Oakland Mongolians find fellowship on the volleyball court

Just after six one Tuesday evening at an aircraft hanger-turned sports complex at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, a single volleyball court swells with Asian immigrants in shorts and athletic shoes: teenagers, middle-aged men, young mothers bouncing infants on their knees. They fill a couple rows of sideline bleachers with purses, jackets and backpacks before the players start stretching and running sprints alongside the net. When some balls are introduced to the mix, the players start to run drills. A few of the men are surprisingly good, jumping high, hitting the balls with just the right timing. The best in this group played in middle and high school in their home country, where volleyball is something of a national pastime, valued in part because it can be played indoors in a place where the weather is fierce.

Then the girls take their turn at the net. All of them need improvement. But many show promise, and they are unusually tall for a group of Asian girls. Not Vietnamese, Chinese or Korean, they are part of one of Oakland’s newest and least visible immigrant communities: the Mongolians.

“In Mongolia, volleyball and basketball are our favorite sports,” says Oggie Oktyabri, turning a ball in his hands between stretches. “No one plays baseball or football. Even soccer is not that popular.”

Oktyabri is a leader in what he and the other players call the Mongolian “volleyball fellowship.”  He played in school in Mongolia; and these days, he volunteers as a youth leader in Oakland’s First Mongolian Christian Church, which organized the team. Most of those practicing tonight are members of the church.

In fact, an hour into the four-hour practice, the church’s founding pastor, Oggie Luvsan, shows up to play. Pastor Oggie does not normally attend the weekly practice, but tonight is critical; in a week, the church will host a Bay Area-wide all-Mongolian tournament, the fourth such event since the fellowship started four years ago. All three of the church’s teams will compete.

The men line up on one side of the net and the girls on the other. Dressed in black shorts and a purple tee shirt, his fingers taped to lessen the pain of the balls slapping against his hands, Oktyabri practices gentle serves with the girls. Meanwhile, practicing their attacks the boys rush the net as some of the other fellowship leaders throw balls up for them to spike.

Pastor Oggie is on the sidelines, his jacket unzipped. He stretches his arms and legs, ready to join. On the boys’ side, a few men make earnest attempts to spike the ball. But their timing is off – hard slaps make gusts of wind but only brush the ball, which eases sloppily over the net. Sometimes the players’ hands miss the ball entirely.

“They hit the net,” says Tugu Ganbaatar, another of First Mongolian’s youth leaders. “Not good.”

Zugeer, zugeer. Boljiishoo,” Pastor Oggie calls from the sidelines, clapping his hands. That’s Mongolian for: It’s OK. It’s OK. Keep trying.

Now Okytabri has stopped practicing with the girls. Ducking under the net, he joins the drill line on the other side of the court. When he reaches the front, a fellow player tosses the ball a few feet above the net, as he’s done for every player in the entire drill so far. Okytabri jumps high and – as if to show the rest of the crowd how it’s done – shoots the ball to the far side of the court with a resounding thump.

***

Around the country, cities now host growing but largely invisible populations of Mongolian immigrants and their children. Since their presence is so new, accurate counts are hard to make. Many of the immigrants are undocumented or can’t manage English well enough to respond to census forms, but five years ago, The Washington Post reported the number of Mongolians in the U.S. at 15,000-18,000. More recently, the Oakland non-profit Asian Health Services estimated the Bay Area population at 5,000-6,000 — perhaps up to a third of all Mongolians in the country — with most of that group living in the East Bay, and Oakland in particular.

San Francisco was probably the first Bay Area city to attract Mongolian nationals, who started leaving their home country in droves after a series of democratic reforms opened the landlocked country’s borders in the early 1990’s. According to Bassandorj Davadorj, who settled in the city’s Tenderloin District in 1999 before moving to the East Bay two years later, Mongolians’ knowledge of the U.S. was limited, so the first wave of immigrants went to the cities they knew from Hollywood, like Chicago, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

But in recent years, Oakland has emerged as a major entry point for new immigrants. Nine years after Oktyabri’s arrival, more than 1,000 Mongolians are believed to live in Oakland’s downtown alone, with more living in surrounding neighborhoods. As they have moved up the income ladder, acquired cars and had children, many have moved elsewhere in the East Bay. But for many, Oakland lies at the epicenter of their American lives because of the size of its community, and the presence of the First Mongolian Christian Church, located inside Oakland’s First Christian Church near Broadway Auto Row.

