Grand Rapids, Michigan: Praying with Purni
Place of Refuge – Part Five
by Patty Dekker | February 9, 2018
The numbers of people who have been forced to leave their homes throughout the world are staggering and growing—imagine the entire population of the United Kingdom or half the population of Mexico having to leave their homeland. How do we begin to understand what that means? While the scope of this global crisis may seem incomprehensible and the solutions beyond our reach, at the heart of the crisis are individuals trying to survive to keep their families together, and to find safe landing. In this seven-part series, we look at the stories of those who have sought refuge and those who have entered into their lives to offer help and support.
This story is Part-five of the Place of Refuge series. Click here to view additional stories.
Purni was born and raised in Bhutan in a family of ethnic Nepali farmers called Lhotshampas or Southerners. She was married in her late teens. Then in 1992 Purni fled her home in the night with her three young sons, ages five, three, and one month, along with a dozen neighbors. They were part of an exodus of more than 105,000 Lhotshampas who escaped Bhutan in the midst of ethnic and religious cleansing in the early 1990s.
After walking first to India, they continued on to the refugee camps in Nepal established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They were able to connect with members of her husband’s family there, and in 2004 her youngest child, a daughter, was born.
They remained in the camps for more than two decades. While they were there, neighbors in the camp told them about Jesus, and Purni and her family, who were Hindu, surrendered their lives wholeheartedly to the love of Jesus. During those years Purni’s youngest son disappeared more than once between the age of twelve and into his teens. When Purni and her family received their resettlement papers, he was still missing. The family had no choice but to move to the United States without him and pray that somehow they would be reunited. They were overjoyed when, a couple of years later, he finally made his way to the US where he has been reunited with them here in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
At Thornapple Covenant Church approximately sixty people consider our Nepali-speaking fellowship their church home. Since 2008 loyal volunteers and staff have helped hundreds of Bhutanese refugees in Grand Rapids settle into their new lives as permanent residents.
I met Purni the summer of 2014 soon after she arrived with her twenty-four-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter. Family members invited her to come to worship at our Nepali language fellowship. I was drawn to her from the very beginning, but it was a road trip to Minnesota that sealed our friendship. We traveled with Thornapple’s Nepali pastor Ram Aryal, his family, and a van load of other Nepali-speaking Christians to Minneapolis to encourage and be encouraged by other Covenant churches that are also reaching out to their Nepali-speaking communities.
At that point Purni was rather new to our community, and both her shy, serious nature and our lack of shared language left us to simple greetings. One evening our group spent some time praying in preparation for the following day of worship and ministry. It was one of the most powerful times of prayer I had experienced, and it cemented my friendship with Purni.
The next afternoon while most of us were relaxing between scheduled activities, Purni noticed that a group was worshiping in the sanctuary of the church where we were staying. It was a Spanish-speaking congregation. Although she didn’t understand the language, she joined them. She wanted to be wherever Jesus was being lifted up. Throughout the entire trip I noticed that Purni was always on her knees in prayer. Unless she was otherwise occupied, she was literally on her knees!
Purni struggles with multiple life-threatening health issues and certainly would not have reached her fiftieth birthday last year had she not made it to the US three years ago. I have found in her a consistent, overwhelming gratitude to God for having brought her out of a mostly hopeless life into one of freedom in faith and possibility.
I saw the most precious smile spread across my new friend’s face.
Prior to our trip to Minnesota, I had never seen Purni smile, but when we spotted each other at church the following Sunday, I saw the most precious smile spread across my new friend’s face. Since then, if I ever need anything, I ask Purni to pray for me. We still generally communicate with a handful of phrases of shared language along with smiles, hugs, and her daughter’s interpretation skills. But primarily our language is prayer. We pray simultaneously, Purni in Nepali and me in English, trusting God who understands the language of the heart. My life is much richer thanks to her friendship, prayers, and resilient faith.