Contextualisation or syncretism

In the hallowed halls of a Bible College, Janna had diligently prepared for a life of service amongst unreached people groups. Now she remembered wistfully the satisfaction of winning a prize for that essay about ‘contextualisation and syncretism’. It had all seemed so straightforward back then.

‘Contextualisation’ is the way elements of local culture are used to convey truths about God’s kingdom … and it is good. ‘Syncretism’ is the way elements of different religions or worldviews become amalgamated … and it is bad. But where does one draw the line between ‘contextualisation’ and ‘syncretism’?

Janna had put in years of language study, and had built up a business that provided her with a role in the community and a visa. She had shared her life and faith as naturally and clearly as she was able with those around her, but it had been a long, hard slog and acutely discouraging for many years. But times were changing.

Recently, God had showed himself quite clearly to those who had looked for him. Dreams and visions, healings and deliverances, miraculous provision of food and funds—it was incredible. And now two young people, Yeshe and Diki, were ready to publicly declare their faith through baptism.

Janna had prepared them well as they studied what the Bible teaches about baptism. Now all that remained was to work out the practical details: who would conduct the baptism, where would it take place and who would attend.

The young people wanted Janna, as their teacher, to baptise them. But she refused. She didn’t want baptism to be seen as turning to a foreign religion. Should she try to invite a believer from another area? He would speak a different dialect though. What about a big city church leader? But the emerging local church was intended to be indigenous to this people group. So she put that problem aside for the moment. Where would the baptism occur? That would be simpler.

Although it was summer, Yeshe and Diki were adamant that the river would be too cold. After all, the river was fed by glaciers. Briefly, Janna considered ‘dunking them’ in a bath … but there were no baths in this town. As every possibility was rejected, Janna realised that these new believers were terrified of going under water. She put that problem aside for the moment too. Who would the young believers like to invite to their baptism? Surely that would be simpler.

Quickly Yeshe and Diki listed a few of their friends from Bible study. “Good”, Janna replied, “but what about your families?” Janna had stayed with Yeshe’s family twice when they had invited her to celebrate New Year in their winter home up the valley. She had met Diki’s mother when she had come to town for medical appointments. Again, her ‘helpful’ suggestions were met with one block after another. “It was too far. It was summer and the family would be on the plateau with the yak. There was no point waiting until autumn because the family would be getting their winter homes sorted.” There were obviously deeper reasons for their reluctance to invite their families.

Frustrated, Janna decided that it was best to leave the practical issues of their baptism with Yeshe and Diki. She was confident the important points—the theological truths embodied in baptism—were clearly understood. It was their church that was at the brink of being birthed, and they must come up with their own contextualised way of conducting baptisms.

Two weeks later, the young people bounced into Janna’s apartment. They had a plan! Janna grinned. This is what it was all about—local people establishing Christian rites without foreign interference.

She sat down, leaned forward and listened.

First, they explained, they needed a Christian holy man. A pastor from the big city would do, but they worried that he’d insist on baptising them ‘big-city style’. A foreign holy man would be okay too. Best of all would be a holy man from their own people group. However, holy men were all Buddhists in this area. Perhaps Janna could connect them with a holy man. They were willing to travel far from home for the rite. They would actually prefer that because their families would be worried if they heard of them undergoing a non-Buddhist religious rite.

Next, they described how they would like to be baptised. If it was up to them, yak milk would be used for the ‘waters of baptism’, and it would be sprinkled. They had learned, as they researched the matter, that some churches would sprinkle new believers, especially if they were elderly or unwell. Sprinkling would suit them so much better. Yak milk would symbolise nurture and purity. Just as good Buddhists flick their drinks three times before consuming them, thus honouring the powers around them, so they hoped that a Christian holy man would flick yak milk over them three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then the holy man would place a blessed white silk scarf around each of their necks and declare them Christians.

The young people beamed. Janna frowned. Distant memories of that prize-winning essay flitted through her mind. The concept of power being contained in certain people and things reflected their Buddhist mindset. Requiring a ‘holy man’ … adapting Buddhist practices of flicking drinks three times … giving blessed scarves. What was contextualisation and what was syncretism?

What should Janna do?

Janna’s story is true, although identifying details have been changed. Many workers have responded to this dilemma in different ways. Some encourage local believers to make the decisions themselves, encouraging them to find locally appropriate ways of expressing their faith. Others insist on what is seen as ‘foreign ways’, leaving no room for syncretism.

