September 25, 2023

Ministry and Miracles in Mongolia

Pastor Buka’s journey of faith

Milena Mendes

It is safe to say that not many who look at Buyanbileg Ishjargal, 38, sharing the gospel today from the church pulpit would imagine that he was once part of a nationalists’ gang that persecuted and beat foreigners at the command of their leader. At the event of his father’s death, Buka, as his parents’ Russian coworkers had nicknamed him as a child (meaning “little monster”), started questioning, “Can there be life after death?” He didn’t know this at the time, but God had begun changing his life.

Born during the USSR years in Mongolia, Buka grew up with shamanism, from his mother’s side, and Buddhism, from his father’s—the two leading spiritual groups in Mongolia, respectfully coexisting in his family. It wasn’t until he was about 11 years old that he learned about Christianity, when his mom started visiting a church on Sundays. Buka really liked that group of people because they always helped his family by donating food and clothes.

The Birth of Spiritual Life

In 2003, when Buka’s father suddenly passed away, he questioned the monk who performed the funeral rituals at his home: “Why do people die? Am I ever going to see my father again? And can Buddha bring my dad back to life?” The answers he got from the monk were not nearly convincing, leading the 18-year-old young man to try to relieve his frustration with alcohol, rock music, and unhealthy friendships. Buka’s mom became mentally ill following her husband’s passing, and she quit going to church.

Around this time Buka was invited to join one of Mongolia’s biggest gangster clubs, made up of extreme nationalists under the leadership of a top member of the government whose primary mission was to foster hatred for foreigners. One day one of Buka’s good friends invited him to go to his favorite place, another church. As his friend explained a little to him about that church, Buka agreed to go and be there for a short time, and never visit again, since he believed all foreigners were evil people who came to Mongolia to try to change the locals. What he found at the church were smiling, welcoming people who were great at music. This challenged his expectations. What he also didn’t expect was for the pastor to begin the sermon with the question “Why do people die?” Several times he interrupted the pastor to ask questions in the middle of the sermon, until the pastor kindly offered to sit with him and answer all his questions after the service. 

That was Buka’s first time at a Seventh-day Adventist church, and though still in the gangster club, he kept visiting week after week. Six months later his mom fell terribly ill, and he had to find a job to afford her medication. One day she suddenly collapsed. He couldn’t hear her breathing. That was the first time he ever prayed to God by himself, asking Him to bring her back to life.

About 10 minutes elapsed before the fragile woman took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Buka helped her sit up. Looking around and not seeing anyone else, she asked Buka, “My son, who helped you lift me up? I felt this strong push on my back, and breath came into my lungs. I also felt a hand help me to get up. Who was it?” she questioned. For the first time, Buka understood that God answers prayers, and that He was right there, right then, proving Himself to him.

In April 2004 Buka got baptized, but he didn’t tell anyone that he had not quit the gangster club, occasionally joining in their gatherings. The club leader then demanded they fight a group of 60 Chinese who worked at a local factory. He went along, saw his friends beat and seriously injure some of the men, and decided in his heart that it was time to quit that life. Some of his friends from that time are in jail today. The next year Buka learned to play the guitar and piano; he dreamed of becoming a songwriter, and God gave him his first song. He wrote it, and the members started singing it in church. In 2007 he joined the 1,000 Missionary Movement and was sent to Selenge, a northern province bordering Russia. He was really excited about it, because that’s where the woman of his dreams, Enkhjargal Tserendug, was living. They had met the previous year when she visited Buka’s church along with a singing group from the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Since then, he had been praying that God would give her to be his wife, not knowing that she also had taken a liking to him and was also praying about a future relationship. They started dating, and got married in 2008.

The Little Girl’s Accident

One afternoon Buka was riding his bicycle to church when, startled by a car honking at him, he hit a 6-year-old girl who was playing all by herself by the side of the road. She began crying a lot, complaining that her eyes hurt. Not finding any adults around, he took her to church and asked the members to pray for her. They noticed her eyeball was moving involuntarily from side to side as she continued crying in pain.

