Listen: Rhys Emmanuel chats to Hope Media’s Emma Mullings about life in Tibet
If you’re looking for a great adventure story to sink your teeth into, look no further than The Tibetan Godfather.
The new Arkhouse Press biography is a fascinating tale of adventures and eye-popping cultural experiences on the Tibetan plateau. It tells the true story of author Rhys Emmanuel, his young family, and his 10 years as a missionary to the people of Tibet.
How God Called A Young Aussie Couple To Tibet
In an interview with Hope Media’s Emma Mullings, Rhys said he first felt drawn to Tibet, west of China, as a young man wanting to make a positive difference in the world.
“My wife and I went on a short-term mission trip with some people from our church to China, and we heard about unreached people groups,” he explained.
“That was when we started to think more strategically and specifically about who we wanted to focus on and how we could help.”
He became a nurse so that he could help people with medical needs.
“We were told that teachers and nurses were two of the most useful professions on the field, and at the time teaching didn’t interest me, but nursing did. So it was a bit unusual I guess – I still get the reaction today that I’m a “male nurse” and that it’s a bit odd.”
A Land Filled With Surprises
The cultural differences Rhys had to adjust to in moving first to China and then to Tibet, were innumerable.
His book describes, often with great humour, the many complexities of a life far removed from Sydney, Australia – such as learning the Tibetan language, attending strange medical examinations, passing the Chinese driver’s license with its at-times nonsensical questions, and the delicate social niceties of cultural celebrations.
He also shares fascinating stories of the dangers of the roads, and close shaves with creatures like the rare musk deer, red pandas, and marmots.
His wife Grace faced her own unique challenges, such as being pregnant in a non-Western nation with the threat of SARS around.
“There were so many surprises and things that you didn’t know how to process,” Rhys said.
“One of the things I never got used to, was the constant staring and constant comments as you walked by. I guess being from a multicultural society you just tended to [accept] people who were different, spoke a different language and had a different culture.
“But in China it’s really not quite like that. It got very irritating after a while, the constant stares, and I never really got used to it.”
The Gruesome Practice Of Sky Burial
The most confronting practice of Tibetan culture that Rhys encountered is the fascinating, poignant and somewhat gruesome practice known as sky burial.
This is the disposing of a dead person in open grasslands where the body is dismembered, crushed, and finally left to the vultures. The grieving party (usually only men) watch until the body has gone.
Rhys says he had the tragic experience of watching his good friend, a language teacher called Alex, “buried” in this way.
“I’d become quite good friends with him,” Rhys said. “He drowned and it was all very unexpected and sad.
This is the disposing of a dead person in open grasslands where the body is dismembered, crushed, and finally left to the vultures.
“As a result of being a close friend I attended his sky burial. It is very confronting, it’s hard to watch, it was hard to watch my friend go in that way – but I guess you have to share in the tragedies as much as the triumphs of the journey.”
He says Tibetans believe that by returning the body to nature, the dead person is contributing back to life on earth.
“It’s something of a redemptive analogy, in that even death gives life to those that remain,” he said. “I actually used that with quite a few Tibetan people to talk about Jesus’ death giving us life.”
A Godfather To Eight Young Girls
The practice of adopting godparents is common in Tibetan society, but not for religious reasons. It’s more to do with strengthening favourable relationships.
Rhys, being a Westerner with unique skills, was sought-after as a godfather and ended up with eight separate goddaughters – at times to his great surprise.
“My first god-daughter was a girl I was visiting,” he said. “I said something to her mother about her coming back to a different town and going to an English camp to help with her English.
“Her mother said “yes, she’ll definitely come back with you”. I said “are you sure you feel comfortable with that?”, and she said “of course – she’s with her godfather. Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable when she’s with her godfather!”
“That was the first I heard that I was actually even her godfather. So I was as surprised as anybody. And it sort of snowballed from there, one god-daughter after another.”
Rhys is quick to stress though, that God, not himself, is not the Tibetan godfather named in his book’s title.
