by James Early
As we began to think about what to do once our two-year mission term was over, we sensed no clear direction from God. At first, feeling the great weight of all the stressors that we had dealt with, we thought that we might take a break from mission service. I thought that we might return to seminary and I might work on a Doctor of Ministry degree for a couple of years, after which we would return to the mission field.
After a little more time, prayer, and thought, I remembered a spiritual principle that I had once read (and which I still believe): When you are seeking God’s will on what to do next, and you receive no answer, keep doing what you are currently doing!We knew that we had been called into missionary service, but we did not sense any clear direction about what to do next. So, we decided that God most likely wanted us to continue serving as missionaries. With that in mind, we began the process of applying to return to the field as long-term “career” missionaries. The next question, of course, was where to go? We looked at several possibilities, including Belgrade, Serbia, and even a city in Poland. But soon, we were directed to consider a third possibility.
When we had been in missionary training, we had become friends with another young couple who were on their way to Moscow. We kept in touch with them while we were in Prague. A few months after we transferred to Tuzla, we were delighted to find out that our friends were also transferring to Bosnia—to the nearby city of Banja Luka. Unlike Tuzla, which was in the predominantly Muslim part of Bosnia, Banja Luka was in the Serb-controlled part. We kept in close touch with our friends, visiting them when we could, and hosting them on other occasions. They constantly told us of the spiritual openness of the people of Banja Luka.
They were able to lead many people to make professions of faith, and they even baptized a few. Still, these new converts were unwilling to actually join the tiny Baptist church in Banja Luka—they remained loyal to the Orthodox Church.
By this time, our mission board had several short-term personnel in Banja Luka, but no career missionaries. As we considered the possibility of living and working there, we realized that although we knew and loved people from all three of the ethnic groups in Bosnia, we felt the closest bond with the Serbs. They did seem, in general, the most interested in the Gospel. However, we were concerned with how the Orthodox hierarchy might react to our presence in Banja Luka. We had heard horror stories (most of which turned out to be greatly exaggerated) about anti-evangelical statements made and actions taken by Orthodox clergy throughout the Serb lands, and the idea of working as evangelical missionaries in that environment was a little intimidating.
However, after I had a meeting with the pastor of the Orthodox parish in Tuzla, my concerns were allayed. He assured me that although there were some uneducated, fanatical nationalists among the clergy (mainly in the eastern part of the country), most were decent people. I resolved right there that my goal would not be to try and persuade pious, Orthodox believers to leave the Church, but rather to reach people who were not involved in church. Indeed, this was the practice of all of all our personnel.
So, we decided to “re-up,” becoming career missionaries who would minister among the Serbs in Banja Luka. God was definitely behind our decision to work with the Serbs, as future events would show…
Near the end of April 1998, we flew back to the U. S. After a couple of months living with our parents, we moved into a missionary house owned by a large Baptist church in northwest Houston. We spent our time there resting, visiting family and friends, speaking in various churches about our time in Bosnia, and preparing for the birth of our second child. This new baby arrived on September 4, 1998. She was another beautiful girl who we named Courtney.
The next month, we headed up to our mission board’s training center for two months of training. It was located in a beautiful, peaceful, quiet rural setting near Richmond, Virginia. There we both attended classes and studied on our own to prepare for our next assignment.
We knew that we would be working with a people who were traditionally Orthodox, so we began studying a little about Orthodoxy. I reread The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware, this time more slowly and carefully. I also read a booklet by Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas about basic Orthodox beliefs. I made a Xerox copy of the entire pamphlet, and in my copy, I carefully highlighted each part where Orthodox doctrines differed from my own beliefs. I found that although there were significant differences, at least 75% of Orthodox beliefs seemed to agree with those of the Baptist Church.
But the most significant encounter that Jennifer and I had with Orthodoxy that fall was when we were given the assignment of visiting an Orthodox church. We had attended one Orthodox Liturgy two years before when we had been in training for our first missionary term. However, the parish we attended was a Greek church, and at least half of the service was in Greek and therefore unintelligible to us. That Sunday happened to be a day when the parish was holding their annual Greek festival, and we enjoyed visiting the various craft booths and eating the delicious food. I remember one man telling us, “We are the oldest Christian church in the whole world.” I also remember that as much as I would have liked to, I could not argue with him on that point.
