The LDS Church in Mongolia
Mongolian Mormons are no strangers to extremes. From extreme temperatures (traveling to church in 50-below weather) to extreme firesides (with a typical attendance of more than 300 people) to extreme missionary work (with every member a missionary—truly), the most sparsely populated country in the world (Antarctica excepted) is multiplying in faith.
History in the Making
It all started with a hunting trip.
Monte J. Brough, who would later be called to the Seventy, traveled to Mongolia to hunt in 1984—and he instantly fell in love with the Mongolian people.
“I remember I prayed that one day they would hear the gospel,” said Elder Brough, in his report on the opening of Mongolia to the gospel.
He returned to Mongolia in 1992, this time as a member of the Asia Area Presidency, to explore the possibility of the Church offering humanitarian aid to the country. After months of negotiation, the Church was permitted to send six missionary couples to teach the gospel and assist in the country’s higher education fund.
“There are no handbooks. There is no pattern, so we didn’t really know what to do,” said Elder Brough, who passed away in 2011. “But we believe there was a lot of inspiration in what happened. . . . Our feeling was that if we could do something on a humanitarian basis, we could gain access to the country. We found enormous receptivity to that.”
And the rest? Beautiful history.
The first sacrament meeting was conducted in 1992 in the apartment of lead missionary couple Kenneth and Donna Beesley. The first two converts—Lamjav Purevsuren and Tsendkhuu Bat-Ulzii—were baptized February 6, 1993. Six months later, the first six elder missionaries arrived (in matching winter gear) prepared to teach English and share the gospel with inquiring Mongolians. That same year, Elder Neal A. Maxwell visited the country, dedicated the land for missionary work, and hosted a reception in which 50 government officials attended. In 1994, the Church was officially registered with the Mongolian government. One year later, the first mission—the Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission—officially opened, and a year after that, the first four sister missionaries arrived. In 2001, the Book of Mormon was translated into Mongolian and distributed among the Saints. In 2009, the first Mongolian stake was organized. And last year, the ten thousandth member was baptized.
For a country that is 96 percent Tibetan Buddhist, such milestones are more than momentous.
“I believe our Church is the largest Christian organization in Mongolia,” says Allen Andersen, a former member of the Seventy and Mongolia’s mission president from 2007–2008. “There are not many countries where the Church can make such a claim.”
And it’s a claim that took shape with those first six missionary couples who took their assignment to heart, mind, and prayer.
“Under such kind of severe living conditions, these wonderful couples remained cheerful and in good spirit, loving their work and service opportunity,” says Kwok Tai, a former member of the Seventy who served with Elder Brough in the Asia Area Presidency. “It was a humble experience in witnessing how these devoted couples acted as the Lord’s instrument to establish His church in a faraway, primitive land.”
Brothers and Sisters
Ochirjav Odgerel had a plan: “Enjoy to the end.”
Born and raised to be a communist leader, Odgerel studied and worked to be a good member of his party. But when Eastern Europe’s communist regime fell in 1989, a 22-year-old Odgerel was left questioning his next move.
“What is the purpose of this life?” Odgerel asked himself. “I decided to party and ‘enjoy to the end’—having no idea it was a dead end.”
In 1994, Odgerel’s mother was baptized and asked her son to attend church. His response? Not a chance. “I grew up in a country where we had no God and no devil,” Odgerel says. “The ideology was that religion is opium for people. To me, church was just wasting time.”
After continued pleas, Odgerel granted his mother’s request and attended a sacrament meeting. It didn’t take. In fact, Odgerel didn’t feel a spark until he attended an English class held at the Church. His teacher was Elder Carlson, a lively senior missionary bursting with energy.
“I said to him, ‘In Mongolia, people your age are ready to die, but you are so energetic. How can you be like that?’” Odgerel says. “And he replied, ‘Do you want to talk with me about life?’”
Odgerel did, indeed. Eight months later, he was baptized. And in 2009, he became the first president of the first-ever Mongolian stake.
And President Odgerel isn’t alone. Throughout the Church’s 20-year history in Mongolia, more than 10,000 Saints have discovered and delighted in the gospel.
Take Enkhbold Badarch, one of Mongolia’s first bishops.
“I always wanted to be honest and polite—a good person. But I couldn’t find a good example of a good person in my life,” Bishop Badarch says. “I was hired by the Church as a financial consultant in 1999, and I was surprised at the good examples of the Service Center manager and his wife. I felt that if the Church makes people like the Service Center manager, I want to be a part of this Church.”
Today, Bishop Badarch is more than a good person; he’s a part of history.
“The Church is a candle in the darkness here in Mongolia,” he says. “I am one of the first six bishops. I felt like I was receiving the armor of God to fight for righteousness.”
And fighting right alongside him is his wife, Soyolmaa Urtnasan. As one of the first two missionaries to be called from Mongolia (she served in the Utah Provo Mission), Urtnasan has a historic journey of her own. But her road has been ripe with challenges.
After losing her parents in high school, Urtnasan was shy, insecure, and unhappy. “I was a ‘two-faced’ person—happy and outgoing on the outside, miserable and shy on the inside,” she says. “To dull the pain and hide my insecurity, I drank a lot and did things just to please others. I was so busy playing this game, I did not notice who I was turning into.”
Family and friends tried to reason with Urtnasan, but nothing clicked—until she heard the gospel. “I learned why I was not happy and why life was so difficult for me,” she says. “The gospel changed me inside and out. I found hope. I found a meaning to my life.”
