ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia (Mennonite Mission Network) — There are no Mennonite churches in Mongolia. Most Mongolians, including Christians, have heard little about the denomination. But for students at Union Bible Theological College, “Mennonite” means an opportunity to minister.
Last school year, 66 of the 166 Union students received student aid for tuition, dormitory fees, meals and books from Schowalter Foundation grants through Mennonite Mission Network. On campus, the grants are known simply as “Mennonite scholarships.”
The funds also help students dealing with emergency financial problems. For Bat-Tulga Zolzaya, who completed her third year of studies last year, it was the death of her grandfather—the man who paid her dormitory fee. The Schowalter grant filled the gap after her grandfather’s death.
Petrus Handoyo, who serves in Mongolia with his wife, Yuliana, through Mennonite Church Muria Synod of Indonesia (GKMI) and Mennonite Mission Network, taught at Union through last year.
“In Mongolia, the churches do not care about denominations. They want to be independent even as they seek partnership," Handoyo said. “(Mennonites) have not planted any churches. We have just worked with the churches there and supported them.”
That support is more than monetary. Union Biblical Theological College, the largest and only registered seminary in Mongolia, recently translated and published Palmer Becker’s Missio Dei booklet, “What is an Anabaptist Christian,” in collaboration with the Mission Network. More than 200 copies already have been distributed on campus, with positive responses.
Handoyo said the booklet will answer questions, including many from those who receive financial aid and wonder about the Mennonite group behind the gifts.
As Christianity grows in Mongolia, more theological students are examining different beliefs and experiences of God and church. When democracy arrived in Mongolia in 1991, there were less than a handful of known Christians in the nation. Today, more than 400 churches and more than 40,000 Christians exist—most in the capital of Ulaanbaatar but a growing group away from the city.
This spring, as he has done most of his years teaching at Union, Handoyo traveled beyond Ulaanbaatar with a group of Union students to speak about Jesus. The trip was underwritten by the Mission Network. Seven students, including three Schowalter grant recipients, traveled more than 230 miles to Ikhkhet in the southeast portion of Gobi Desert. In the town of just over 2,000 people, the students connected with Zalbirliin Orgoo (Palace of Prayer), a house church meeting in a ger—a Mongolian round, felt tent.
The students hosted a basketball competition, led seminars on Christian families, offered guitar lessons, hosted a worship service, and worked with the congregation’s fourSunday school teachers—none older than 15.
Though not everyone in town was friendly to the Christians—many Mongolians see Christianity as a Western religion—Ikhkhet’s governor, Hemekh, welcomed the group. Handoyo said the man had seen the Bible and told the group he had found no false teachings within it. The church’s programs, he said, bring spiritual renewal to the community.
The trip will be the last for Handoyo, at least for a while. Mongolia’s ministry of justice, which oversees religious institutions, will now allow the college only two visas for expatriate lecturers. Handoyo will instead work as a volunteer lecturer at Mongolia International University, teaching philosophy, studies in religions and cross-cultural learning.
Petrus and Yuliana Handoyo and their two children, Hizkia and Yonas, are from Semarang, Indonesia. They began serving as workers through Mennonite Church Muria Synod of Indonesia and Mennonite Mission Network in 2001. They live in Ulaanbaatar.
* Many Mongolians go by only a single name.