This time, we were assigned the task of taking a trip to St. Nicholas Cathedral in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend a liturgy, because we could only travel there on a weekday. Instead, the Dean of the Cathedral, Fr. Constantine White, spoke to us on Orthodoxy and showed us around the church. He was very patient in answering our questions and very persuasive, particularly in explaining the meaning and function of icons. Before speaking with Fr. Constantine, I, like most evangelicals, assumed that having icons in church was tantamount to idolatry. Fr. Constantine convinced me that they have value in teaching the Gospel story in pictures and reminding us of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surround us and worship with us in heaven. I walked into the church anti-icon and left pro-icon.
When our training was over, we returned to our temporary home and began packing and preparing for our trip to Banja Luka. After years of preparation, we were finally about to attain our dream of being career missionaries. We were ready to stay in Bosnia for many, many years and minister to the Serb people. We were finally about to “arrive.” At least that is what we thought!
We flew into Sarajevo in January of 1999, with our seven-year-old and our four-month-old in tow. From the airport, we took a van to our mission’s Sarajevo headquarters, where half of our things (17 bags and trunks in all) were loaded into another van, and then we and our guides immediately began the drive to Banja Luka. It was evening, and a fairly heavy snow was falling. Between the darkness, the snow, the many curves in the road, and our unfamiliarity with the road, it was a slow and grueling trip. Thankfully, we were following someone who knew the way.
After several hours, we reached our temporary apartment in Banja Luka, where we unloaded our things and collapsed, exhausted.
Our temporary apartment was a truly depressing place. It was on the top floor of a very large house, each floor of which had been made a separate apartment. All the rooms of our apartment except the central one had ceilings that sloped down, making it impossible for an adult (especially one that is 6’ 2” like me) to stand in half the room. To enter the kitchen, you actually had to leave the apartment! The lack of lighting and insulation made it constantly cold and dark. Some colleagues of ours who had lived in it before also said that it was unbearably hot in the summer. We resolved to get out of there as soon as we could!
After a couple of weeks’ searching, we found a three-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a much newer and nicer house. It was several miles from the center of town, but since we had a car, this was not much of a problem. On a side note, every time we traveled to or from the center of town, we passed right by the Bosnian headquarters of the International Orthodox Christian Charities. We had no idea that this fine organization would eventually be one of the main charities that we would support.
We soon found a school for Audrey and language tutors for ourselves, and we made friends with the other members of our missionary team and with the nationals with whom we would be working. Still, life was hard for the first couple of months. There was always a foot of snow on the ground, and plenty of ice thrown in as a bonus, so that driving around and even walking was a challenge. For the third time in the last two and a half years, we had to get used to a new city, new people, a new culture, and so on. By the first of March, we felt that we had turned a corner—we were going to make it!
But just as we had begun to feel comfortable in Banja Luka, the uprising in Kosovo broke out. When the government of Yugoslavia sent troops into Kosovo to suppress the rebellion, NATO decided to bomb Yugoslavia to try and bring its military activities to an end. When the advance warning of the bombing was given, our supervisors decided to evacuate all of our missionaries that were living in Serb lands—two families in Belgrade plus the three families and two singles in Banja Luka.
Although Banja Luka was not bombed, our bosses felt that there might be reprisals against westerners, and they wanted to take no chances. We had only a few hours to pack. With great sadness, we gathered as many things as we could fit in our car, and left the home that we had grown to love in only just over two months to go…who knew where?
We joined all of the other missionary evacuees in a hotel in Croatia, where we spent a week grieving, praying, and talking with our colleagues about where to go. We were determined to one day return to Banja Luka, so we decided that it would be best to go to another part of Bosnia, where we could continue studying the language. Although Tuzla seemed like an obvious place to go, we felt that there would be too much pressure to immediately get involved in ministry, and our language learning would suffer. Finally, we decided to go to Sarajevo.
