For Part 1, click HERE
At the time of Mladen’s conversion and baptism, the church in Poland was more or less an underground church—but because Mladen was a visiting professor and worked primarily with the youth, no one paid much attention to his activities.
“Sometimes I tease that I was one of the only missionaries of Churches of Christ that lived and worked in a communist country—and was paid by [a] communist government!” Mladen said with a laugh. “As a visiting professor I had a nice, large apartment with several rooms in the center of the city so I could invite people over and [along] with my wife, have Bible meetings.”
Mladen and Dragica stayed in Poland for a formative eight years, learning and working and “growing in Christ.” At the end of that period, Mladen felt he had a decision to make—should he return to Yugoslavia and continue with being a professor or do something different? He had a desire for more theological education, and knew that he was somewhat limited by the fact that although it was not forbidden, professors were not supposed to be religious.
“Since my heart was with the church, with Jesus, I went to my boss and told him about the change in my life. He was not very happy because he thought after 10 years of working with the university he would have an assistant who would become a regular professor one of these days and replace him.”
Thus began a new chapter in their life. He and Dragica left for Texas, where after two years he acquired a Masters in Theology. There was never any doubt in their minds that they would return to their country—a fact that confused some of their well-meaning American friends.
“Many times people would ask me, ‘Are you sure you want to go back?'” Mladen said, noting that Dragica was pregnant with their daughter at the time. “We were with a wonderful church family, right on the campus of the University of Texas. The church ladies would say, ‘Dragica, stay here, have your baby here, things are rough in your country. You never know…you are Yugoslav citizens and if things get worse, you might have a basis of getting American citizenship if your baby is born here.'”
But as much as they enjoyed America, they were not at ‘home’ there. “This advice was friendly, not some CIA plan,” Mladen said, smiling. “Most Americans in the 1980’s didn’t really know what communism was all about.” Because it was so out of the realm of the American experience, and because of the political climate of the 1980’s, it was hard for people to imagine that one could be happy in a communist country.
“But if you love your country and know how to live in your country, you want to be in your country…you have your family and neighbors and friends,” Mladen mused thoughtfully.
And so they returned to Zagreb, with the intention of serving their people and starting a church—and the religious climate of the times allowed opportunity for this. Yugoslavia was the most free of all the communist countries, with a liberal passport system that allowed people to live, work, and travel outside of Yugoslavia.
“The religious climate was not bad because the authorities didn’t really care about religious groups as long as they stayed in the frame of the law,” Mladen noted. Being in the “frame of the law” meant that public evangelism wouldn’t be allowed, but meeting together in one’s own group was permitted. “We never had any problems with the authorities…They were more interested [to see] if we had any contacts with Croatian nationalists…”
As Mladen thought about the early work in Zagreb, he mused on the larger question of how people respond to God. “I think all over the world people are responsive to God, sometimes we don’t present them with a message that they could respond to in a proper way. It probably takes the same amount of time, effort, and love to convert a Croat as to convert an American. It really doesn’t make much difference…There is always time for every generation and God speaks to every generation in [a] different language, and people respond differently.”
Mladen had a keen sense of being able to craft ministry in ways appropriate to the Croatian culture as well reflecting on questions and perspectives in a more global sense—one of his unique contributions as a minister and thinker in this region. Undoubtedly, he gained such contextual and global perspectives from his 40 plus years of ministry, and this demonstrates a valuable characteristic for any leader—being a ‘lifelong learner’ in Christ. As he puts it, “The longer I serve the Lord, I find myself learning a lot from people [from whom] I didn’t expect to learn [anything]. And that is great.”