As in many places the world over, alcohol plays a central role in Mongolian life. This woman is pouring fermented mare's milk to make a ubiquitous alcoholic beverage called Airag (or Kumis) while an empty vodka bottle supports the stove behind her. Photo courtesy of www.david baxendale.com

As in many places the world over, alcohol plays a central role in Mongolian life. This woman is pouring fermented mare's milk to make a ubiquitous alcoholic beverage called Airag (or Kumis) while an empty vodka bottle supports the stove behind her. Photo courtesy of www.david baxendale.com

Jesus was a last resort for Hishgee’s father.

“‘I have two choices,’ was his thinking. ‘One is to live as an alcoholic and then die at some point, or I can find out about Jesus,’” Hishgee says.

Her father was an alcoholic and had been for years, despite his best efforts. Trying to quit by his own willpower had not been enough; neither was Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) and Shamaism. Even attempts to kill himself several times failed.

So when Hishgee’s father discovered Alcoholics Anonymous in their community in Mongolia, and learned that the founders had been two Christian men, he thought that maybe Jesus could be the answer. It was a bit of a stretch – a last ditch effort.

“He thought, ‘Christianity is a foreign, strange religion, but if I know about Jesus Christ then maybe I can have a new life,’” Hishgee says.

He found a Christian missionary who worked in addiction recovery, and started going to church at the missionary’s invitation. Hishgee, a young woman who was working on her Bachelor's degree in social work at the time, accompanied him. It was their first time at a Christian church service.

Christianity is a foreign, strange religion, but if I know about Jesus Christ maybe I can have a new life.

Hishgee was writing her thesis about children coming from families affected by alcoholism and she knew better than most people how much her father’s alcoholism had hurt her family.

“Almost every day he drank,” Hishgee says, describing her father’s alcoholism at its worst during Mongolia’s economic crisis in 1990. “He was more angry, and abusive of my mom – hitting and shouting and fighting.”

But now, her father’s journey towards recovery from alcoholism would bring something else to her family: reconciliation and healing.

It did not happen all at once. Simply going to church was not the cure for her father’s alcoholism; he still relapsed, drinking constantly for weeks at a time.

And Hishgee, while not an alcoholic, was caught in her own cycle of going to nightclubs with her friends.

“I liked that lifestyle, but I also really wanted to change my life,” she says. “But when my friends said, ‘Let’s go to the nightclub,’ I couldn’t tell them no.”

One day, she found herself confronted with two choices of her own: attend her church’s small group or go with her friends to the club as usual.

“It was very difficult, but I made a decision to go to church that day,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I did. That was the last time I ever went to a club.”

That night, after the small group had finished, one of the church leaders began asking Hishgee how she and her family were doing. She told him about her father’s alcoholism, their struggles.

“Alcoholic families don’t talk about what happens at home with anyone. We keep secrets inside,” she says. “It was the first time I told someone outside of my family about my father’s drinking, because I always felt ashamed.”

Hishgee's vision is to provide teaching and resources to counselors so that they in turn can better support those struggling with addiction.

Hishgee's vision is to provide teaching and resources to counselors so that they in turn can better support those struggling with addiction.

But her church leader did not judge her; he understood her, more than she could have guessed. His father had been an alcoholic as well, but he had prayed for his father, and his father eventually became sober. He asked Hishgee if she wanted to pray with him about her father’s alcoholism, and they did.

“When I went home after that, my dad was sober for the first time in several weeks. It surprised me, it was very strange,” she says. “I thought, ‘Maybe this is God’s influence from our prayers.’ For the first time, I thought that maybe this Jesus is really real.’”

A month later, she was baptized – quite by accident, she says. The church she was attending was holding a baptism at the river, and several church members asked her to come along. Though she didn’t even know what “baptism” meant, she followed along since it was on the way home. She ended up being baptized.

“Something happened in my heart. I felt something different,” she says. “When I was in the river, under the water, I felt like a new Hishgee.

“The old Hishgee went to nightclubs and drank. She was ashamed of her family – angry at her dad and had hate for her relatives,” she says. “I didn’t have hope for my future.”

Hishgee could feel something stirring in her, and soon after she decided to “really be a disciple, a real disciple of Jesus.” Her father accepted Jesus Christ as his savior a few months later and began attending the Celebrate Recovery program. Hishgee, her mother and her younger sister attended the support group with him. The entire family began attending church, Hishgee’s two brothers as well.

“Addiction is not just one person’s problem, addiction influences the whole family,” she says.

Hishgee, now the head of Transformation TRACC, an addiction training and counseling center, has seen many families go through the Celebrate Recovery Program.

“Each person in the family has to recover. For my family, we saw how we had two faces – in the home we are angry with each other, but outside the home we treat people nicely,” Hishgee says. “We learned we have to practice treating people well in the home first. In the CR support group we shared our brokenness, behavior, and bad character. We learned to respect each other.”

Over twelve years later, Hishgee and her family are still recovering, healing, growing. Her father is still sober, but relapses from time to time; her mother and sister are still Christian, but her brothers have stopped attending church.

“It takes time and lots of patience. People don’t always like to spend time for their personal healing and recovery,” she says, speaking about the challenges Celebrate Recovery experiences today. “But what we do is life-changing, so of course it takes time.”

My father found out alcoholism was not his destiny, it was a disease. Then he had hope and believed he could change his life.

“Sometimes people in church think, ‘I’m a Christian, I don’t need recovery, only ‘addicted’ people need it. If I just pray, then God will heal me,’” she says, noting challenges also come from incorrect assumptions in the church. “But they don’t think about the process.

“Denial is a challenge. People think, ‘I am okay, I am not like that person on the street, I can control my drinking.’ Some think addiction recovery is for ‘bad’ people.”

Alcoholism is one of Mongolia’s long-term afflictions, further aggravated after the nation’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The ensuing social upheaval and economic crisis meant many were plunged into unemployment; alcohol became the balm for depression and hopelessness.

According to a 2006 survey conducted by Mongolia’s Ministry of Health and the UN’s World Health Organization, 22 percent of Mongolian men and 5 percent of women are dependent on alcohol.

Despite its prevalence, addiction and addiction recovery is a young field in Mongolia. Many Mongolians, Hishgee says, live without even the knowledge that freedom from addiction is possible. She cites her father as an example.

“When he believed that he would never stop drinking and would die that way, he was very hopeless,” she says. “But my father found out alcoholism was not his destiny, it was a disease. And because it was a disease, he could seek treatment, and then he had hope and believed he could change his life. I see many alcoholics live without hope.”

Her vision now at Guide for Transormation is to train and empower counselors who will form a network of relationships and resources for people and families struggling with addiction.

“After a few months, many who attend accept Jesus as their savior,” she says. “It isn’t just one person – when one addicted person changes, the whole family comes to know Jesus too because they see how lives change.”

As Hishgee and her father have discovered, Jesus is not just a last resort, but a real hope for healing and transformation.

Celebrate Recovery and Transformation TRACC


Celebrate Recovery (CR) is a church-based addiction recovery program with roots in Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 Steps and initially developed by Saddleback Church in the USA. It was adapted for and established in Mongolia as a response to a growing problem with alcoholism that many trace to the end of communist rule.

Mongolia has one of the highest ratios of alcohol outlets to people in the world – around 1 shop for every 270 people. High-content alcoholic drinks like vodka are also very cheap compared with lower-content imported drinks. Though Mongolia as a whole consumes an average amount of alcohol compared to other nations, most of this is drunk by about a quarter of the population, making alcoholism a significant problem.

Since it began in 2002, Celebrate Recovery has created a network within the country of support groups, leaders, and churches. Today, the current network of Celebrate Recovery programs in Mongolia has grown into the independent Transformation TRACC (Training and Counseling Center for Addiction Recovery). The center operates separately from the CR network, but still works in partnership in order to provide resources, such as training to counselors and CR leaders, as well as offer a library of materials.

Read more about Celebrate Recovery

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