To be exact, we would settle in the suburb of Ilidza, which had been predominantly inhabited by Serbs before the war, and which still had a fairly large Serb population.
When we arrived in Sarajevo around the first of April, 1999, we were totally unprepared for what we saw there. As I mentioned before, Tuzla and Banja Luka had suffered little damage during the war. This had not been the case in Sarajevo, where some of the worst fighting took place. During the four-year long war, parts of Sarajevo had changed sides dozens of times. As we drove around the city, we stared in utter disbelief as we saw entire neighborhoods that had been reduced to mere rubble. Graveyards with hundreds of fresh graves were ubiquitous. It seemed as if a perpetual dark cloud hung over the city, along with a spirit of deep, dark depression. Once again, we asked ourselves what on earth we were doing here!
Once again (the fourth time in three years), we struggled with depression and culture shock.
We soon found a nice house in which to stay and immersed ourselves in language study. We did nothing but study the language for several months, because we wanted to be completely fluent by the time we returned to Banja Luka—though we had to idea when that would be. Between the 13 months that we had spent in Tuzla and the several months of intensive, immersion language study that we did during our first several months in Sarajevo, we became essentially fluent in the Bosnian/Serbian language. By the end of the year, I was able to lead Bible studies entirely in Bosnian.
In the fall of our first year in Sarajevo, we began teaching ESL at our organization’s educational center, to have a means to build relationships with people with whom we could eventually share the Gospel. One day in December, as I was walking home from my last class, I noticed that there was a crunching sound coming from under my feet. I immediately realized that it had begun to snow.
This was no surprise, for it had snowed many times before that day. What made this snow different was that it did not stop for several days. In fact, the snow did not stop until we had about 3 feet worth. Then it did stop for a day or so, which gave me enough time to shovel our walk.
Soon the snow began to fall again, and again it did not stop for several days. By the time the snow had finally stopped for good, we had a total of nearly six feet on the ground! Needless to say, we Texas natives had no prior experience in dealing with so much snow! Our car was completely buried, and even if it had not been, it took nearly a week for the roads to be clear enough to drive on. So, if we needed food or anything else, we simply put on our snow boots and trudged through the snow until we had what we needed. Thankfully, we did not lose water or power (at least not for long). I will never forget the sight of all that snow, which in places was piled up over my head, and which took about two months to completely melt.
The rest of our time in Sarajevo was relatively uneventful. We taught a few more English classes, and I led a few Bible studies and even preached in a local church (in Bosnian) once, but we mainly just kept on studying the language. In November of 1999, one of our colleagues who had lived in Belgrade before the bombing was offered the opportunity to move to Banja Luka. He accepted the offer, and I helped him move. This was my first time to be in Banja Luka for 8 months. It was wonderful to be back. Nothing seemed to have changed. Although we too could have moved back then, we decided to wait until the school year was over, for Audrey’s sake. She was attending a local public school (having become completely fluent in the language), and we felt it was important for her to be able to finish a whole school year in one place, for the first time in her life.
While in Sarajevo, I met a man who was a devout Orthodox Serb. One Sunday, I attended his church, known popularly as the “Old Orthodox Church.” Old it was indeed; while the majority of the structure dated from the 18th century, parts of it were actually built in the 6th century. Now that is old! Unfortunately, the service did not make much of an impression on me, partly because we arrived very late (classic Orthodox!), and I could not understand most of the service. Still, it was neat to be in such an old and historic church.
Finally, in late July, it was time to return to our beloved adopted city of Banja Luka. After yet another long delay, we were about to “arrive.” We would finally be in the place we wanted to be, doing what we wanted to be doing, and fluent in the language to boot. I am sure that God must have been laughing as we were having those thoughts!
We were overjoyed to be back in Banja Luka and nearly fluent in the Serbian language. We were more than ready to at last commence our full-time ministry. Before I continue the narrative, I will answer a question that I am frequently asked:
“Why did you go to try to preach the Gospel to the Serbs? After all, aren’t they a Christian people?”