The point of this story isn’t to provide the ‘right answer’, but to ask you to pray for great wisdom for cross-cultural workers and new believers as they establish brand new churches in local contexts. What is the ‘right answer’? God alone knows.

The author is a researcher and language learner, serving people of Asia long term.
Names have been changed.

The gentle healer

We met Joshua* 10 years ago when we first came to East Asia as Interserve Partners. He was a humble, gentle medical doctor and qualified counselor, who worked in our counselling company where we initially gave training and supervision. Joshua had always been highly
motivated to support people in dire need; his previous work was with AIDS victims. When we shared with him the wholistic Bible-based
counseling program that we use, he was very receptive to this approach to understanding and working with people.

Joshua has identified issues that are critical for promoting healthy individuals and communities in his country: issues such as grief, anxiety,
keys to healthy marriage, raising children, and domestic violence. His burden for the brokenness of so many local people, together with his robust faith and God’s love, led him to open his own counseling initiative and to plant a church. Edward continued for some years to supervise him. Joshua’s vision is to enable individuals, within community, to find healing and wholeness in Christ, and train those who desire to assist people on this journey. His humility, servant heart, deep faith, resourcefulness, teachability and his capacity to help others grow
leave a deep impression.

Opportunities for Joshua to train and influence others are expanding. Recently Joshua was asked to teach 480 school principals and deputies how to care for their students (just be kind!) rather than using fear as motivation for learning. He also teaches key government and women’s agency leaders in a prominent Muslim town. In an exciting development this year, the local radio station invited him to share on whatever topic he wished in prime time. Joshua now reaches more than 80,000 listeners. And while he shares on air, his church prays!

In the midst of all this, Joshua maintains a specific focus on training his own group of 12 counselors each year and has used our Bible-based
counseling program for 10 years now to care for people wholistically. His counselling trainees teach regular spots at a significant seminary that trains minority people, 700 km away. He is raising up others to lead home groups in his church by mentoring leaders and preachers. That initial church plant now has two daughter churches!

Joshua is truly a humble man of God with wisdom beyond his years, yet with humility and clarity of thought. His unusual passion for the rural poor and for training minority people, whom the nation’s church often overlooks, is outstanding. Joshua was delighted to share his story with you and asks for your prayers.

We are grateful for God’s goodness and how He meets us as we take small obedient steps into the unknown. We are especially thankful
for Joshua: his life, faith and passion for leading others into healing and wholeness. And we are thankful for how God has woven our lives
together in such a beautiful way over the past 10 years.

Edward and Inga* are counseling trainers in East Asia.
*Names have been changed.

Edward* is a GP and Inga* is a professional counselor. They seek to empower local believers to bring healing to broken hearts.

As a result of rapid social change, the heart needs in their country are massive. The national church is growing fast, but many believers carry deep inner wounds and the divorce rate is high. Wise pastors increasingly equest counseling training, wanting future church leaders to be more effectively equipped.

Having lived and worked in Asia for more than 10 years, Edward and Inga train local Christian counselors and church leaders. They use a certified framework that Asian Christians have found to be biblically robust, theologically and psychologically integrative, culturally sensitive, systematic and teachable. Students personally receive emotional and
psychological healing and they are equipped and empowered to bring healing to others.

The best place to be

Working alongside with the national church is not to ‘show and tell’ what it means to follow Jesus, but to learn, discern and participate in what God has already been doing amongst the local people. It is not just to say, “Here I am, use me,” but to say, “Thank you God, for using these people to teach me about humility, trust and perseverance; thank you for giving me the privilege to witness the mission movement amongst them in a time such as this.”

Ministering from the prosperous coast to the devastated earthquake region, from the cold mountains to the arid desert, from the rural villages to the urban apartments, I’ve had many unforgettable experiences in Asia. Here is a glimpse:

Can you imagine being woken up by the orchestral sounds of birds, indigenous music and singing, and fervent prayers at 5am every morning? I lay on a hard wooden bed in a simple hut in rural Asia and was deeply touched by the presence of God in this special setting. I knew that this was where God had placed me. This is close to heaven. I forgot about the high temperature, bites of fleas and mosquitoes, regular power failure, lack of water and the unbearably filthy toilet. All I knew was that I was deeply touched and spiritually enriched. The indigenous songs, sung right from their hearts without any instruments, echoed again and again in my ears.

In the eyes of the world, they are lowly, uneducated and poor. Yet, they
and servants of the Most High who demonstrate an amazing godly lifestyle. There is a deep sense of spiritual connection between us. My heart joins with God’s and there is an overflowing love for this simple, humble and thirsty people.