When A Nurse Becomes A Life-Changing Doctor
In working as a nurse in Tibet, Rhys became somewhat of a de facto doctor, diagnosing and treating a wide range of serious ailments.
He treated people with tuberculosis, rickets, high blood pressure, brain infection, arthritis, roundworm and tapeworm, digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, mental illness, autism and more — and even helped amputees by linking them up with doctors to have prosthetic limbs fitted.
His wife Grace, a trained ophthalmic assistant, at times worked in eye camps assisting with cataract surgeries.
Rhys’s work often transformed the lives of his patients, as was the case of a little girl crippled by arthritis.
“She was in a wheelchair because of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and she hadn’t gotten the right treatment,” Rhys said. “By the time she came to me she was 10 years old and in a wheelchair. She was a very cute girl and had a smile that would melt your heart.
“I put her on various medications and we did serial casting where you put plaster casts on the legs to stretch them out over weeks. It took months but little by little we got her up walking and out of the wheelchair.
“Now she’s walking around almost completely fine, and is not even on medications any more. It was just amazing.”
Saving Lives On The Tibetan Plateau
Rhys’s medical intervention often saved lives, as was the case with a man called Tenzin and his quite miraculous recovery.
“A boy came to me thinking his father had had a stroke,” Rhys said, “so I went to see the father, Tenzin, and when I walked into his house, the guy was nearly dead — probably a few weeks from death.
“It turned out he had an unusual illness, TB of the meninges, which is actually the lining of the brain. So he had tuberculosis of the brain, which is a bit unusual.
“I put him on various medications and little by little he slowly got there. He couldn’t talk for about nine months, and then slowly he would start to utter things.
“I left him some gospel materials in Tibetan which he was able to read, and he came to believe [in Jesus]. I prayed with him every time I went there, and now he’s just a walking talking miracle.
“Everybody in the town knows about him and some of them were actually so amazed they couldn’t even believe it – they thought he must have been faking it the whole time (I don’t know to what gain!)
“He is just an amazing guy.”
Sharing The Good News In A Foreign Land
While living and working in Tibet Rhys had some remarkable experiences of sharing the Christian message with all manner of people – from friends and neighbours, to god-daughters and their families, to a clinically depressed Buddhist nun and her Lama (monk leader).
In the book’s closing chapter, he says he often felt like he and his wife were “instruments in the hand of the Chief Surgeon” — often out of their depth but simply following where the path led.
“That He used us at all, showed me and hopefully others the power of His grace, His ability in our inability,” he writes.
“We were instruments in the hand of the Chief Surgeon” ~ Rhys Emmanuel, the nurse who became a de facto doctor in Tibet
He encourages people who are interested in overseas mission work to pray carefully and find work that suits their strengths.
“You’ve got to really know in your heart that that’s what God wants you to do, and start to make some enquiries,” he said. “There are so many organisations out there that cater for different individuals, different skills and different personalities, and there are so many great places of need. Even in our own backyard.
“God makes you who you are and calls you to places that are going to suit who you are. And certainly there’ll be times where you don’t feel adequate and you’re out of your depth.
“I think you’ve got to find what is your personality, and where is that going to work in line with where God’s calling you.”
Readjusting To Life In Australia
The Tibetan Godfather sheds light on the stark contrast between Eastern and Western life, particularly upon Rhys and his family’s return to their homeland.
There were surprising difficulties of adjusting back to Australian life complete with all its creature-comforts. For his children, Australia was a foreign land; they had grown up in Asia.
His story also has a poignant post-script as Rhys tells the story of his wife Grace’s near-deadly aneurysm, and her many months of recovery.
The book is worth the read for this chapter alone, which shines a torch on his family’s sacrifice and determination in enduring such huge challenges.
In the closing chapter of his book, Rhys says of his time in Tibet that he felt like he and his wife were “instruments in the hand of the Chief Surgeon.”
“That he used us at all, showed me and hopefully others the power of his grace, his ability in our inability.”
The Tibetan Godfather: God’s Healing Hand On The Tibetan Plateau is available in paperback at Koorong bookshops, and as an e-book on Amazon.