With stained glass windows, blue-tile mosaics and faded brown arches, First Christian’s 82-year-old building looks on the outside like a Spanish Mission from a prior century, with labyrinthine spaces inside. The church is an Oakland institution; at its peak, membership stood at around 2,000 people. But these days, the regular congregation is small, and the church houses several different congregations with different languages and religious orientations.

With fifty or more worshippers showing up at a given service, the largest of these currently is the First Mongolian Christian Church. One Sunday morning before service, Oktyabri can be found dressed in a slim-fitting white suit, in front of the pulpit, he has taken a microphone, practicing Mongolian-language Christian rock songs with six other men and women. All the band members are in their twenties or younger, and enthusiastic about their faith.

Because it is so new, the origins of the Mongolian community in Oakland are traceable not in statistics but in personal stories. Oyktabri was one of the first to settle in the city, and his story is typical among fellow immigrants who have arrived since. Approaching high school graduation in the capital city of Ulan Bator, he considered college, but decided it was too expensive. So, in 2000, knowing only a few words of English, he flew to Detroit in search of a job, then took a series of trains, first to Chicago and then to California, eventually landing in Concord, where his cousin and her boyfriend lived with their two-month-old child.

As far as Oktyabri could tell, you could count the East Bay’s Mongolian population at that time on two hands.

“Just eight,” he said, holding up his fingers, when asked how many of countrymen he knew of living in the region.

He shared his cousin’s apartment in Concord, where she and her boyfriend taught him how to speak English and drive in the new country. (Oktyabri had been driving since he was eight, having learned on an old Soviet-built truck back home, but coming to the U.S. was his first time encountering traffic lights.)  He got work as a dishwasher, then as a chicken griller. His English improved. After two years, he learned about five other Mongolians in the area, crowded together in a few apartments in downtown Oakland, and moved there to be with them.

But even with other Mongolians, he was depressed and bored. Day to day, Oktyabri went to work in Concord then came back to hang out. Like many of his fellow immigrants, Oktyabri had been smoking cigarettes from an early age. He had also been drinking since 13. In the U.S., he encountered marijuana for the first time, and the drug soon played a central role in his life. Feeling alone, he called home frequently and encouraged his friends to join him. Eventually, a few actually did.

Oktyabri doesn’t know how so many Mongolians came to the East Bay, but just a year after his arrival in Oakland, he says, their presence in the city had grown to over a hundred.

Many of the new immigrants gravitated to the church, he says, where they could meet other Mongolians and learn about their new country in exchange for hearing some sermonizing from Pastor Oggie. But Oktyabri stayed away from it – until 2006, that is, when he went to a Korean nightclub in Los Angeles for a concert by a Mongolian country singer. There he met a woman. She was a Mongolian Christian named Naranzul Gantumur, and he says she made it her personal mission to make him a Christian as well.

When Oktyabri went back to Oakland, he started calling the woman regularly and invited her to come live with her. She moved, but she wanted him to change his ways, threatening to break up with him if he didn’t quit smoking and drinking.

“We smoked weed. A lot, a lot, every day, every day,” he says. “Then I met her, and she tried to fix me, little by little.”

Unable to return home without losing his place in the U.S., and without purpose besides a dead-end job in his adopted home, Oktyabri says he felt lost. So Gantumur took him to one of First Mongolian’s Friday night prayer sessions.

“It was very comfortable,” he says of his first time at the church. “The people were so loving.

Coming to the church was also his first introduction to Pastor Oggie.

“When I met him, he was just shaking my hand,” Oktyabri says. “He said ‘God loves you.’  Nobody told me before that. He accepted me like a son.”

When Oktyabri went to hear Pastor Oggie’s sermon the next Sunday, he says, it felt like Pastor Oggie was talking to him directly. Oktyabri was baptized shortly thereafter. The next year, in 2007, Okytabri and Gantumur were married in the church sanctuary. Their second child is due in two weeks.