Their purity, boldness and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel exemplify what is described in Acts 4:13: “they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Some of them have served the Lord for over thirty years, starting to preach with only one chapter of the Bible at hand (which was shared by the entire church back then). They travelled and preached the gospel by foot or bicycle throughout the years until revival came to the region. They fed the beggars, healed the blind, and drove out demons in Jesus’ name.

My colleagues and I came to provide intensive training. Who are we to serve these treasured people? Yet, they called us ‘teachers’, they served us with the best of their food and they saved the best place for us to stay and use. They even took our clothes to wash so that we could focus on teaching. They kept saying, “Teacher, thank you for your hard work, we feel so unworthy … yet God loves us so much and sent you.”

The beauty of the picture is that God dwells and manifests himself when we are humble to each other and serve together. It is humility and love
in action that conquers the enemy and changes our world. I am honoured to witness what God is doing here in Asia. When we are in the place where God puts us, it is the best place to be.

Jewel* provides pastors and leaders training in Asia.

*Names have been changed.

Remembering Mongolia

I traced the railway line 30,000 feet below me, two silver hairs lying across the Spring-greening Mongolian steppe. I’d amused myself with this challenge 23 years previously when I first flew to Ulaanbaatar, via Beijing, in 1992. Now I could get a flight from Hong Kong, a new convenience serving those from the South Asia and Pacific context.

I found the railway tracks again, signposts pointing to a city that still echoed its 70 years of socialist planning, but was now subsumed in a speedily growing population, new glass towers, traffic congestion and all the trappings of a financial boom financed by Korean, Chinese, and Japanese investment. I
arrived Thursday 21st May, 2015: there was an air of cautious optimism for the future, for Rio Tinto, the global mining company had signed another contract with the Mongolian government the day before. Mongolia’s wealth had been its grasslands, but in the last 20-odd years, what is under those grasslands – gold and copper, mainly – has been of more interest. Mongolian Christians were cautious, for did not an economic boom result in yet more poor?

It was for the Mongolian Christians that I had returned to Mongolia, not to celebrate Mongolia’s new-found wealth, but to reflect again on being Christian in their particular and unique context. My wife, Karen, and I along with our children, had lived in Ulaanbaatar from August 1992 to July 1996, as Interserve Partners seconded to JCS International, then an infant umbrella organisation through which several mission agencies accessed Mongolia. I had returned five times from 1996 to 2002 – a sort of non-residential commuting consultant missionary – teaching at the Bible School, and advising Mongolia Theological Education by Extension (MTEE). But now the gap had been 13 years!

On Saturday 23rd May, 2015, MTEE held its 20th anniversary celebrations. This was the reason I had returned. I had founded the MTEE in 1995. TEE, by using a tried and educationally sound methodology of workbook and well-trained tutor, was a proven way of training Christians in discipleship, Bible knowledge, Christian leadership, and ministry formation, all in the students’ contexts of home and church. Now I was the guest of honour – invited back by MTEE’s Director, Naranbaatar, and the Mongolian leadership team – and I was to experience a deeply moving two days of celebrations.

On being picked up at the airport, I was taken immediately to a tutor training event that was in full progress. Because many tutors were going to be in Ulaanbaatar for the big celebrations on 23rd May, an ‘added value’ training had been arranged for them. Fifty-five of the best tutors from all over the country – some now with 20 years of experience in leading dozens of TEE groups – were gathered around tables, practising their leadership of small groups, encouraging and critiquing, praying, worshipping and learning together. They were being introduced to a new course on the book of Proverbs, as well as hearing reports from TEE movements around the world.

“Do you remember me?” asked one woman. With some prompting, I did. “I am Urnaa. I was in the very first field trial group of the very first course, in the summer of 1996. The course was Abundant Life. I have been tutoring TEE groups ever since.”

Mongolia is an event-orientated culture, so I took my watch off. Also, I had mistakenly left my camera battery charging back at the flat. The only thing I could do then was to soak up the event, not distracted by time or picture. The 20th anniversary celebrations were a typically Mongolian moment: a banquet with traditional music (one of the pastors is a skilled musician of traditional Mongolian genres), a big worship service with speeches and entertainment (including more traditional Mongolian music, a Korean worship dance, and Cossack dancing). About 200 attended: the founding employees, current employees, board members, tutors, past students, local pastors, teachers from the Bible College. Testimonies were told and vision was shared. I was simply overwhelmed by what God had done over those 20 years, and what the ongoing hopes and dreams were for the future.

