Friday, May 4, 2001 | 4:51 a.m.
He has a light grip on the English language, a nametag that identifies him as a Mormon missionary and, after two years of knocking on doors in Las Vegas, he is expected to lead the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into worldwide maturity.
Battur "Bo" Haltar, 21, grew up in Mongolia -- in a community where almost every house smells of stewed mutton and every third house boasts a wall-hanging of 12th-century ruler Genghis Kahn. Halter's old friends are a collection of Buddhists and beer drinkers, farmers and store clerks.
But Haltar now spends his days carrying the Book of Mormon through suburban Las Vegas, wearing a necktie, pitching the story of the prophet Joseph Smith and divine revelation, the story of an American church.
"By the year 2060, we'll be a major world religion," Las Vegas West Mission Church President Walter Hill says of the Utah-based Mormon Church, which claims 11 million followers worldwide and 2 percent of the U.S. population.
Hill says that it is through the assimilation of young men such as Haltar that the religion -- which is younger than the United States -- will wrap its arms around the world.
"These missionaries from Mongolia, from Mexico, from a host of Third World countries -- they represent the genesis of a new world religion," he says, gesturing toward Haltar, Mongolian Dembee Ulambadrakh, 20, and Mexican Enrique Carrera, 19, who sit in his office under framed photos of the elderly men who have led the church thus far.
The young men are serving two-year missions in Las Vegas.
"These boys are going to go back to their homes and be the leaders of the church in their country. They will be the ones who bring the church into maturity," Hill says.
But there is a hitch in the plan. Haltar, like many foreign missionaries to the United States, wants to move to this country after his mission.
"I want to go to a U.S. college and live here because it's a better way of life," Haltar said.
To encourage young missionaries to return home, church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the creation of the worldwide Perpetual Education Fund in March. The fund will give missionaries from Third World countries low-interest loans to return to their homes and pursue a higher education.
The program was modeled after its Perpetual Emigration Fund, which paid for more than 30,000 Europeans to immigrate to the United States between 1849 and 1887, provided they joined the church.
Once the immigrants arrived and got jobs, they were expected to repay the loan so that others could borrow from the fund. The church discontinued the fund when immigration laws tightened in the 1890s, but its revision and reappearance this year is being called "startling and imaginative" by religious scholars.
"To my knowledge, this is the only religion that does this," Armand Mauss, professor emeritus of Washington State University and an author of two books on the sociology of Mormonism, said. "It addresses one of the biggest problems in the church, and that is that once people are converted, they don't always stay in the church ... this encourages them to stay in."
Mauss said 75 percent of foreign converts are not attending church within a year of conversion. In the United States, 50 percent of the converts fail to attend after a year.
"It's hard to hold onto these people. The church is always looking for a way to retain them," Mauss said.
"The fund will allow missionaries to choose a college in their home country and not only will it greatly enhance the educational level of the missionaries in their own country, but it will help bond them to the church."
Haltar was converted in Mongolia when he was 18 by a young man from Utah who showed him a video about Jesus Christ.
"I had never heard of this before. It was very strong for me," he said. "(Jesus) suffered for our sins. My friend took me to church, and I was impressed. They seemed so happy in their faces. And now they are like my friends already."
Mauss said missionary work is often most successful in areas of social or cultural upheaval.
"Mongolia has only recently (late 1980s through early 1990s) been liberated from external control of the Soviet Union -- so it has recently become free to explore various, novel ways of living and thinking.
"All religions have learned that people are most susceptible to conversion and approach by others at certain times like this," Mauss said.
American way of life
"And the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the greatest appeal in times and places where the American way of life is held in highest esteem," Mauss said.
"If they are looking to the American way of life as desirable, it ought not be surprising that they would be inclined to look at the American religion. Mormonism is the best-known religious product of America."
Although slightly more than 2 percent of Americans count themselves as followers of the faith, it is the largest U.S.-founded religion, giving it a distinctly American reputation in other countries.
The church recognizes the Bible, but also maintains that Jesus Christ came to America to teach the indigenous people shortly after his resurrection. In 1820, tradition holds, God restored the "latter-day" religion by sending an angel to reveal new scripture to a 14-year-old New Yorker named Joseph Smith.
The church was organized by Smith in 1830.
"The church is very new in Mongolia," said Ulambadrakh, 20, who was converted three years ago. At various times, Mongolia has been dominated by Buddhism, atheistic Communism, Shamanism and Islam. Christian missionaries of many denominations have been working the area for centuries, and at one point were expelled because they were perceived as divisive.
"At first I could not believe that Jesus Christ was God," Ulambadrakh said. My friends were Buddhist. My dad is Buddhist. They were not happy that I decided to do this.
"But I know America. I think it is better. In Mongolia there are no jobs really. It's hard to find any job. It's better here," Ulambadrakh said.
Carrera plans to pursue a career in computer technology after his mission.
"People don't make too much money in Mexico. The standard of living is higher here. In Mexico we don't have the opportunities like we do here. There are few opportunities to go to school.
"I think this (mission and education fund) will help me to provide better for the future," he said.
No visiting Strip
The missionaries in Las Vegas are not allowed to visit the Strip. ("All I knew of Las Vegas was the movie 'Casino,' " says Haltar. "But that's not what it's like here.") Instead, they spend their time in narrowly focused church activities.
They do not drink alcohol, coffee or tea; they do not smoke, gamble, read anything other than church literature, nor watch movies or television.
"We keep them pretty focused. There are rules that are meant to guide them. But do you see the good feeling that they emanate?" Hill says.
"The church provides a way of life. If you take one step back and teach them that there is a God in heaven and this church is the plan, you realize what is important. This is a win-win situation.
"They will go back to Mongolia and have an education. Rather than letting them go back to poverty, a lot of them want to stay here when they're done, but this will help them in their own land."
Still, the missionaries somehow manage to absorb American culture along with their new faith.
"I love hamburgers. I just love them," Haltar says. "McDonald's."
"Cheeseburgers," Ulambadrakh said. "I will always remember cheeseburgers."