Every Sunday evening after their 90-minute worship service, members of the L.A. Mongolian Church rearrange pew benches, turning their small sanctuary into a cozy dining room. There, they linger over noodles and tacos, and visit with each other late into the night.
It’s a weekly ritual that congregants of Los Angeles’ only Mongolian church look forward to. It sustains them through the week, as they work long hours, often in low-paying jobs, to survive in America.
Sunday, their ritual will take on a decidedly American air. Three days after the actual holiday, they will serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and the trimmings -- the first one they will have prepared themselves.
“Everyone is excited about it,” said Eun Bok Won, wife of church founder Cheolhee Lee, a former Korean missionary to Mongolia. “They’re all pitching in. This will be a very special time for us.”
Like their first American Thanksgiving dinner, many things are new to Mongolians, among Los Angeles’ latest arrivals from Asia.
Numbering fewer than 2,000, they mostly live and work in Koreatown, according to Batbold Galsansanjaa, who is considered the leader of the local Mongolian community. In Mongolia, he taught at a medical school. He now works as a parking attendant in Koreatown while looking for a business job.
“In Koreatown, you don’t feel like a foreigner,” he said. “We blend in; if we don’t talk, we pass for Koreans.”
There is a natural affinity between Mongolians and Koreans, which is why so many South Korean Christian workers are in Mongolia, said Lee, who started two churches in Mongolia before coming to Los Angeles in 2002 to study at Talbot Theological Seminary at Biola University. Members of both communities say they can pick up each other’s languages more easily than English.
Mongolia, a vast country in Central Asia with only 2.8 million people, became part of the Chinese empire in 1696. In 1921, combined forces of Mongolian revolutionaries and the Soviet Army freed it from Chinese control.
For seven decades until 1990, though nominally independent, Mongolia was a virtual Soviet republic. Many Mongolians speak Russian and use the Russian alphabet in writing Mongolian.
President Bush’s visit this week to their home country was a source of pride for some Mongolians in L.A., who felt that their homeland finally got the international recognition it deserved. Bush became the first U.S. president to set foot there, in part to thank Mongolia for sending troops to Iraq.
Most Mongolians are either nominal Buddhists or atheists.
Los Angeles has one Mongolian Buddhist congregation, which has been meeting every other Sunday afternoon at Korean Buddhist Kwan-Um Temple in Koreatown.
But Christianity has been gaining adherents since Mongolia opened its doors to Americans and South Koreans after the fall of the Soviet Union. More than 200 Korean Christian workers have gone there to evangelize, according to Lee. Since the Mongolian government does not issue visas to religious workers, most go as teachers or businesspeople and work cautiously, he said.
The L.A. Mongolian Church, a nondenominational evangelical group, got its start after Lee met a Mongolian Christian worker at a Korean church revival here. The group held services in homes until it borrowed the use of the small sanctuary of Love Mission Church, a Korean church near Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown. On Sundays the Korean congregation meets at 11 a.m., and the Mongolian group worships at 5:30 p.m.
The group is a mix of people on student visas, visitors who came on tourist visas and were able to get work permits, and some with undocumented status. Some converted to Christianity in Mongolia in the 1990s; others became Christian in Los Angeles.
Lee, who hopes to return to Mongolia when he completes his studies in May and is ordained, says he hopes a Mongolian pastor will move to Los Angeles to shepherd the small flock.
“God gave me a heart for the Mongolian people,” Lee said. “We pray that he will send us a Mongolian pastor.”
The Mongolians start their Sunday with nearly 30 minutes of spirited singing as lyrics in the Cyrillic alphabet are flashed on a screen. Worship leader Undraa Bayarmagnai, a student at Shepherd University, a Christian school run by Koreans near downtown, leads the singing. As she sings, her eyes are closed, and she sometimes is so moved that she jumps up and down.
Though the church has about 30 members, fewer than half make it to the service regularly because many work on Sundays. Others hurry in after their Sunday shift, arriving in the middle of the service, looking rushed and tired. But as they get caught up in worship, their faces appear to relax.
The sanctuary, the size of a large living room in a typical home, has 11 pew benches, a lectern, an upright piano and two old-fashioned fans. The centerpiece is a simple wooden cross in front, facing the congregants.
After the singing, congregants pray, read from the Bible in unison and listen to a sermon, with PowerPoint illustrations.
Though most members of the church earn no more than $10 an hour, several tithe. On a recent Sunday, Lee’s sermon was on the creation story from Genesis. Everyone read the entire first chapter together.
As they read, the smell of corn on the cob cooking in a steamer wafted into the sanctuary, which is separated from the kitchen only by a thin curtain. Their dinner consisted of the corn, noodles with strips of sauteed beef, hard-boiled brown eggs and soft drinks.
“It’s a special time for us to share our ups and downs, to encourage each other and to pray for each other and grow together” in faith, said Uyanga Bayasgalan, a native of the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, who has been a member of the church since its inception nearly three years ago. “We are like a family.”
Ironically, she won’t be able to partake of their first turkey dinner together because she gave birth to a son, Noah, last week and is recuperating at home.
“I am sorry to miss this,” said Bayasgalan, a graduate student at Biola University.
Her husband, Malchinkhuu Idesh, who plays guitar during the service, became a Christian in 1994 soon after the Campus Crusade for Christ visited Mongolia; he is studying English in Los Angeles and supports the family by making deliveries in Koreatown.
Misheel Erdenetsogt, a sophomore at University High in Westwood who became a Christian at the church, said the church is an anchor in Los Angeles for her and her mother.
“It’s so great to come here and speak Mongolian and be with everybody,” she said. “This is my second home.”