MTEE had been set up originally as a joint project between JCS International and a donor agency. Current JCS and donor agency leaders were able to attend the celebrations. The celebrations were a true salad bowl of all those who had given so much to developing the programme over 20 years. As I looked out over this assembly when I had to make my speech, I was overcome with emotion: a simple seed of an idea in 1995 had grown to become a dynamic movement extending to the remotest nomad family in Mongolia’s farthest provinces, equipping disciples throughout Mongolia’s cities, and even penetrating into Mongolia’s prisons. Today, at any given time, there are about 600 TEE students throughout Mongolia, studying at foundation, certificate and diploma level. The Asia Theological Association has accredited the four-year Certificate in Christian Ministry programme, and this has inspired and cross-pollinated with TEE projects in other Asian countries. We give credit to our God, and also to the hard- working employees of the project over the years, and the current team under director Naranbaatar’s leadership!

As part of the celebrations, the MTEE hosted an academic symposium at which five academics presented papers on various aspects of Mongolian Christian history. During our residence in Mongolia, I had come to understand that Mongolians were passionate about their history; I myself had made it a project to research and publish for them. At this symposium I discovered a movement had started. Others now – all Mongolian – were researching uniquely Christian history of Mongolia. And MTEE was seen to be able to move amongst the academics of Mongolia, something that will give MTEE credibility and kudos for its ongoing legitimacy as both a methodology and a Christian training programme.

After the 20th anniversary celebrations, I stayed another week, co-leading the Langham Preaching partnership training of 29 pastors in Biblical preaching. I remember a good number of these pastors as teenagers, 22 years ago. I had baptised several of them.

We met in a summer resort village outside of Ulaanbaatar, and it was Spring. The last of the snow had melted and the trees were bursting into leaf. In all these events – academic symposium, MTEE 20th anniversary, Langham Preaching training – there was a recognition from several pastors that “the initial work is complete; the church is well planted. What we need now is consolidation and capacity building.”

*Hugh and Karen Kemp were with Interserve from 1992 to 2002. They both now work at St John’s Theological College, Auckland, where Karen is one of the deans, and Hugh is an adjunct lecturer.*

Extract from GO Magazine (Aotearoa New Zealand) July 2015.

Second Chances

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. … Fear the LORD your God and serve Him.” Deuteronomy 10:17–18, 20.

In a culture where conformity is almost necessary for survival and the competition for resources is instinctive, those who are different, weak or suffer from misfortune are quickly marginalised and cast off without the hope of a second chance, compassion or love. But because of people who fear our God and wish to love as He loves, hope can become a reality and transformation a daily part of life.

Sarah* is mother to a nine-year-old boy with a physical disability. He is unable to walk steadily on his own without a walking frame. But Sarah is reluctant to let him use the walking frame as it would mark him out as a ‘crippled’ person. Sarah has struggled to come to terms with her son’s condition and holds on to the hope that he could be totally cured one day. As a result, Sarah carries him in her arms wherever they go, causing her stress and exhaustion.

Sarah and her son live alone in the city with no connection to family or friends. Her husband is in prison and they are far away from family support. There is neglible government assistance available, and schools can refuse a child enrolment because of their disability. Not only does Sarah need to manage her son’s therapies by herself, she lives in constant fear of debt collectors. In a society where marriage and children are upheld as every woman’s happiness, Sarah is ostracised by those who were once her friends and by strangers who throw insults when they see her son struggling to walk upright. There were many days when Sarah would lock herself and her son at home, avoiding any contact with the outside world and not knowing when or how relief might come.

By chance, Sarah heard about a group of local Christians who had set up a resource centre specifically to support children with disabilities and their parents. This group, in turn, has been supported by the work of Interserve Partners.

Sarah reluctantly attended one event. She was overwhelmed by the support, love and understanding shown to her. For the first time she didn’t feel despised or discriminated against. Gradually Sarah started to smile more, chat with other parents and, most importantly, enjoy her relationship with her son. As Jesus’ love surrounded her, she began to see her son for his strengths rather than his disabilities.

It would be so wonderful for Sarah, and for the people ministering to her, if this was where her story ended. But the road ahead is long and at times very uncertain. Sarah will need to continue to struggle against battles both from without and within. I feel privileged to have had the chance to share, in a very small way, a part of Sarah’s life and the lives of those who continue to minister to her.

*Name has been changed

The author is a psychologist who recently served On Track with Interserve in East Asia

Snow and starvation

One of my first impressions of Mongolia during a visit in 2002 was that it is a land of contrasts and extremes. I’ve now been living in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for 16 months, and the contrasts still stand out. Extremes of poverty and wealth; modern city lifestyle and nomadic herders; space and congestion; and it goes on.

