Day 7, July 23. Slavonski Brod, Croatia.
We arrived safely in Zagreb, Croatia yesterday afternoon after a simple flight from Frankfurt, Germany. Leaving a very affluent, tidy, orderly, spiritually dark Germany for a far less affluent, less clean, more disorderly, and equally spiritually dark Croatia creates a bit of culture shock.
My old friend, Zlatko, greeted us at the Zagreb airport and drove us the roughly 2 hours to Slavonski Brod in eastern Croatia where we will reside until Friday morning. I had met Zlatko over 20 years ago on a previous trip to Eastern Europe with Bob Hitching. Zlatko kept Mike and Josh and me laughing during the entire 2-hour drive. To know Zlatko is to love him. He has served the Lord faithfully for all of these years. It’s an honor to be around people like him.
There is a stagnation in the Croatian church that is freely acknowledged by those who live here. But should this surprise us? In truth, spiritual torpor has descended upon most of the western world (the USA and Europe). The church in the west seems somewhat self-absorbed with our economic issues, and believers that I talk to seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that the church is generally in decline where we live while it is exploding in much of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and many parts of Asia. So my sense is that what we observe to be the case in Europe, though it looks different because the culture is very different, is fairly similar to the spiritual condition of my neighbors in the fairly affluent neighborhoods south and west of Baltimore, where Josh and Mike and I live.
But something is stirring among the Roma. (I will use the term “Roma” to refer to the gypsy peoples among whom the Roma Bible Union concentrates – www.romabible.com. Though we frequently label these particular gypsies as “Bayash gypsies”, that nomenclature doesn’t work well all of the time. I know. It’s confusing. Maybe as it starts to make more sense to me throughout the week, I can speak more intelligibly to you about who these Roma/Bayash/gypsies actually are.)
Before we came to our guesthouse last night, we spent about an hour with the Hitchings and their co-worker, Andy Warner (who works with Pioneers), in their hotel lobby (Bob is recovering from stomach surgery and needs to stay in a hotel in town for the week). There we received a brief orientation as to what the week will hold for us. It will be a full and busy 4 days for the 3 of us as we meet new people, hang out with the Roma Bible Union team of about 15 or so people, travel to various gypsy villages, attempt to overcome language problems, try to be available for whatever God has for us, make friends from all over, and listen and observe to learn what we can.
We are very committed to the principle that we CANNOT come to Croatia as the “Great American Hope” with our wealth, education, and peculiar advantage on the world stage. We are not here because we have something special to give to the Roma simply because we are Americans. We have already met German believers who put us to shame with their attempts to follow Jesus. Now we will meet eastern Europeans who live under even more difficult circumstances – they have far more to teach us than we could ever teach them.
One of the distinct reactions that I had as I listened to Bob last night was that something is happening among the Roma people. I hope to talk more about that after I visit some of their villages on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Also I want to share with you about our guesthouse and our living conditions as well as introduce you to the team of people who are laboring here for the Gospel.
I seriously want to communicate through these brief updates that the ministry here has been undertaken by fairly normal people who have intentionally determined to prioritize the penetration of an entire pagan sub-culture in eastern Europe for the sake of the Gospel. Like all of you homemaking, dishwashing, baby-diapering, gutter hanging, IT computering…geeks, and medical people, these laborers in Eastern Europe are essentially just like you. Though each one is uniquely gifted and loves God passionately, experts and spiritual giants are not doing this work.
You who read these updates also live in a somewhat pagan culture in North America. Do we only expect “mission” to happen in other places where the culture and language are different? Or do we have a passion for our own neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives? Do we see the place where God has placed us as an opportunity to cross cultural barriers to encounter people who need the Gospel as badly as any unwashed, economically deprived, poorly clothed, illiterate, underfed, miserable, abused, despised Roma gypsy who lives in a ramshackle hovel while engulfed in almost impenetrable spiritual darkness?