Well, yes and no. It is indisputable that the overwhelming number of Serbs consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. Still, most of these are Christian (and Orthodox, I might add) in name only. In fact, of all the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Serbs rank near the bottom in the percent that attend church regularly. In other words, very few possess the living and active faith that all real Christians believe is necessary for salvation.
So, our aim was not to try to turn any pious, active Orthodox believers (of whom there were few in Banja Luka) into Baptists. Rather, our goal was to find people who were not active in church, share the gospel as we understood it with them, hopefully persuade them to accept baptism (in the Baptist fashion), and begin attending either the local Baptist church or at least a small-group Bible study.
Yes, you heard me correctly! There actually was a Baptist church in Banja Luka, although whether it deserves to be called a church is debatable. It had always had only about 5 active members, with a few other occasional attenders. The group was led by a young Serb couple from Serbia. The husband served as the pastor, and I ended up being the music leader by default. The service consisted of a brief opening prayer, a few songs led by me as I played my guitar, another prayer, a scripture reading or two, a sermon of about 45 minutes to an hour, and a closing prayer.
Occasionally, a guest or two from out of town would give a testimony. The services were held on Sunday afternoon, because the group was renting the space owned by another church. The space was a small room with completely white walls. In short, the Baptist services were very different from an Orthodox Liturgy.
In addition to working with the Baptist group, I also did whatever I could to build relationships with locals, with a view toward sharing the Gospel with them. This I did with gusto; I quickly made many new friends and told them what I could about Christ, the Bible and the church. Most of them listened politely, and even agreed with much of what I said. Still, I saw no conversions.
We were blessed to be able to work as a team with another couple, whom I will call Bob and Melanie (not their real names, of course). They had served in Belgrade before the NATO bombing and had been given the opportunity to move to Banja Luka a few months before we did. They were wonderful people, and we became fast friends. Bob and I met once a week to plan and strategize, and all four of us met another time during the week to pray, read Scripture, and fellowship together. We took turns leading a brief devotional.
One time, when it was my turn to lead the devotional, I chose as my text 1 Cor. 9:19-22:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
I discussed the fact that our organization had spent a great deal of money and manpower (12 adult missionaries had each spent 6 to 18 months ministering there prior to our arrival), trying to build up the Baptist church in Banja Luka, but with little to show for it. Our people had been able to lead people to make professions of faith in Christ, and had even baptized a few. But when they had challenged people to join the Baptist church, virtually no one had been willing. They were unwilling to leave the Orthodox Tradition.
I surmised that the problem was that our predecessors had perhaps been “too Baptist.”
I suggested that if we could “become all things to all men,” which in our case meant being as Orthodox as possible while still remaining faithful to Baptist principles, we might be more successful. How exactly we were to do this, I wasn’t sure. But all four of us agreed that this was a good idea, and we all decided to think about it and try to figure out how. Clearly, however, the first step was to be more educated about Orthodoxy.
This devotional prompted me to entertain another thought. I asked myself,
“What is it about this faith that makes the people here be so loyal to it? Few of the Serbs (at least here) ever darken the door of a church, and yet they will not leave their tradition. In fact, many have been willing to fight and die for it!”
I resolved right then and there to study more about the Orthodox faith and see if I could solve this mystery.
Unfortunately, I only had one book, The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos, and one pamphlet, the one on the basics of Orthodoxy, by Archbishop Dmitri. I read them both and thought, “Well, that was interesting. We really have more in common with the Orthodox Church than I had thought.” Many of the Orthodox practices that had seemed so bizarre and “unbiblical” made a little more sense, even if I still did not agree with them.
But still, I had nothing else to read (at least not in English; I wasn’t quite ready to try to read any deep theological works in Serbian!). That is, I had nothing else until I received a phone call from Melanie. She said, “James, I have a book here that you might find interesting. It is about a bunch of guys that used to work for Campus Crusade for Christ who all became Orthodox.” I thought to myself, “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” I had to read why.
I had absolutely no idea that this book would totally and irrevocably change my life!