But the contrast that stands out and dominates is that of the weather, and this past year has been greater than normal in its extremes. Mongolia has a continental climate with warm to hot summers and very cold winters. The last winter, some say, was one of the coldest for 30 years, with temperatures dropping to -50°C in some places. It has also snowed more than normal resulting in the fiercest winter in living memory. The previous summer was fairly typical, but with less rain than normal. So this contrast of a dry, warm summer where grass and consequently hay production was poor, followed by a very cold and snowy winter led to what is called a ‘dzud’. This dzud has been very severe.

A friend, travelling in the countryside for a few weeks, stopped at a ger, the traditional Mongolian home. He writes:

“Outside the ger tied up to the truck there was a goat. We asked the herder about how he made it through the dzud. He still had a good size herd. He told us he had close to 1,000 animals but now he has only 200 – 800 of them died in the dzud. The goat that was tied up outside had been found buried up to its back in the snow. It was the only one from that group of his herd that lived.”

Stories like this are typical. Current estimates are that about 20% of the 40 million head of livestock in Mongolia have died. Many that have survived are weak and the spring new-borns didn’t have much of a chance. Many more will continue to die. As of mid-May, there were reports that over 32,700 families had lost at least half of their animals, with over 8,700 households left without any livestock at all.1 A contributing factor to the extent of the disaster has been a huge increase in the number of livestock to beyond what the land can sustain; the Mongolian pastures have been groaning.

But what does this mean? In a country where approximately one third of the population depend on herding for a living, this is devastating. For those who have lost a large majority, if not all of their herd, this means that they now have no form of income. The UN expects 20,000 people to move to provincial centres or the capital to look for work. Unemployment is already near 50% in some places. The price of meat has risen by 50%. Infant and maternal mortality has increased by 30-40%.2 The children of herders are suffering significant psychological effects, among many other knock-on effects.

Many are trying to help but there have been difficulties in such a vast land. JCS is one of many NGO’s playing a part in distributing aid supplies and also looking to the future trying to advise on animal and land management. All that JCS does is done through the local church, but the Mongolian church itself is poor. I went with a JCS dzud relief trip to a small town with a church with which JCS has connections. Aid was given out to 200 families who had lost all their livestock, yet this was only scratching the surface; just as the livestock try to scratch through the snow and ice to find some grass hidden below, so it seemed with our relief efforts.

Summer is now here. Temperatures have been in the high 30’s. It has rained. The grass is green. It can be easy to forget the groaning and desperation of the cold and snow of a few months ago; the contrast is stark. But for many the devastating effects will last for years to come.

Photo: A car buried in a snowdrift; desperate Mongolians await food handouts run by a Mongolian Christian group; a Mongolian ger during a blizzard; Bactrian camels coping with the winter as best they can; Mongolian herders receiving food and other supplies.

Steppe of Faith

Mojic Baldandorj is a Mongolian Christian leader who has served as General Secretary of the Mongolian Evangelical Alliance, as founder and director of the Mongolian Mobile Training Centre, and who is currently pastoring a church in Mongolia and lecturing on Old Testament Studies at Union Bible Training Centre in Ulaanbaatar.

In world history, the Mongolian Empire is considered to be the biggest land empire the world has ever known. In the 13th century the Mongol Empire extended halfway around the world, stretching from Korea to Hungary under the leadership of Chingis Khan. Historians today acknowledge that during the Mongol Empire there were many Mongol Christians in the royal families and royal court. The famous historian, Marco Polo, tells us that 200 Christian missionaries were requested to come and evangelize the whole empire under the reign of Hubilai Khan but the Pope failed to respond to this request. With the fall of the Mongol Empire, Buddhism was introduced from Tibet and the remaining three centuries saw the saturation of Tibetan Buddhism in every family and clan of Mongols until the country became the second communist country in the world in 1924.

During the communist regime, Mongolia remained closed to the outside world for the next 70 years. Known as “the end of the world“, it was totally impossible for Christian missionaries to enter the country until the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. In 1990, Mongolia entered into a new page of history, freedom and democracy.

Taking advantage of this new freedom and democracy, the first Christian missionaries arrived in Mongolia in early 1991. They could only get into the country as English language teachers in those times. It is recorded that the first Christian gathering was founded in spring of 1991 with students from an English class. Three churches separately formed by the end of the same year with 40-50 local Christians coming to worship on Sunday. For just under three years, the passionate new believers spread the Good News day and night. Through street evangelism, home visits, and showing the “Jesus“ film, the Good News was proclaimed to the newly-opened country. Revival came to the land. The Spirit of God brought new spiritual freedom and revival to thousands of Mongolians who were thirsty for eternal truth.

