Out of Mongolia, a transforming experience

Looking for an opportunity to be involved in volunteer ministry, I was browsing through the Adventist Volunteer web site (http://volunteers. gc.adventist.org). One item caught my attention: Mongolia was looking for four English teachers. Where in the world is Mongolia? What are the people like there? What is the culture like? What do they eat?

The unknown has it's own challenges. And I decided to apply. I would teach English to professionals during the day and conduct Bible studies at night. Teaching a language would become a tool to witness for the Lord. "Wow," I said to myself. "This is exactly the kind of assignment I am looking for."

I quickly learned all I could about Mongolia. It lies between Eastern Siberia and Northern China. It's the home of three million people. Tibetan Buddhism is the common religion. It has the famous Gobi desert. One thousand years ago, Genghis Khan marched right across it to Europe. It has one organized Seventh-day Adventist church, with about 200 members. Its capital, Ulan Bator, is perhaps the coldest capital in the world. Until recently, communism defined its political and economic life. The more I learned about Mongolia, the greater my interest grew.

But I had to look at some immediate problems. The job did not start until January, and that meant I had to quit college in the middle of the semester. Worse still, I had never been a teacher and didn't know how to teach English. And I didn't know how to give Bible studies! The whole thing seemed wishful thinking and illogical! But I could hear a faint little whisper: "Do you trust me?" And I did remember reading, "They that trust in the Lord shall renew their strength...."

Why couldn't I be one of those? After all, it was not my work. It was God's.

Four months later, I boarded a plane for Ulan Bator. Shortly after arriving in Mongolia, I was telling the mission consultant's wife that I wanted to do more Bible studies. The following Sabbath, Elder Dale Tunnell unfolded his plans for me. Six months earlier, a pastor of an independent congregation happened to see our mission headquarters as he was going by bus. He felt impressed to visit our church. The visit led to a discussion of what we believe, and soon he was convinced that the Adventist Church had the truth. After he studied our beliefs by himself for six months, he asked Elder Tunnell to send someone who would take his church through a series of Bible studies so they would all know who Seventh-day Adventists are and what they believe.

Elder Tunnel outlined my job. "Nathan, take care of this group. Study with them. Go through all our beliefs. Do it on Sabbath afternoons in the form of a worship service." At first, I hesitated, for I am not a preacher. But the voice I heard before I left home seem to be at it again. "Do you trust me?" Elder Tunnel invited me to watch him do it the first time, and then the task was mine.

I have never seen God work in such an amazing way. In six months, God worked on 20 people and had them ready for baptism. I watched them grow spiritually, and they were no longer strangers; they were now part of my family.

The ministry was fulfilling beyond what I expected. I decided to extend my work more and more to other parts of the country, this time with a friend. Ashleigh and I trekked to the countryside--camping, hiking in the mountainous forests, and visiting as many Christian groups as we could. Once we traveled by train through the night, got off at a remote station at four in the morning, and drove an hour by jeep over dirt roads to a little town where there was a small church. The town, at the base of a mighty mountain range, had probably four trees and more than 400 dogs. The living conditions were harsh--no running water, no toilet or bathing facilities, and only wood stoves for cooking and heating. But there was something that made me warm and happy: A young woman had come far from her home to plant a church here, and now she was ready to leave without anyone to fill her spot. Her commitment to the work and her need to go home moved me. And the Lord seemed to be on her side. So I decided to stay there for one year.

Moving to Sant was one of the scariest moves I've made. I was the only American within probably 200 kilometers. My command of the Mongolian language wasn't that great, and I wasn't a country boy. People there were gruff, hard-core, country stock. Most of them looked like people you wouldn't want to have as your enemy. I prided myself, having grown up in Los Angeles, as being open-minded; but I soon saw that my open-mindedness extended only to those who were similar to me. Yet before long, I learned that these hard-exterior, rough-looking people had the warmest hearts one could ever imagine! They quickly adopted me as one of their own; the women encouraging me to call them Mom, the young men calling me Brother, and even some of the elderly gentlemen treating me like their son. No matter how different I was from them, they always accepted me just the way I was. They taught me what it meant to have a true Christian spirit of acceptance.

Living in Sant was tough, but most rewarding. Being on my own, I learned firsthand what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. I found I couldn't get through my day without Him. Being forced to learn a new language and speaking like a three-year-old child, learning new practices, looking stupid pitching hay with a pitchfork, and harvesting hay with a scythe were all very large doses of humility. Without Christ, I would have thrown up my hands and walked away. It's only when we step out of our comfort zone that we learn who we really are and how much we need God.

Two years after arriving in Mongolia, it was time for me to leave. I left the land of Genghis Khan, having ridden camels, taken treks through the Mongolian steppe, and having had adventures to thrill almost anyone. But more than all these, I came away a transformed person. I got a new worldview; a worldview that places trust in God at the core. God wants to transform each one of us into people only He can imagine. Do we trust Him to do it?

Nathan Nickel is a student at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His e-mail: ncnickel@southern.edu