ERDENET, Mongolia (Mennonite Mission Network) — At the Eternal Springs café in Erdenet, Mongolia, youths work on computer skills. They can take classes in English, Chinese or Japanese and learn about budgeting money and time. When they finish their studies, they can relax with a cookie or a cup of tea and play games.
And once they are there, the youth can learn about Jesus.
One student's story: Learning to believe
April Hellberg remembers Munkhgerel’s eyes. When she arrived at Eternal Springs, concerned only with language lessons, they carried a deep grief and weariness, whether she was watching friends, following along in a lesson or simply surveying the room. They were the saddest eyes Hellberg had ever seen.
One evening, after Ulanaa offered a devotional about Christ being Lord of his life, the young woman stood and announced that she thought she was learning to believe in God.
“I had wanted to learn something new, maybe something with a foreign flavor,” Munkgerel later wrote. “I had decided I would learn all I could and just throw out the Christian stuff.”
It was the creation story that impressed her – the fact that she was a special creation.
But Hellberg was not convinced. She knew that the youth sometimes might say things, or not say them, for the sake of politeness rather than truthfulness.
The meeting ended and the youths went home. The trainers stayed, for a bit, to talk and tidy. Soon, Munkhgerel returned, in tears. When she left for the youth center that night, her parents had been fighting. On her way back, she prayed her first prayer to Christ, that her parents would love one another, but at home the battle had not ceased.
She had run back to Eternal Springs.
The group encircled Munkhgerel and prayed. MunkhTuya (Mogi), the educational manager, prayed aloud for peace in Munkhgerel’s home and for her parents. The leaders told Munkhgerel that her parents were a gift from God and she needed to value and pray for them.
Munkhgerel felt at peace. She returned home, picked up her Bible, read and prayed. Gradually, her parents fell silent.
The next time Hellberg saw Munkhgerel, her once-sad eyes radiated peace as she grasped Hellberg’s hand and offered a hug. Step by step, Munkhgerel said, her parents seemed to be learning to love each other.
Soon after, Munkhgerel choose to be baptized. In her testimony, she wrote that she came seeking outside improvements – language, life skills and more. But Jesus changed her on the inside.
“Before I met Jesus, I felt I had no reason to live (but) I learned that I have a purpose as God’s special creation,” she wrote. “Now, though, life is so exciting and so precious, I just want to live.”
While the other courses are important, the vital ministry of Eternal Springs, a ministry of Joint Christian Services International, of which Mennonite Mission Network is a member agency, is its 35-week youth training program that offers teaching in Christian discipleship and life skills.
Two years ago, a dozen youth entered the program. Last year, all 12 original participants taught and mentored the next round of students. This year, 10 previous graduates began the session teaching 21 students about Christ and how to live faithful lives.
“Strangely, 12 (students) were not Christians, but were desperate to be part of the program,” said Marlow Ramsay, who administers JCS programming through the Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness. “Here they are hungry for spiritual input. They’re hungry for any input in their lives.”
Patrick Hellberg, one of the JCS workers, said all 12 of those non-Christian students have accepted Christ.
Before Eternal Springs, young people across Erdenet – a city where more than half of the 80,000-plus residents are in their 20s or younger – had few places to interact outside of bars and discos. Now they can enter the first floor of an apartment building across from two pool halls and find Eternal Springs and perhaps eternal life.
When Ulanaa first walked into Eternal Springs, he did not know much about being a Christian, but he wanted to know God.
“I saw people who followed Jesus had a lot of joy in them,” he said. He also wanted to find the truth and sensed, somehow, that he would find it through Eternal Springs’ grey steel door.
He signed up for the youth training program. His knowledge of Jesus, sparse at best, became a relationship. The relationship, he said, has changed his life.
Hellberg remembers a conflict between Ulanaa and a female leader during a staff meeting. The woman teased Ulanaa, who responded out of anger and hurt.
As they left, Hellberg watched Ulanaa approach his adversary and confess not only his hurt, but his angry response. Using a technique he learned in the youth training program, he asked for forgiveness and offered to forgive.
“Jesus had forgiven me, but there was some of my fault there as well,” he said. “It was my responsibility to forgive.”
The two are reconciled and share a warm relationship that is obvious to others. MunkhTuya (Mogi), the educational manager, said that while nothing about Eternal Springs’ exterior indicates Christianity, the love and warmth within the building differentiate it from other programs. Many youth members, she said, tell staff and teachers that Eternal Springs feels like a home.
“Teachers here are happy, not angry, and people quickly know how they are feeling,” she said. Traditionally, many Mongolian teachers instruct brusquely. Christians, she said, have the opportunity to show the love of Christ even when teaching languages or the financial, vocational and relationship tools that are rarely taught in other areas of the country.
But Christians, too, have a reputation in some portions of the country.
“There is a common misconception here that religious people just want converts, numbers and don’t care about the people,” April Hellberg said. “(We are here) most importantly to demonstrate love and support for the youth.”
BolorTsetseg (Bogi) bakes for the café portion of the ministry. She said workers love and honor all guests, from the 300-plus members to the one-time visitors.
“Everyone that comes in needs to be loved and respected,” Bogi said. “There are a lot more youth like we were, who would like advice and knowledge. … Maybe this program will reach all of Mongolia.”
Ramsay said such a vision is possible, eventually. Eternal Springs, which began with support also from Youth With a Mission, costs less than $10,000 (U.S.) per year, but money is not the issue.
“You could do this just by working hard and having a vision from God,” Ramsay said. “We (JCS) could put it all over Mongolia if we had (more) people.”
April Hellberg said the when the time comes, opportunities in Mongolia will be available.
“There will always be young people to train,” she said.
Ramsay hopes the local Mongolian church eventually will take over the operation of Eternal Springs, now being led by Sandy Kao, Jeremiah Hsu and the Hellbergs. But for the time being, the JCS presence continues to fill a need. Ramsay said more workers are needed not just in Erdenet, but in other parts of Mongolia – especially workers with experience in addictions counseling or optometry to work in specialized JCS ministries.