tibetans and then later to disciple and equip them for Christian service,” he explains. “Radio is just the starting point. We have a large literature and audio/visual resource department—tracts, Bibles, CDs, tapes. We send out thousands of pieces of literature every year as part of our listener follow-up. In particular, we get numerous requests for Christian literature and Bibles from monks studying in monasteries. We also regularly send out outreach teams to visit Tibetan camps, schools, and monasteries to distribute literature and CDs.”
Plowing hard ground
In spite of the encouraging number of listener responses, Ani concedes that breaking spiritual ground in Tibetan hearts is still hard. “Very few people last long in this kind of work,” he shares candidly. “True, its an ‘exotic’ ministry. But few people are willing to sow and keep sowing for many years without seeing a lot of fruit. A number of Tibetans have accepted the Lord, but many of those have also backslid. We do get discouraged at times.”
“But even so, we know that God is touching lives,” states Ani confidently. Recently the ministry received a letter from a young Tibetan woman. She wrote that she had accepted the Lord, got baptized, and wanted to grow in her new faith. Could Gaweylon send her some literature? She had enclosed a check for 400 rupees ($10) as a love offering. “I nearly cried,” Ani says. “It was the first time in our history that we had received a love offering from a Tibetan believer!” Another young Tibetan woman recently arrived at Gaweylon’s doorstep. She had accepted the Lord in India, attended a one-year Bible school, and was wondering where to go from there when a friend suggested that she go to Gaweylon’s headquarters. “We are discipling and mentoring her now,” explains Ani excitedly. “God is at work!”
Every day, Ani and his team of 13 continue to plow hard Tibetan ground. Through radio, email, Internet, CDs, tracts, Bibles, field visits, telephone counseling, and mentoring, they continue to faithfully work the soil—all the while praying for the fruit. But they can’t do it alone. They need encouragement. They need prayer. And they need financial assistance. For many are the forces who wish to see this small but highly strategic ministry shut down, but few are those who are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the field.
Twenty-five years after we started partnering with native ministries like this one to reach the unreached, the work continues, and we are closer than ever to seeing the Gospel proclaimed and lived out among every people group in the world. Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel!
There’s more to be done, and just $25 a month can equip another missionary. Learn More