He then took her to the hospital, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her eyes. Buka believed it was another miracle from God. Two months later the girl’s mom visited Buka’s church, guided by the little one. She questioned him if the eye accident story was true, and he confirmed it. She was shocked to know that prayer had healed her daughter. To complete the miracle, the mom found a Christian church near her home and soon became a believer.

Miracle at the “Haunted” Building

In 2009 Buka was invited to lead a fledgling congregation in a small town in Arkhangai, a province in the center of the country. The place he and his family chose to rent was in a two-story, long building named 24 Tsagaan (“white” in Mongolian). They soon found out that they were the only family occupying one of the 24 apartments in that building. On the first floor there was only a hair salon, which would close before it got dark. There was a rumor in town that 24 Tsagaan was a haunted place; a few people had died in it, and so people had been avoiding it for years.

What Buka and his family experienced in that apartment challenged and ultimately strengthened their faith. For a year they heard voices of people talking, animal noises, windows banging and breaking, and their 3-year-old son, Munkh-Ayalguu, would even see people in their home, frightening him.

But their worst experience started when Munkh-Itgel, the couple’s youngest son, began having convulsions. Some days the infant would have four to five episodes. Doctors kept giving him medicine, adult dosage, until they realized that all it was doing was harming his immune system. They couldn’t find the source of his convulsions.

The episodes went on for two years. “God, You healed my mom, that little girl’s eyes, so why won’t You heal my little boy?” Buka prayed. In 2013 he joined an evangelistic meeting in South Korea, leaving the children with relatives back in Mongolia. For 10 days many attendees fasted and lifted up Munkh-Itgel’s health in prayer.

When Buka returned home, he found, to everyone’s delightful surprise and relief, the boy’s health restored; the convulsions were no longer an issue. The church members praised God for yet another miracle, and a few members came over to their building to pray by each apartment’s door, asking God to cleanse whatever evil forces seemed to be operating in that building. 

For another six months they lived there, and no more weird noises or supernatural experiences happened in 24 Tsagaan. New rumors ran around town—about how God took care of Buka’s family—and soon more apartments were occupied.

The number of believers in Arkhangai increased quickly. Buka and his wife wrote and recorded 10 songs, and made 700 CD copies to distribute in the community and share their story of faith.

Car Accident

The Mongolian winter is extremely harsh, with temperatures as low as –22°F (–30°C). In 2018 Buka was serving the church of Yarmag, in Ulaanbaatar. The apartment where the meetings were held, and also home to Buka’s family, had been having heating issues for a few winters. It didn’t matter how many times the plumbers tried to fix it—nothing seemed to work.

That winter Buka told his wife to take their three children and stay with her mom in a different province until the winter was over and the apartment was warmer. She packed everyone up and hit the road. As night came, so did the unexpected: their car hit something on the road and fell off a 13-foot-high (four-meter-high) bridge.

In the middle of the countryside darkness, with no road lights and with freezing temperatures outside, Enkhjargal heard her three children’s voices crying from different directions, and struggled to open the car door. She managed to break the window and crawl out. Munkh-Ayalguu, then 9 years old, was the one crying the hardest, and complained of pain around his neck, unable to move.

Enkhjargal tried to use her cell phone to call for help, but there was no signal in that area. She climbed up the ditch to try to get one of the few passing cars to stop and help them. They finally got a ride back to Ulaanbaatar. On the way she managed to call Buka and explain what had happened. Buka left town right away to meet them halfway.

The car was completely destroyed; Munkh-Ayalguu suffered a broken collarbone; Enkhjargal and the other children came away with only scratches. The whole family felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for having protected them from the worst. All these challenges could have led some to stray from their faith. But not Buka and his family. Through it all, they’ve recognized God’s hands over their lives. In 2019 they finished their second CD, distributing 1,700 copies to share their faith with others. Today they serve as church leaders at the Central Church of Ulaanbaatar.