It is estimated that by 1996, in less than 4 years since the first Christian church was established, almost 60 local churches had been born with over 6,000 adherents of Jesus coming to those local churches. Then by 2002, over 200 churches had been planted literally in each and every of Mongolia’s 21 provinces with 25,000 followers of Jesus in Mongolia. Today, 19 years later, the country is home to 550 evangelical churches with over 50,000 adults, plus thousands of children coming to worship the one true God.

We believe that it is only the power of God which has brought this great breakthrough. The whole nation is experiencing the move of God in real ways in peoples’ lives. The message of Jesus is not only preached from the pulpit, but its real life-changing power is seen in the lives of many. The church of Christ is being built in this nation gradually but surely.

Many national leaders today feel that the young Mongolian church is reaching her “teenage” period. We feel that the excitement of being “young” is gradually over as the church is facing many new challenges. In this article, I would like touch on one issue which is very important for future church growth in Mongolia.

The explosion of rapid church growth creates a leadership shortage. Suddenly we realize that many new-born local churches lack Christ-like, servant leaders, whose personal life and character mark them out as a genuine disciple of Jesus. We have seen in the past that churches can be planted in a relatively short time with many different resources from the West or Korea. However, we have discovered that that is not the end of it. The church needs a good leader. To make a good and godly leader, it takes a long time.

In recent years, unfortunately, a considerable number of pastors and leaders have resigned or have been forced to resign from their ministries due to sexual sins, unfaithfulness in handling offerings, and personal character issues. Sometimes, their position and ministry are regarded as more important than their spiritual growth and personal encounter with God. We see, unfortunately, that many “good“ leaders fall through the hole, committing sins, and some of them giving up on their faith. When a leader falls, the name of Jesus also falls with it. Of course, developing leaders into godliness is not a one-off event. It is a lifelong process. There might be many ways to develop leaders in other parts of the world, but in the Mongolian church context, the following two practices must be essential steps in developing leaders: personal discipleship and role modeling mentorship. It is my own experience and observation in the Mongolian context that it usually takes as long as 7-10 years or more of personal discipleship and mentorship to see a committed young leader emerge.

I believe that our brothers and sisters in the Western world have a lot to offer for future leadership development in the young Mongolian church. It is estimated that there are over 600 Christian missionaries from many parts of the world working and living in Mongolia. Some of them teach at Bible schools and many work for social projects, but it is my sincere wish that we could work together hand in hand to develop national leaders into Christ-like leaders. We could sit together to discuss real life issues of leadership and promote national leadership development programmes. We could provide personal mentorship for those young leaders. We could work together for training countryside church leaders in their local context. I am not saying that there is no partnership at all. What I am saying is that what we do today is not sufficient and efficient.

Over a hundred years ago, God’s faithful servant, James Gilmour (1843-1891) from the London Missionary Society tried to reach our ancestors for Christ. He ministered to Mongols over 20 years, but saw no converts at all. His precious prayer is passionately noted that,

‘If only the truth can be made to reach their understanding, it is not to be doubted that God will in His own time and way, even among the Mongols, and notwithstanding all difficulties, apply it with living power to the hearts of men, and call out from among them those who will confess Him before their countrymen, and smooth the way for those who afterwards shall follow their examples (Gilmour, 1882:219)’

God has granted His time. It is now time to cooperate and train, mentor, and disciple these young leaders for the powerful transformation that God will bring to our nation.

The New Plague

Fear. It permeates everything until another dose of alcohol dulls the fear and makes one forget. It is a fear of not knowing what happened: who did I beat up or stab last night? Did I hurt my family? Did I do something wrong at work? Will I be caught for committing a crime I don’t remember?

Fear. It permeates every moment that she lives. Will he come home drunk again? Will he yell at me and beat me? Will he find the kitchen knives I tried to hide? Will he force me or my children to have sex with his friends? Will he take our food money and use it to buy alcohol? Will he be picked up by the police yet again, forcing me to find money for his fine? Did he freeze to death outside when he didn’t come home last night?

Fear. It permeates the heart of the child. Will my father become violent again? Will he hurt my mother? Will he hurt me? What have I done wrong that my father hurls angry words at me?

