When Mongolian members of the Arlington 2nd Ward of the McLean Virginia Stake celebrated the Mongolian New Year last February, they invited family and friends to help them make dumplings. But making these staples of Mongolian culture for special events is more than a culinary art; it's a deep-rooted family tradition that brings all generations and genders together.
Mongolian youngsters learn from their mothers their family's individual way of rolling out, filling and shaping the dough, and they will pass that technique and the happy memories of doing it with loved ones to the next generation.
"It's part of our culture," said Barhas Gombojav, one of the first Mongolian members baptized in the ward. "We tell family stories and jokes as we prepare the dumplings so we can remember our traditions and who we are," she explained.
This emphasis on family, tradition and respect for elders so characteristic of the Mongolian people is at the heart of what helps draw them to the Church. Since 1993, when the missionaries first began teaching English in Mongolia, the number of baptisms has steadily increased, especially in the U.S.
Many of the new converts head to the Washington, D.C., area where they attend the ward in nearby Virginia. With 54 Mongolian members, it is believed to be the largest concentration of Mongolians in an LDS ward outside of their native country.
"Our members from Mongolia are a pioneering people," said Bishop Jeff L. Johnson. "They come here to start a better life for their children. Although some were members before they came, most joined the Church afterwards when their friends and family shared the gospel with them."
Among these pioneers are Bumbagerel Norov and his wife, Enkhzul Jantzan, who are the first Mongolian couple in the ward to receive their temple endowments. On April 17 they and two of their children — Azaa, 10, and Christopher, eight months — were sealed in the Washington D.C. Temple. A third child, Gankhuu Bumbagerel, 15, remains in Mongolia until his parents can arrange for him to come to the U.S.
Everyone in this multicultural ward family helps celebrate such occasions. All members also attend Sacrament meeting together, although Mongolian members have the option of attending a gospel doctrine class in their native language.
The language barrier is definitely a challenge for the entire ward, but help with translating comes from bilingual Mongolian members and from full-time missionaries who are either Mongolian themselves or who have been called to serve the Mongolian people. In addition, Joseph Brubaker, elders quorum president, and Sharri Hollist, gospel doctrine teacher, both served in the Mongolia Ulaanbaatar Mission.
Narangerel and Crystal Sukhee were touched by gospel teachings on the family and appreciated how their new ward brothers and sisters rallied to help them.
"I love being part of a Church family where people really care about you," Sister Sukhee said. "It gives me peace, hope and strength to know the purpose of life and that people will be there for me. It makes me want to serve them too."
Bishop Johnson pointed out that the Mongolian members are highly respected for their enthusiasm, willingness to serve, humility and desire to share the gospel.
"They're just amazing missionaries who share their beliefs with their families here and in Mongolia. They have a great witness of the basic principles of the gospel and want to offer that knowledge and happiness to others," he noted. Most were raised in Tibetan Buddhism, so their path to conversion leads them to Christ and a testimony of a living Father in Heaven.
"God works mysteriously," said Buyanaa Lamjav, one of the first converts in Mongolia and later a missionary in the Russia St. Petersburg Mission. She was taking an English class from the missionaries when LDS friends invited her to their home to meet the young instructors. She took the lessons and realized that God had been preparing her through her years as a reverent and spiritual Buddhist.
"I found there's a God and that He lives. I was happy that somebody told me and to learn that He cares about me. I used to write down my prayers, but then I started to feel like I was talking to someone who is listening," she added.
Such powerful testimonies have a positive missionary effect on the entire ward, according to ward mission leader Richard Bergeron. He said everyone has the opportunity to reach out to Mongolian investigators as well as to those in the community who support the Mongolian people. At a recent fund raiser for a Mongolian school, he met people of many religious backgrounds who wanted to know why he supported the school. His answer — that he was the home teacher of one of the Mongolian students — led to many discussions about the Church.
The Mongolian New Year celebration, directed by Brother Sukhee, was another example of the ward's community outreach. The cultural hall was packed with members, friends and relatives who came to enjoy the popular dumplings, dance and vocal performances such as "throat singing," and a fashion show.
Elder Tamir, a missionary from Mongolia serving in the McLean 1st Ward, played a borrowed horsehead fiddle because he had sold his own to finance his mission.
Such personal sacrifice is typical of Mongolian members, yet they also believe in sharing financial, emotional and spiritual hardships as a family.
"They truly know what it means to share each other's burdens," Bishop Johnson said. "They inspire all of us."