James Lhomi* first heard the Gospel as a child in a small Lhomi village in the Himalayan mountain region of Nepal.
His mother was ill and said to be possessed by demons. The village priest and Buddhist leaders could not heal her, so James sought help from one of the few Christian families in the village. “They told me that there is freedom from the demons in Jesus,” James said. “In Jesus, there is the victory. And I started to believe in Christ.”
James’ mother was healed as they started reading the Bible and Christian literature given to them by the Christian family. But James still could not understand the true meaning of God’s message because the Nepalese language was used in the literature and for worship. The Christians in the village realized that they needed to create materials in the Lhomi language. It wasn’t until they started worshipping and singing songs in James’ first language – his heart language – that he believed in Jesus.
This lesson about the importance of a heart language stuck with James throughout his life. He felt called by the Lord to use traditional folk music to reach the Lhomi Tibetan people even though he has no formal music training. He spent years learning how to play traditional folk instruments and music. Now, James is a singer, songwriter, and worship leader at the Lhomi church, home to between 250 to 300 believers. “Our experience is that our own language should be used to glorify the Lord,” he said. Worship services use a book of traditional songs, and James has also composed around 80 contemporary songs that appeal to younger people. His songs use classic Lhomi instruments, melody, and structure to preach the Gospel. One song is based on scripture from Hebrews: “I will certainly bless you, and I will multiply your descendants beyond number.” Hebrews 6:14 (NLT)
The joyful message of the songs stands in stark contrast to other Lhomi music, which speaks of sorrow and loss. It’s touching the hearts of the Lhomi people, who will often cry when Lhomi starts singing about the peace and hope that can be found in Jesus. “The songs tell them that if you have a sorrow in your life, Jesus wants to give joy,” James said. “They really like Christian songs because the melody is beautiful and the lyrics are meaningful.”
Composing songs and using traditional Lhomi instruments is a big part of the appeal of the music to the Lhomi people. This small Tibetan people group living in regions of Nepal, northeast India, and Tibet is composed of around 10,000 to 15,000 people according to James, and their culture and traditional music are being lost with every passing generation. Some don’t even know how to read the Lhomi language because they have grown up using the Nepalese language. James draws a crowd when he visits mountain villages and starts playing music on instruments that most people have long forgotten about. “People are really surprised when they see me,” James said. “They want to know how and when I learned how to play their music. It is very meaningful to them because it is their music.”
James is careful to use instruments from the Lhomi culture in a new way that is honoring to God. He chooses to not use certain instruments that have significant Buddhist or idolatrous religious meaning, such as a drum that is usually used to call forth demons. Or he will modify an instrument so that it doesn’t feature the painted demon faces found on the original instruments. Sometimes James will even alter the song style, changing the rhythm and the melody so that the song is recognizable as a traditional Lhomi piece but does not too closely reflect the music used in non-Christian religious practices.
Groups in the area have started literacy and awareness programs in order to preserve the Lhomi culture and language, and James’ music is a big part of that. But James emphasizes that the purpose of his music is to reach the people with the word of God. “Music is a gift from the Lord,” James said. “Music in their own language communicates to the people’s hearts. This is the Lord’s work among us.”
Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15
*Not his real name
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photography by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, October 2012]