Category Archives: Churches

And the funnel narrows…

“Everything changed again this morning,” the pastor said, “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

Constant change—that is the only unchanging constant in this refugee crisis.

I had driven over to Šid, Serbia for a few hours to deliver some donated money for food packets and talk to one of the  pastors in charge of the NGO which had been serving the refugees since their arrival.

“The changing situation has been the most difficult thing, ” the pastor answered when I asked him what the biggest challenge had been since the refugees  began to flood the small town of 70,000 in August.  “We have to constantly adapt as the situation and locations of the refugees change.”

But the news of this morning was that Slovenia would no longer accept ‘economic migrants,’  namely, anyone not from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  This began a chain reaction in Serbia, Macedonia, and Croatia.


Three weeks before, this was packed with cold and shivering people. Now, under the unseasonably warm sun, a solitary trash bin is the only evidence that remains.

I don’t blame the governments for making this decision as the numbers of people continue to climb—in the last 24 hours, 5,180 people arrived in Croatia, and over 416,000 have already passed through since mid-September.

But the problem is that now there will be stranded groups of people everywhere, although I don’t doubt that some will try to continue their journey out of the limelight.

In fact, when I left Serbia and was about 15 km into Croatia, I saw a group of refugees on the side of a cornfield.  The police were there, lights flashing, with more on the way.  I don’t know what the story was, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this group had heard the news and was trying their own method of crossing.

“What the Serbian government will do with the people sent back, I don’t know,”the pastor told me. “How will the government and the churches deal with this new challenge of all these people left here who cannot move further?”

I imagine the government will come up with some plan to send people back to their home countries. Regardless of their motivation for coming, and whether or not I think it is right or wrong that they be sent back,  I try to imagine the crushing disappointment this news would be if I were in their shoes.

To have high hopes and travel so far…only to have missed the window of opportunity.

This situation only  grows more complex with no easy answers.

“When this first began, ” the pastor said, “the things I saw stayed in my head for 10 days. The feeling of helplessness.”


The pastor left me soon after this to go chop wood for the church’s heating supply for winter.

“I was touched by the people with small children, newborns, who are constantly moving, walking for days…I witnessed a lot of trauma from the people who ran away from the war and came across the sea to come to us. I witnessed women giving birth at the border. And somehow a person as an individual becomes helpless in everything.”

I guess I was wrong—here is another constant.  In all this complexity, despite the resilience, perseverance, and creativity required for  each person to reach Serbia, there is still an undeniable level of helplessness involving anyone who leaves her country. Will I be sent back or allowed to stay?  Will I have food, water, and shelter?  Will strangers be kind to me?  Will I survive?

Somehow my thoughts go to the Christ child—helpless and dependent on his parents for food, shelter, and safety.

Somehow, I find it comforting that Jesus can identify with the very human feeling of helplessness.





“Come over and help us…”

“We need people.”

By far, this was the most commonly uttered need as we traveled to Roma communities throughout Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Money was not first on the list of needs, but people.  This must be connected to another common theme I have observed in pastors and people working in Roma communities all over Eastern Europe:  a struggle with what appears to be stress-induced health issues or illness.

They carry many burdens without fellow leaders to share them, and rarely do they place a priority on “self-care.”

“People do come and do projects, ” one Roma pastor in Macedonia said, “but then they leave and nothing goes deeper and no relationships are formed. And most missionaries work with Macedonians or Albanians. Evangelistic outreaches that come and do drama and music on the streets have limited effectiveness, but staying and being with people in their homes is where things can go deeper.

Despite seeing negative effects from short-term mission projects, I am not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Mission “projects” certainly have their usefulness and value; but most lack intentionality and a vision toward long term relationships.  Few realize the burden and stress the locals feel while trying to accommodate the short-term plans.

Without careful planning done in the spirit of a listening humility and open dialogue,   short-term mission projects can become a zero-sum game—an exciting cross-cultural experience comes at a cost for the local leadership.

Not properly researching  the context contributes to the probability of a zero-sum game. It might surprise some to know that Macedonia, a small country with a population of around 2 million, is primarily an Orthodox country (64%); however, the Muslim population, makes up about 33% (2002 census).  (For more background on Macedonia, read this insightful article by Kostake Milkov).

Because of these dynamics, there are only a handful of Roma churches in the whole country,  and most of them are small.  And the questions and obstacles they face are different than in Croatia, Serbia, Romania, or Bulgaria, for example, where the Muslim populations are much smaller.

“A graveyard.” The Roma pastor told me matter-of-factly when we were discussing barriers to the gospel in his particular town.

“We are not allowed to be buried in the Orthodox or the Muslim graveyards; and people worry about what will  happen to their bodies when they die. It is a very serious concern for them.” He smiled.  “I myself don’t worry about my body, but I also don’t want to leave that burden to my family when I die.”

I stared at him in disbelief.  “So you are telling me that if you had the money and ability to purchase land for a graveyard, this would remove a big obstacle for people to come to faith?”

Of course, missiologically speaking, this is probably only one barrier in a complex situation—but it sounds as if it is a significant one.

Another difficulty in establishing growing disciples is the constant stream of people leaving to go find work in Western Europe, a common story in this part of the world. “It is difficult for the Roma to find work among Macedonians,” he tells me.

He guesses that there are about 2000 Macedonian Roma in Austria. “I would love to send Roma missionaries to that community to plant a church,” he tells me.

But he alone pastors his small, struggling church, so his vision will have to wait…for more people to come.

“During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”  Acts 16