It is estimated that at least one person in every family in Mongolia struggles with an addiction to alcohol. It is a problem that affects both the alcohol addict and his or her family. It is a problem that carries tremendous shame and secrecy. There is a loss of hope for anything better and yet a yearning that things might change.

Levi’s father died before he could form any memory of him. The family he remembered was dominated by his uncle, an angry and authoritative man. At the hands of his uncle, Levi suffered physical and emotional abuse. Levi learned what it was to live in fear and that fear put down deep roots into his life. Alcohol became a way to dull the pain and a way to relate to his friends and fellow-workers who also drank regularly.

For a while, Levi was able to hide his growing addiction. He was able to drink and also to keep his job. His wife only discovered Levi’s addiction to alcohol after they were married. During this time his family lived both in fear of him and in fear for him. In spite of the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, in spite of Levi stealing items from his own home to support his habit, leaving his family hungry and cold, she would never think of leaving him. Where else would they live? How could a single woman survive and look after her family? How could she deal with the shame?

But Levi’s drinking lost him his job. He became obsessed with finding alcohol to dull his pain and slow his tremors. Finally he and his wife tried to find help. They were one of the few families who sought treatment at an alcohol rehabilitation centre. It failed. They sought the Buddhist lama. He failed. Eventually he heard about an Alcoholics Anonymous group. The AA group helped him longer than anything else he tried, but he still felt that there was more to healing than what AA could offer. In AA he learned about a ‘higher power’ but he wanted to know what that higher power was. He had already tried Buddhism and it had failed him. He thought that there must be a god out there who could help him, but he needed to find out who that god was.

It was then that they learned about the Alcohol Rehabilitation and Life Recovery group (ARLR) that told people about Jesus. With a new thirst to find out about God, Levi and his daughter began attending the ARLR group. First his daughter, then he himself became believers in Jesus. After becoming a believer in Jesus, Levi’s life changed significantly. His wife was sceptical at first. She had experienced too many times when it seemed that Levi had changed only to find out that he swiftly returned to his old behaviour. But this time it was different. Levi was a changed man and after a while she too wanted to learn about the living God who had brought about such deep changes.

More than five years later, the whole family have become believers in Jesus. They still have struggles. Even when alcohol is no longer consumed, there are issues of forgiveness that are difficult at times. There are deep patterns of fear, anger, and low self-esteem. And although Levi’s health has been good since he quit drinking, damage done to his liver, spleen, and kidneys from heavy use of alcohol sometimes causes him to lose days at work. Pressure to drink is also constant in a culture that equates alcohol with celebrations and as a measure of hospitality. And vodka is cheaper than bottled water or juice.

Levi’s story is both common and uncommon. In Mongolia today (and indeed in every country around the world) people suffer from the effects of alcohol addiction as did Levi and his family. But his story is also uncommon because the majority of people suffering from alcohol addiction don’t know how to break out of the cycle. They continue to struggle with emotional, physical, and sexual violence every single day. They continue to wonder how they will feed themselves or stay warm. They continue to hide their awful secret of fear, guilt, and shame. They haven’t met the God who heals the body, mind and soul.

Encounters with Jesus in Central Asia

A few years ago a stranger approached my landlady at the local bazaar, and told her about a man who could help her with her problems. “Is he a rich man?” she asked, because she needed $2000. The stranger was talking about Jesus, and he encouraged her to pray, which she did. A few days later, someone knocked at her door and asked to rent some of the rooms. When she asked how much they would pay, it was $2000.

My landlady found out more about this faith and became a believer. Her attitude to her husband and family became more loving. As she stopped beating her children, they recognized the change in her and they too believed. When her daughter was desperately ill with typhoid, they prayed and she recovered. Her husband doesn’t allow her to have regular contact with other believers, but we’re sometimes able to pray and share together.

If you look in an atlas published before 1991 you won’t find the Central Asian republics- the five ‘stans’ west of China. They were occupied by the Soviet Union for much of the twentieth century, and underwent huge upheaval after the collapse and withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. However these are ancient lands, through which invaders, explorers and merchants such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Marco Polo travelled on their camels and horses along the Silk Road.

The Central Asian country I work in is predominantly Muslim, and the majority of the people live in serious poverty – the average annual income is only 2% of the average New Zealand income. They are people scarred by a history of violence and oppression, and feel powerless in the face of injustice, high unemployment and substandard public services. They long for their country to become peaceful and prosperous, but there is much political corruption, incompetence and naivety amongst the country’s leaders: despite the authoritarian brutality of the Soviet regime, many people desire the return of the stability it brought.