Urtnasan was baptized in1994. Eighteen years later, she’s the stake Relief Society president, a ward Sunday School teacher, director of the music review committee, and the national public affairs director. Additionally, she works for the Church as the Service Center manager.
“I love how the gospel gives us an opportunity to discover the talents we did not know we possessed and turn them into something wonderful,” she says. But more than anything, she loves the connection the gospel gives to our brothers and sisters around the world. “We are here,” Urtnasan says. “And we are part of you.”
No Time Like the Present
Today, the Church in Mongolia is vibrant.
Families are thriving and a new generation of children is being born under the covenant. Young single adults are banding together to learn the gospel (and speed date!). Every tenth member of the Church is serving a mission. Older converts are attending institute to make up for lost time. And youth often make the trek to seminary in temperatures south of freezing.
“The most thrilling part is to see the progress our members are making. It’s like watching an infant grow into adulthood,” Urtnasan says. “It is wonderful to see our members changing their lives and their environment and becoming better disciples.”
President Odgerel couldn’t agree more. “Our members help each other,” he says. “They understand the gospel and want to be like our Savior.”
But Mongolian members are not without their challenges. “There are financial and health challenges,” says Sister Pat Clark, wife of President Jay Clark, the current mission president in Mongolia. What’s more, being the minority isn’t always easy. “Religious freedom is not well enforced, and people’s views about Christianity are not very friendly,” says Gankhuyag Tsogoo, a Mongolian member who was baptized in 2004 and now serves as a district president.
“Religious discrimination and persecution is very common,” Urtnasan adds. “But aside from that, of course, is simply resisting the world.”
And as in every culture, the antidote to the world is building strong families— something Mongolian Saints are enjoying now more than ever. “One of the most wonderful things is to watch families get stronger in the gospel,” Tsogoo says. “When the Church was being organized in Mongolia, there were very few families. Today we have many strong families. Many returned missionaries are getting married to each other. I’m thrilled to watch the Church grow.”
Called to Serve
Mongolians are seeing the Church grow because they are growing it.
“I was immediately impressed with the passion for missionary work among the Mongolian members,” Andersen says. “Serving a mission is as important an experience for the young men and women of Mongolia as it is with Church members on the Wasatch front. They are well prepared and serve so very well.”
More than a thousand Mongolian members have served missions, and “every member a missionary” is a practice—not a slogan. “Much of the missionary work is done with members and member referrals,” Andersen says. “It is a wonderful thing to attend the missionary firesides in Mongolia. Many non-member family and friends attend, and there is standing room only in a room filled with the Spirit.”
Foreign missionaries are not allowed to proselyte or wear name badges on the street, but they can answer questions when asked. There is no door knocking. They only go to homes upon invitation. They also teach English classes in various locations (schools, businesses, police academies, etc.).
“One of the biggest surprises in Mongolia is the number of native Mongolian missionaries who comprise the mission,” Sister Clark says. In late 2010, we had just seven American elders out of a total of 125 missionaries. By March 2011, that number dropped to four. Almost half of our missionaries were Mongolian sisters!”
And with so many locally grown missionaries, it gives new meaning to “home away from home.”
“Imagine the challenge of serving in the same city your friends and family live in! When we first arrived, we found local missionaries sometimes running and hiding when they would accidentally see a family member or friend on the street or in Church because they wanted to be obedient to mission rules,” Sister Clark says. “When President Clark found out about that he asked them to stop and greet their friends or family members. He encouraged them to smile and say ‘hello’ or give them a hug (if appropriate), and tell them about the work they are doing and how happy they were. He related to them Lehi’s desire to share the fruit from the tree of life first with his family, and he asked them to hand out pass-along cards and invite them to learn more about what they are doing on their missions.”
For all the success, President Odgerel credits an excitement about the eternal plan. “Mongolian people have a wonderful attitude when missionaries talk about the Plan of Salvation,” he says. “They have so much interest when missionaries talk about religion, and I believe it is the result of a spiritual hunger they had during the communist period of time.”
And while there are struggles with0020retention among converts, the people are determined to change that. “We really work on this,” says President Odgerel, who also works as the Seminary and Institute coordinator. “Almost 80 percent of the new converts usually come back after we visit them.”
They’d Love to See the Temple
When it comes to the future hopes and dreams of the Mongolian Saints, there’s one common thirst. “Everyone in Mongolia will give the same answer,” Andersen says. “We are looking forward to a temple in Mongolia. The Mongolian Saints are a temple-loving people.”
Truly. Trips to the Hong Kong Temple require a three-day train ride each way, and the Saints’ temple trips are often 16 days in length. “They spend all of one week going to almost every session, every day,” Andersen says. “Because of the expense involved, it is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of them.”
But until the temple comes, the Mongolian Saints are thrilled with the progress they’ve experienced—and the organization in 2009 of their first and only stake remains a seminal season.
“It was a very special time,” Urtnasan says. “Being a stake meant we now needed to learn to be independent—to do things on our own without relying on senior missionaries and mission presidents. It was great to feel we have enough priesthood power to run a stake. I felt privileged and blessed to witness this great event.”
And it’s that privileged perspective that keeps these faithful Saints looking onward and upward—with extreme pride.
“I am so proud and truly admire Mongolian Latter-day Saints,” Tsogoo says. “They are true and humble followers of Jesus Christ, and for them it is an honor and privilege to be a Latter-day Saint.”
Check out more articles about the Church around the world in Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.