Thursday, October 22, 2009

Zuun Kharaa

About 175 km (130 miles) to the north of Ulaanbaatar (where we are assigned), there is a small town called Zuun Kharaa. It is where Mongolia produces vodka.

But there is a branch of the Church there. It has been there for some time, now. However, this is one of the areas where, as we mentioned previously, we are having trouble obtaining permission to continue using the building where the branch meets. The local government has been threatening to deny our license renewal application there.

More interference from the adversary? Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

Here in Mongolia, we have often found that it is expected for us to do something or provide something for an area before they will grant such things as this needed license. In the states, we look with disfavor on such practices. Here, it is just the way things are done. So, the mission began to look for some need in Zuun Kharaa that the Church might be able to fill. Things we would likely do anyway, if we were aware of the need.

Somewhere along the way, we found that none of the residents in a large ger district(gers are the small canvas homes the nomadic people here live in) in Zuun Kharaa had a proper, dependable or safe water supply. Thousands of them! Each family had simply hand dug shallow and indequate wells six or maybe eight feet deep -- in the same small space where their livestock was kept and often right next to the family outhouse. Not surprisingly, associated sickness and disease has been the result. Doctors have been doing the best they can to treat the people when then become ill, but it is a difficult and frustrating problem.

If you have followed our posts, you know that providing wells is one of the things the Church does here through Deseret International Charities. Professional wells with electric pumps and a nice looking well house, like the one pictured here. So the couple in charge of that sort of work (the Lasson's) went to work in Zuun Kharaa.

They proposed to the Area Presidency that Desert International Charities provide a proper well for these folks. When the Presidency read their report of conditions in Zuun Kharaa, they told the Lasson's that there was some extra money in the area office and suggested that perhaps we ought to drill more than one.

The idea was discussed with the government there and their interest in our proposal to dig wells was immediately obvious. In fact, to say that they were REALLY interested would be an understatement. The area was surveyed, possibilities discussed and the decision made that the Church could provide not one, but four wells. When Elder and Sister Lasson told the governor of that ger district, he grabbed Elder Lasson in a big bear hug and just held him tight.

Now it's time to go to work. It is hoped that all four wells can be drilled before the ground becomes so frozen that drilling won't be possible and might, therefore, have to be put off until next spring. When finished, we hope we might be able to witness as the wells are opened and people begin to use them.

But that isn't the end of the story. Another problem surfaced in Zuun Kharaa while the idea of providing wells were being looked at. It seems that there has been a high rate of infant deaths there as a result of inadequate care when babies are born. Doctors are frustrated and Psychologists, too, have been kept fairly busy counseling with the doctors who are experiencing feelings of inadequacy resulting from their perceived personal failure to prevent those new born deaths.

But providing wells is not the only way the Church can help. The Humanitarian arm of the Church has often brought in physicians from the States to provide training for doctors on such things as how to care for newborns (i.e. neonatal care)and has even been able to provide needed medical supplies and equipment for that care on occasion. The Church is about to have that opportunity one more time.

It is interesting to contemplate that if Zuun Kharaa had not threatened to deny our church license renewal, we likely would have remained in ignorance of their problems and the difficult circumstances there would have continued unrecognized and unabated for a much longer period of time. Now, needed help will be provided and odds are that the Church will receive it's needed license renewal, as well.

The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.

Don't you wish you could be here?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Religious Freedom

Elder Oaks recently spoke at BYU Idaho, describing what he referred to as a current threat to religious freedom. One portion of his remarks was of particular interest to us.

Elder Oaks:

To illustrate the importance of basic human rights in other countries, I refer to some recent history in Mongolia, which shows that the religious freedom we have taken for granted in the United States must be won by dangerous sacrifice in some other nations.

Following the perestroika movement in the Soviet Union, popular demonstrations in Mongolia forced the Communist government to resign in March 1990. Other political parties were legalized, but the first Mongolian elections gave the Communists a majority in the new parliament, and the old repressive attitudes persisted in all government departments. The full functioning of a democratic process and the full enjoyment of the people’s needed freedoms do not occur without a struggle. In Mongolia, the freedoms of speech, press and religion — a principal feature of the inspired United States Constitution — remained unfulfilled.

In that precarious environment, a 42-year-old married woman, Oyun Altangerel, a department head in the state library, courageously took some actions that would prove historic. Acting against official pressure, she organized a “Democratic Association Branch Council.” This 12-member group, the first of its kind, spoke out for democracy and proposed that state employees have the freedoms of worship, belief and expression, including the right to belong to a political party of their choice.

When Oyun and others were fired from their state employment, Oyun began a hunger strike in the state library. Within three hours she was joined by 20 others, mostly women, and their hunger strike, which continued for five days, became a public demonstration that took their grievances to the people of Mongolia. This demonstration, backed by major democratic movement leaders, encouraged other government employees to organize similar democratic councils. These dangerous actions expanded into a national anti-government movement that voiced powerful support for the basic human freedoms of speech, press and religion. Eventually the government accepted the demands, and in the adoption of a democratic constitution two years later Mongolia took a major step toward a free society.

For Latter-day Saints, this birth of constitutional freedom in Mongolia has special interest. Less than two years after the historic hunger strike, we sent our first missionaries to Mongolia. In 1992 these couples began their meetings in the state library, where Oyun was working. The following year, she showed her courage again by being baptized into this newly arrived Christian church. Her only child, a 22-year-old son, was baptized two years later. Today, the Mongolian members of our Church number 9,000, reportedly the largest group of Christians in the country. A few months ago we organized our first stake in Mongolia. Called as the stake president was Sister Oyun’s son, Odgerel.
(End of quote)

President Odgerel was the district president prior to the formation of the stake (see previous posts) and is also the CES manager here. He is a wonderful man and a good friend to us. His office is right next to ours in the basement of the church building and we visit with him a lot (or is it bother him a lot?!). But I never knew this about his mother! She is still making marks here as she now runs her own university and remains very active -- in a lot of things!

Oh, did I mention that President Odgerel is also something of a character (see picture)?

By the way, the recent national elections held in Mongolia this past summer, ousted the past Communist President and elected a Democratic President. There seems to be some skepticism about how truly democratic he is, but we have already seen a couple of significant changes. We will tell you about them in a future post. These changes and other developments are going to change many things in Mongolia!