Living in Central Asia is not easy, with extreme heat in summer and bitter cold in winter. Outside the main city there is limited or no electricity for four months of winter – ironically, the country ranks among the top in the world for water resources and electricity generation potential. Where I live, the water that comes out of the tap is often chocolate-brown dirty – we call it ‘typhoid water.’ My housing is much better than one of my visitors, though: I was shocked to discover she lived in a hovel, with cardboard boxes along one side serving as walls and a dirty drainage ditch running through the middle of it. She lived right next door to a grand embassy building.

I am a teacher working with educated adults: young professionals, bankers, business people, government workers and university students.

A taxi driver told us his story. He had been in prison – not a pleasant place – and a religious leader told him this was his destiny. The man was angry at God for this, but had a revelation of Jesus in a vision and said, “God, if you are real, of course I will follow you.” Now out of prison, both he and his wife are believers.

It was very important for local people to be able to slot me into a role (“Oh, she’s a teacher”), in order to accept me. They also value the contribution I’m bringing to their community: education opens doors to employment and further education opportunities, and is needed in order for the country to develop. Some of our former students completed further studies abroad before returning to Central Asia to take up high level leadership positions with international development and aid organisations.

School provides more than education, though – it also provides opportunities for students and staff to build meaningful relationships. Several women in my classes told me how they made supportive friendships and gained a sense of self–worth through school. In one particular class the women formed a strong bond, and a group of them would come regularly to my home throughout the summer break. They witnessed how God answered our prayers – for example, a student’s mother who was desperately ill with a bleeding artery in her neck recovered after we prayed for her. Some of these women and their families have become my long-term friends.

People are very hospitable, and I sometimes found myself in unusual situation, such as singing The Yellow Submarine at a karaoke party held to celebrate Women’s Day. The philosophy was that we had to make the most of this day as it was the only day in the year that was any good for women! The hostess, a somewhat vodka-drunken Russian-speaking downstairs neighbour, ended up becoming a good friend, and proved to be a real help when I had a flood and unexpected intruders in my flat.

The local people generally think of Christianity as a foreign religion, and consider their own religion (mainly folk Islam) to be an integral part of their national identity. A handful of my friends, however, expressed a serious interest in Christianity as they saw it being worked out in my life.

A Sixteen Year Journey God has led me gently and step by step into crosscultural work. It started back in 1992 when I made the decision to do something purposeful with the rest of my life. At the time I was picking carnations on a flower farm, which gave me plenty of time to pray for God to show me His direction for my life. I wasn’t really considering going overseas because I wasn’t a very confident traveller, but then in 1993 the door opened up for me to go on a short-term mission trip to Vietnam. It really inspired me, and since then I have spent a year in Russia, made two short-term trips to the mountain areas of Pakistan, and lived in Central Asia for two years.

Each trip made me more ready for the next, and caused me to grow in faith. I’m so glad that I went, as all the trips have been amazing highlights and growth periods in my life.

The decision to come to Central Asia was more difficult, as I didn’t have a strong sense of calling to this country. But I came because I was available and needed, and was confident that I would be given sufficient support from inside and outside the country to enable me to do a good job. “Send me forth, Lord, bearing seed, destroying our fears, conscious of our needs.”

When a 14 year-old neighbour became seriously ill with meningitis, we prayed for his recovery and, after two months in hospital, he came home. It was a delight to once again hear him singing in the stairwell and thumping out one-finger tunes on my old Russian piano.

My once-a-week cleaning lady became a loyal friend, and introduced me to her village relatives. She knew how to fix important things like telephone lines that wouldn’t connect. Her sister had died of tuberculosis, and over the months we walked through her grieving together. Although she still holds to her traditional superstitious beliefs she has recognized that God answers our prayers.

The church here is small, weak and doesn’t seem to be growing. But I have a lot of respect for the local believers, who are unafraid to shine their light courageously. One pretty young woman has a visible joy; she is undeterred in her continued witness even after recovering from a tragic neardeath encounter a few years ago, when a bomb explosion targeting young Christians succeeded in killing ten. There’s a solo mother who bravely runs a business, undaunted by harassment from family and officials with their long interrogations; a flatmate who, even though only a young believer, steadfastly preached out in the villages despite there being strong opposition and demands that she stop; and the busy mother of five young children who took the time to patiently and sensitively befriend a lonely refugee woman of a different faith. These are just some of the people who give me hope that Christ is at work in this land.

Robin is currently on Home Assignment, and is available to share about her experiences with interested groups. Please contact the Interserve office for more information.