Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Great Inviter

When I first met her, I immediately noticed the sadness in her bright blue eyes, her shyness, her quiet reluctance to be part of the group.  If the women were in a circle talking, she would be on the outside.  She always seemed to be waiting, holding herself back—but in this reticence I sensed that she longed to be included, longed to belong, to be wanted. I had a feeling that this was not something she had often, if ever, experienced in her life.

It was this deep longing, I believe, that drew her to continue coming to the Little Darda Church.  Like many others, J.’s story is laden with sadness (click here for poem I wrote based on several women’s stories).  As a young Croatian woman, she ran off and married an older Roma man, much to her family’s chagrin and subsequent rejection. The marriage was far from easy, secure, or peaceful.  She had many children, and all of them were taken away from her by the state because of their dismal living conditions.

Her lost children are a deep, unhealed wound that is never far from her mind and heart.

But she and her husband began attending any event or church service that we hosted.  She started writing simple poems and songs to God that she would share in front of the church. Her prayers were always the same—for her children, for the leadership of the church, for God’s help.

She and her husband attended the Roma worship conference that was in Osijek a few weeks ago—and in front of all the participants and Roma pastors she spoke up and talked about her financial needs and worries.  At first I was worried about how people would respond, because her sharing could easily be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as asking for money.  But her story was probably familiar to many in the room, and one woman got up, laid hands on her, and prayed passionately for her.

When she finished praying, she embraced J. and kissed her on her cheek.  I could see J.’s face clearly from where I was sitting, and I saw it—the hunger for love, the delight of being accepted, the dignity and worth that that kiss somehow bestowed upon her.

Last weekend we hosted our monthly kid’s club in the Roma village in Darda.  I saw J. and her husband walk up to watch the activities unfolding on the hot, green field and I had a sudden flash of insight.  I called her over and asked her if she could assist me with my group.   She agreed, and together we facilitated the children’s Bible story, the workbook time, the craft, and the games.  When I saw her sitting in the circle, one little girl in her lap and two more on either side as she, with her rudimentary education, instructed the children through their workbooks, I almost choked up.  Nothing could ever replace the children she lost, but how could I not recognize God’s unexpected gifts along her path to redemption and transformation?

The next day at Little Darda Church she was still beaming.  “I slept the whole night through,” she told me, smiling.  “I didn’t wake up until 9 a.m.!  That never happens.  And when I woke up, it was as if God lifted me up and gave me joy.”  She paused and repeated the phrase. “God lifted me up. I usually always feel so sad, but today I feel happy.”

How can one better understand the quality of God’s redeeming love?  By watching the slow transformation of someone—from unloved to loved, from unwanted to wanted, from marginalized to belonging.

“Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.  From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.  There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”  Hosea 2:14-15

Our wonderful women's group in the Little Darda Church.

Our wonderful women’s group in the Little Darda Church.

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A Tale of Two Men—In One City (Part 3)

Part 1         Part 2

“Everyone is guilty when the war starts because people start to kill each other and when one person is dead, revenge begins and there is no end to that. So don’t ask who is guilty…there is a chain of guilt.”

S. leaned forward on his knees, moving easily between English and Serbian as he jumped from one topic to another.  As I listened, it was difficult to follow the timeline for his busy and eventful life—here was a man who had run the race at full speed regardless of the circumstances.

As we sipped juice late into the night in his small town in Serbia, S. regaled me with dozens of stories—and I somehow knew these were only the tip of the iceberg.

Born in Kosovo, S. and his wife always had a passion for Christian literature and a desire to translate it into the languages used in Yugoslavia. Even before they opened the church in Kosovo in 1969, they would ride together on one bicycle, tossing out Albanian tracts  at various crossroads, putting them in mail boxes, and throwing them over fences.  At one point, S. found a copy of an Albanian New Testament and printed thousands of copies.

“I never had a problem with Albanians,” he insisted.  “We studied and went to school together.  In the time of Tito, we never ever thought of anyone on the national level.  That did not exist between us.  That started after the 1970’s when it was seen that Tito’s death was approaching and nationalism arose in our country.”

S.’s literature dispersal even extended over the borders of Yugoslavia. One university student would come and take packages of his Albanian Christian literature. S. didn’t know what he was doing with it until Albania’s communist regime collapsed in 1990 and he traveled over the border for a visit in 1991.

“This student lived on the border between Serbia and Albania.  There was a cave that you could enter in Serbia and come out in Albania.  He was bringing  packages of literature from Serbia to Albania…because at that time it was impossible to enter Albania.”

Yugoslavia had many freedoms that other communist countries did not have, including greater religious freedom. Authorities turned a blind eye to religious gatherings as long as they stayed within the law, gathered in their own groups, and did no public evangelism. But with his active evangelism and literature distribution all over Yugoslavia, S. faced many obstacles and challenges—a month-long stint in prison, threats, police traps, defamation and false rumors.  S. and his wife weathered all the storms, continuing to expand their work. S. also traveled all over Yugoslavia, preaching and  planting churches.  The church in Kosovo had about 100 people in its prime, both Albanian and Serbian.

“We were doing the job as God was leading us.  We didn’t plan big things or dream that something big would happen,” S. said

But the church in Kosovo was not immune to the rising tensions  between Albanians and Serbians in the 80s and 90s.

“Albanians were very much afraid in those days to come on Sunday because they were afraid their neighbors would see them coming to church.  So they came on Thursday.  Those were sensitive times…we were under the eye of the police and people were afraid.”

S. pointed to another factor that he believed contributed to the encroaching instability—he claimed that Albanian professors came from Albania to help Albanians study their own history but in fact “brainwashed” them with propaganda, leading to demonstrations.

Suffice to say that the  disputed history and claims on Kosovo are too extensive to address in a blog story.  People’s perceptions and stories differ according to their own experiences, both personally and within their ethnic communities.

But amidst all the complex factors leading to the war, an essential fact surfaces that has echoes throughout histories of warfare—in politically unstable times,  competing historical narratives  can be used as a weapon by those who are panting after power.

And so, even as E. could not believe that such atrocities could come to his doorstep, S. did not believe that true peace would remain elusive after the war, and so he continued  his work as the bombing began….