Retrospect and Prospect: Nomads and Neighbours

From the very beginning, the China Inland Mission  (now OMF International) has had a passion for unreached places, a passion to obey God and to be culturally relevant.

Remembering his prayer on Brighton Beach in 1865 Hudson Taylor wrote in A Retrospect, ‘I asked him for twenty-four fellow-workers, two for each of eleven inland provinces which were without a missionary, and two for Mongolia.’ Taylor prayed for China and for Mongolia to know Christ.

One answer to the prayer of Taylor was the exhausting travels of James Cameron around Inner Mongolia in the 1880s. Cameron travelled extensively, encountering many ‘drunkards’, but after some time came to have a ‘revulsion of feeling’ towards travel. When the only Christian in a distant village invited him, Cameron obeyed what he thought was the call of God, went and saw people voluntarily burn their idols after the local Christian preached.

The early 20th century saw the arrival ofother travelling missionaries. Celebrated by evangelicals, adventure travellers and feminists  are the ‘Gobi Trio’ of Mildred Cable and Evangeline and Francesca French. Books like Something Happened continue to inspire the imagination today. Yet the story of George Hunter and Percy Mather, and their travels into the Altai Mountains of Mongolia, are remembered by very few today.

Whereas the Trio were the best of friends, Hunter and Mather, though they lived in Urumchi, China did not stay together. ‘Mr. Hunter’ and ‘Mr. Mather’, as they called each other, were very different from one another. The older, white-bearded Hunter was a stern and melancholy Scotsman with a calling to reach Uighur and Turkic people. Mather, a young playful Englishman with a streak of romanticism, had his heart ‘captured’ by the fun-loving, yurt-dwelling Mongolians in the open ranges.

Transcending their differences, Hunter and Mather travelled together up to Khovd, Western Mongolia and the Altai Mountains. Hunter spoke Kazakh and Uighur and Mather spoke Mongolian. They shared the gospel with Turkic and Mongolian peoples, sometimes bartering gospel booklets for food in desolate places.

On a rare home leave in Britain, having remembered many Mongolians with eye trouble, Mather studied ophthalmology. Out of love, Mather was now able to help Mongolians practically. This wish to help people practically was a forerunner to many other missionaries who travelled in Mongolia in later years.

Decades later in the early 1990s, Markus and Gertrud Dubach lived in Gobi-Altai Province in Mongolia. They cultivated potatoes. Sharing the gospel of Christ came naturally out of good relationships. Because of his remarkable agricultural work, Markus was awarded honorary citizenship of Gobi-Altai. This couple opened up doors for OMF and others later.

A few years ago there was a severe winter in Gobi-Altai. In one remote region of the Altai Mountains, 90 per cent of livestock died. In despair some men committed suicide. Local officials asked for help, and OMF workers, in partnership with other foreign and Mongolian Christians, responded. Nomadic herders received sheep and goats. Many herders said that if they had not received these livestock, they would have become urban migrants. Due to high unemployment and alcoholism in urban centres, it is probable that many of these families would have fallen into the snares of joblessness and vodka addiction.

While much of our work is in cities with Mongolians who drive cars, have smart phones and use Facebook, there are times when our work seems of another century. Recently I was on a gospel horseback trip in the Altai Mountains, and one lonesome herdswoman was joyful to receive a Bible.

Recently two Mongolian Christians visited Altai nomads. One of these men had come to Christ through the witness of a business project in Altai City (see the video ‘Artis Altai’ Visiting remote nomads, they taught the Word of God. Twenty-eight men and women committed their lives to Christ. One nomad, who was regarded as a spiritual leader, threw away all his idols, fortune-telling stones and his shamanic drum; he wants to follow Christ whole-heartedly. Cameron would have been glad. The prayers of Hunter and Mather for the Altai people are being answered.
The prospect of a bright golden day dawns in the mountains of Mongolia.         

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