***

From the bleachers during Saturday’s tournament, Pastor Oggie cheers First Mongolian’s young men’s team.

“Goyo goyo yag boljiishoo! Naad heveeree!” he claps his hands and shouts after they score. Very good!  Keep it that way!

Sweating profusely in black uniforms with FMCC OAKLAND emblazoned on the back and a small icon of a volleyball with a cross over it on the front, Oktyabri and the others are playing in top form, running or diving for every ball, passing to one another, calling their shots and high-fiveing after every spike. Low-wage jobs, immigration status and growing families are all set aside as the totality of their concerns in this life are limited to the court, the net, and the ball.

Only a year after joining the church, it was Oktyabri’s idea to start the volleyball fellowship, now in its fourth year. Pastor Oggie liked the idea, he said, because it was a way to reach Mongolian youth outside the church, and steer them from the temptations and bad influences of the street. All Mongolians, regardless of their church membership or experience level, are invited to play, though all players eventually here about the Gospel, and Oktyabri says the volleyball fellowship has been instrumental in bringing new youth into the church.

“These teenagers change their lives, and their parents are looking.” he says. “They say, ‘Hey, my son, my girl is changing their direction. What’s happening there?  I’m going to the church.”

Shortly after First Mongolian’s first volleyball team was founded, other pockets of Mongolian immigrants started their own: teenagers from Concord, students of Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, the owners and friends of a small shipping business, also in Concord. Meanwhile, the church’s own teams began growing, to three for different genders and skill levels. With so many teams around the East Bay, an annual tournament to get together and play seemed like a natural extension of the church’s involvement in the community.

When immigrants first come to the church, Oktyabri says, most are not interested in religion. Just the same, much of what the church does for new immigrants is secular, teaching them how to drive and get driver’s licenses, where to enroll their kids in school, and what their rights are when they become a crime victim.

And Saturday’s tournament is hardly a religious affair. Prayers are kept to a minimum; Pastor Oggie and some other volunteers take turns announcing the games through a microphone. Only one court is available, but all six teams and their families manage to fit themselves into it, either as players or fans. It’s a scene out of their home country: the sideline referees, the scorekeepers, the volunteers filling out brackets to see who will advance and who will not—all are Mongolian. In the parking lot outside, a small group is frying beef pastries in a wok and selling it to fans and players with a side of potato salad. When he’s not playing, Oktyabri is a referee.

But renting a facility has been expensive for First Mongolian’s volleyball fellowship. The Bladium sports complex, where the fellowship practices every week and where the tournament is held now, charges $7.50 per person per night to practice. Since the church’s funds already go to First Christian’s rent, the fee—often just within the range of affordability for Mongolian families—is the players’ to bear. So are practice shorts and shoes.

Ijlay Gankhuyag says he was concerned at first about the cost of the volleyball fellowship, but that Pastor Oggie has always encouraged him and Oktyabri to keep it going.

“Pastor Oggie told me to just have it,” he said. “He said, ‘God will help you.’”

In the future, Pastor Oggie says, he hopes a sympathetic person will offer the use of a gym for a discounted rate.

With the tournament wrapping up, water is passed around to the players, and the men and women line up in a row on the court. Pastor Oggie assists with the passing out of trophies and certificates of appreciation to the top performers and winning teams. Oyktabri’s team did not win first place, as they had hoped to, but the church has achieved something else: seven families have agreed to come the following day.

Despite its struggles, the impact of the volleyball fellowship on the Mongolian community in this area has been huge, and nowhere is this more evident then on the faces of the young players as they accept their awards. Still a struggling immigrant group in a new land, the Mongolians now have something to rally behind and to be a part of. The church and its fellowship is part of the reason Mongolians in the East Bay have gone from a fledging population to a community.

“Now, you can see those teenagers,” Oyktabri says. “When they go to the street, they don’t like it. They want to come here,” to the church.

2 Comments

  1. Doug

    I wonder how much permits would cost to put up a net and play in Mosswood park. Seems like it would be less than $7.50/person

Comments are closed.