This story begins and ends in Mongolia, a landlocked country between Russia and China. One third of its people are nomads. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan exploded out of Mongolia several centuries ago.
In 1921 the USSR was on the march. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics absorbed Mongolia into its political orbit, imposing its political and religious ideology, Communism and atheism, upon Mongolia. In consequence Mongolia severely persecuted all religious activity, burned monasteries, killed monks and ended the open practice of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia. For millennia Mongolia had been a Buddhist society (along with occultic shamanism). Even though Mongolia and Tibet are separated by thousands of miles of the mountains and deserts of western China, the Mongolian variety of Buddhism is the same as the Tibetan variety – Vajrayana Buddhism, sometimes called Lamaism.
Buddhist monks of Mongolia who were not killed fled. Many of them went to Tibet, which is southwest of China and just north of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. For more than a thousand years the Dalai Lama has been the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. The Panchen Lama wielded some political power, including a role in selecting the next Dalai Lama. When the Dalai Lama or Panchen Lama died his associates would select a child to be trained as the new Lama and would declare that he was a reincarnation of the previous one.
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th Dalai Lama. He was vested with full powers as head of state in 1950 at the age of 15. The center of power was at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Chinese Communists, led by Mao, won their civil war against the Kuomintang (Nationalists) and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1950 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Chinese Communists (CCCP) were aggressively atheistic and wanted to stamp out all “superstitious” religion, along with the “landlord” class and anyone else who stood in their way. About 30 million Chinese were killed by the Communist Party and government from 1950 through 1975 under pogroms, purges and government-induced famine.
The Chinese Communist also aggressively asserted rights to all the lands around the core of the PRC: Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and especially Tibet. In 1950 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet, asserting that Tibet always had been a part of China and demanding subservience. Tibet had been an independent sovereign state from 1912-1950 but was overwhelmed by the PLA. Persecution of Tibetans was intense and immediate, especially of Buddhist monks. 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. From 1950-1980 about one million Tibetans lost their lives to the Chinese and about 100,000 escaped over the Himalayas to northern India.
The Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama continued to function in Tibet until 1959. Persecution became so intense that the Dalai Lama and many of his followers fled at night over the Himalayas to Dharamshala, the location of the Central Tibet Administration, the Dalai Lama’s government in exile. Refugees from Tibet to India in 1959 included Buddhist monks who had previously fled from Mongolia to Tibet in 1921.
China and India have had violent border wars several times in the Himalayas. One of the grievances of the Chinese government is that India harbors the Dalai Lama and his “government in exile”, which claims autonomous rights for Tibetans, especially in matters of religion. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Let’s leave the geopolitical story there for a while. We will come back to it later.
In 1925 Ruth Lois Stam was born to Harry and Alma Stam. Two brothers were Paul J. Stam and James C. Stam, and a sister, Rachel, who died as a child. Ruth’s parents were missionaries with the Africa Inland Mission at Rethy in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then the Belgian Congo). They spent 40 years in that area evangelizing and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ruth knew that her uncle and aunt, John and Betty Stam, had served in Anhui, China until 1934. She knew the need for Christian missions in China and set her heart on following that call. To complete her education she attended Wheaton College (Illinois) from 1943 to 1947. By the time she graduated from Wheaton, Christian missionaries were being expelled from Mainland China. Those who were not expelled were severely persecuted. She decided to minister to some of the refugees from China so that they could bring the gospel back to China.
Ruth Lois Stam served with TEAM, The Evangelical Alliance Mission, in northern India to work with Tibetan refugees. Her particular assignment was to help the refugees at Dharamshala get a good education, and a Christian education in particular. She was able to have some of her students admitted to universities in Europe and America. She maintained friendship and communication with them for decades. One of her students was the sister of the Dalai Lama. For a time this sister lived with Ruth Lois. Ruth Lois was a friend of the Dalai Lama and talked often with him about the education of Tibetan children.
Ruth Lois Stam had been in India for 23 years and was still single. Because of the political sensitivity of the government of India to the status of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile, and because of the sensitivity of the Indian government to American missionaries, the security services monitored Ruth’s activities. One investigator was Sam Thiagarajan, a Christian man from the city of Bangalore in South India. The legend is that the apostle, Thomas, had traveled to South India and founded the Church of South India. Today that church has approximately 2 million members. The population of India is 1.3 billion and the Christian population of India is about 6 percent (74 percent is Hindu and about 15 percent Muslim).
Sam Thiagarajan had several adult sons and was a widower. Sam told Ruth that he had investigated her for a long time and that he liked what he saw. He proposed marriage. Shortly after their marriage they emigrated to New York City. They worked for ISI (International Students Inc.), a Christian missionary organization for college students. Ruth and Sam’s assignment was evangelization of Buddhist and Hindu students in New York City.
Back to the geopolitical situation: In 1989 the Berlin wall fell. The dissolution of the 16 republics of the USSR followed quickly. By 1990 Mongolia had been freed from domination by the USSR and was relatively open. In 1989 there had been only four known Christian believers in Mongolia. All other Mongolians were either Buddhist, shamanist, atheist, or a few Muslims. One day Ruth received a call from one of the students whom she had placed decades earlier in a university. She was the daughter of one of the Buddhist monks who had fled from Mongolia to Tibet in 1919 and had then fled again in 1959 from Lhasa to Dharamshala, India. Her former student invited Ruth and Sam to come with her to Mongolia. Ruth and Sam spent several summers in Mongolia. They took the “Jesus Film” with them. The “Jesus Film” has been translated into 1500 languages and is almost verbatim the book of Luke.
The capital city of Mongolia is Ulan Bator. Half of all Mongolians live there. A large part of the country is the Gobi Desert. There are no other large cities. Nomads roam the rest of Mongolia carrying their “yurts” (tents) on horseback. Ruth and Sam followed the nomads with their film. I do not know the result of their individual work. The latest version of Operation World estimates forty-six thousand Christians now in Mongolia with 200 churches in Ulan Bator and tiny groups of believers in every province. The Jesus film is widely used.
God took the preparation of a girl who grew up in the Congo, redirected her vision for China, and her ministry in India, to the people of Tibet. Along with a Christian man whose lineage in the faith dated back two thousand years. Ruth and Sam helped to evangelize Mongolia, then one of the least Christian nations on earth. Ruth and Sam are not listed in any book of heroes, but should be.
Please advise the author of corrections or additions
All errors of fact are my own. Thanks to Ruth Stam Stevens, Mary Stam and Doris Perry Stam for reading this and correcting some of my errors. Other sources include: