Monthly Archives: February 2013

Outside the gates…

The mountains were crisp and clear in the winter sun as we headed to the outskirts of Podgorica, Montenegro.  “Where are you from?” the Serbian pastor of the young Roma church asked me.

“The USA,”  I replied.

The gateway from the dump into the community.

The gateway from the dump into the community.

“Oh. This is here because of you, ” he replied, in a matter-of-fact way I have become accustomed to in the Balkans.

He was referring to the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, of which one consequence was our present destination: a squalid, trash-filled Roma refugee settlement located within spitting distance of the city dump. IMG_3822

It was hard for me to see the children hard at work in the city dump, digging up metals to sell.  Around 60% of the children are out in the dump instead of the makeshift school in the camp, because their parents are depending on them for survival.

Kids standing in front of the hole they are working on.

Kids standing in front of the hole they are working on.

IMG_3816

“I feel worse when I see kids playing video games all day,” the Serbian pastor told me with a wry grin, after I expressed my concern.  He dropped me off in the safekeeping of his assistant pastor and translator while he zipped off to go meet a lawyer and some Roma men to try to help them escape jail—a typical day in the potpourri life of a pastor to the Roma.

“We are not Roma,” my translator for the morning corrected me.  “We are Ashkali/Egyptians.  Gypsies.”

“Ahhh,” I thought to myself.  “Just when I thought I was getting a handle on Gypsy identity….”

“You are originally from Egypt?  How do you know that?” I asked my translator, expecting an answer that had something to do with oral tradition.

“I read it on the internet,” he said.

This community of 320 Albanian-speaking people are refugees from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Many terrible atrocities happened in that war between the Serbians and the Albanian Kosovars—but the Roma and the Ashkali also suffered greatly.  By the end of 1999, most had fled or been driven out, and even though many tried to return after the war, an outbreak of violence against them in 2004 destroyed numerous homes. I myself have run into plenty of Roma refugees from Kosovo in various places.

But in the midst of this trash heap, a tiny church, begun in 2010, is already growing rapidly.  The assistant pastor seems a focused man, perhaps because of God’s distinct intervention when he was only 18 years old.

During the war, his entire 36-member extended family was huddled in a house, hiding from the Serbian soldiers.  At one point in the night, he went up to the second floor to gaze out on the destruction outside.  All of a sudden, he heard a voice in the darkness say: “I am Jesus.”  Scared, he looked around the room.  The voice repeated itself:  “I am Jesus, do not be afraid. I will save you and your entire family.”  He searched the room but it was empty, and then he ran downstairs.

The power in this voice stayed with him when the Serbian soldiers were hunting people with dogs outside.  Although the dogs sniffed the house holding 36 people, they did not bark.  It stayed with him when his family fled to Albania the next morning, miraculously saved again from soldiers they encountered on the road.  And it stayed with him for a 3rd miracle, when an Albanian pastor came to find them in a refugee holding center, saying that “God had sent him to find them.”

He began to learn about Jesus and attend church when his family returned to Kosovo a few months later.  He continued serving God when in 2004, he and his wife moved to Montenegro since her family disapproved of him as a suitable husband for her.

In 2010, he received another call from God.  “Don’t wait anymore, ” he heard God say. “It’s time to start what I brought you here for.”

Assistant pastor (on the right) and translator in front of the church.

Assistant pastor (on the right) and translator in front of the church.

And so he teamed up with the Serbian pastor and they began the church in this place— a place on the outskirts of the capital city  where trash is surrounded by beautiful mountains, a place where surely God is gathering a people for himself.

Montenegro: A land of wild beauty and spiritual isolation

If you squint at the top of the snow-covered mountain that overlooks the small coastal town of Bar, Montenegro, you can just make out a white speck on its top.

“Right there,” D., my host for the day pointed out.  “Can you see it?”IMG_3799

The mountain is a holy place for all the different religions in the area:  Catholic, Orthodox, and Islam.  But when the Montenegrin Orthodox tried to separate and be independent from the Serbian Orthodox, a struggle ensued for power, land, and rights to the Orthodox heritage.  At one point, the Serbian Orthodox Church flew a helicopter over the mountain and dropped a small metal church on top.   Click here for more on the story.

This symbolic attempt to “religiously claim” the territory  marks part of the spiritual malaise of the region.  Like other countries in the Balkans, religion cannot be separated from ethnic or national identity.  Croat=Catholic.  Serb=Orthodox.  Montenegrin=Orthodox.  Bosniak=Muslim. But many times religion is used as a manipulative tool by those who wish to wield some kind of political power—this rips out the beating heart and leaves an empty shell.

It is bafflingly ironic that the Orthodox heritage—rich in theology, liturgy, and rooting into the beginning of Christianity—should bar the 630,000 people in this tiny country from God.

“They are afraid of anything outside of the Orthodox Church,” one missionary said.

“They think we have a different Bible,” another missionary told me, “and the priests tell the people not to read the Bible.”

This seems to be one of the biggest roadblocks—the people feel that it is dangerous to read the Bible because they might misinterpret it without a priest.  Even more, the liturgy, which is chock full of Scripture and theology, is conducted in Old Slavic, which no one can understand.

Spiritual conversations are not easy to come by, although one Serbian missionary who has been here for 20 years said that the people are now more open and less aggressive when you bring up the topic.

Yesterday, as I wound my way through Montenegro’s wild and formidable mountains,  I decided to stop at Ostrog, the famous monastery built into a cliff IMG_3841face.  Orthodox pilgrims come from all over the world  to pray, drawn by reports of healings and other miracles.

I must admit my palms started dripping sweat as I began the slow, treacherous climb up the narrow road which only occasionally had a few medium size rocks to (hypothetically) prevent an unfortunate driver from driving off the edge.

Halfway up,  I picked up three devoutly dressed Serbian Orthodox women.  When we reached the top, I followed them in the monastery and watched them begin to write on pieces of paper.  IMG_3830

“Is that for prayer requests?” I asked them.  They smiled and nodded, and tore me off a piece of paper.  Afterwards, I explored the rest of the monastery and passed by the women once more on my way out.

“You should wait for the blessing of the priest!” they said to me.  When I tried to understand what that meant, they looked surprised. (Author’s Note:  The following conversation is what transpired in my head, but due to communication difficulties due to communicating a difficult topic in my Croatian, it could have sounded very different to their ears.)

“Are you Orthodox?”

“No.”

“What are you?

“I’m a follower of Jesus Christ.”

“Catholic?”

“No.”

“How do you cross yourself?”

“I don’t.”

“What do you do?”

“I try to live as Jesus commanded, I read my Bible to learn who God is and how He relates to people, I pray, I enjoy relationship with God.  We  believe in the same God and the same Jesus,” I tried to explain.

One woman had heard of Protestantism and asked me if that was it, but the other two looked even more confused, and the questions kept coming:

“How often do you read your Bible? Do you have an Old Testament?  The Psalms? Are you a Jehovah Witness?”

In the end, I left the conversation frustrated with my lack of language to properly engage in conversation, but fascinated at these women who trek once a month to write their prayers and wait for the blessing of the priest.

I try to imagine what would happen in this country if there was a reformation within the Orthodox church—if the priests began to lead the people as true shepherds and teach the people the way of Jesus.  In a land where there is only around 150 known believers (all Evangelical), this is something worth praying for. IMG_3835 IMG_3837