Since the Protestant Christian community in Croatia is only around 1% of the population, the sudden death of Mladen Jovanović at age 68 last Friday— a prominent, beloved, and influential Protestant Christian leader—sent shock waves throughout the region. The hundreds of attendees at his funeral yesterday spoke volumes on what his loss will mean for people in this region, and representatives coming from America, Albania, and parts of Western Europe bore silent witness to his role in a more global story.
It was in my first few months of moving to Croatia in 2011 that Mladen invited me to a church camp on the small, enchanting island of Ugljan off the Croatian coast. There, he graciously agreed to submit to a couple of interviews regarding his personal story and a variety of topics ranging from his perceptions on the Croatian context, Protestants and Catholics, globalization, and what he believed God to be doing in Croatia. Although I did not know him well, I count myself fortunate to have known him at all and I wish to honor his life by sharing some of what I learned in the interviews.
Mladen and I sat on the front porch of his cabin on a hot 2011 August day, hemmed in by pine trees, the loud buzzing of insects, and the alluring azure waters of the Adriatic. As our interviews unfolded, my initial instincts about him were proved right—he was sharp-minded yet humble, possessed a gracious, open-spirited attitude, was slow to judgement and quick to listen, and answered my questions with thoughtful deliberation. In other words, he was the real deal—he spoke from who he was, someone who exemplified a life lived under the transformational power of Christ.
He began his story by describing the starting point of his conversion…
It was 1969 in Communist Yugoslavia and Mladen had just graduated with degrees in Linguistics and Slavic languages, and he was ready to begin teaching. He was Roman Catholic by tradition—something that belonged to his family roots, but for him merely meant two better meals a year during the Christian holidays. Sometimes his family would go visit cemeteries and he would see the crosses on grave sites…but they meant nothing to him.
But he became intrigued by two students in his first batch of students— very friendly exchange students from Portland State University in Oregon, USA.
“When they told me they were believers,” Mladen said, “I was surprised because I thought this was something that belonged to times from the past, not the end of the twentieth century. I really wanted to help them in two areas…to teach them the language of Yugoslavia, and to teach them out of prejudice and the primitive religions that they had brought with them…but they were pretty clever missionaries.”
The two students told Mladen that if he read the Bible, he could try to convince them to step away from their faith. They began to meet on a daily basis and discuss the things in the Bible.
“I was really convinced that they were wrong and the Bible is just a bunch of myths and legends, and had no value for modern life.”
But after a year and a half after meeting and discussions, Mladen discovered he was the one who was wrong. Not only that, he was so impressed with how these two families treated each other and how they behaved that he began to step along the path towards conversion.
In 1971, he lived in Warsaw as a visiting professor. He was listening to the radio one night and heard about a tragic accident where several people were killed and wounded.
“I asked myself a question,” he said. “What if I were one of them who died?” Mladen paused, musing on his story. “So I think I was brought to conversion by the fact of realizing that there would be a moment when I wouldn’t be among the living. So what if there is a God? What if I have to stand before him? What if all that I thought was valuable would vanish in a second?”
At Mladen’s funeral yesterday, I thought about this very poignant question he had asked himself as a 26 year old. His question and his response would be a pivotal moment in his life—but really it was just the beginning of a life that would become consistently rich and fruitful for God’s kingdom.