by James Early
For about two years after I received my calling into international mission service, I kept my eyes open for a short-term trip that I could join with, so that I could get a small taste of what missionary service would be like. Nothing really seemed right until early 1995, when I learned about a local pastor who had been taking a group of people to the Czech Republic each year since the fall of communism.
He was planning to take another group in May of that year, and he was looking for more people to go with the group. I prayed about this and talked to Jennifer, and soon I was convinced that going on the trip was the right thing to do. However, funding was a problem, since the trip was going to cost somewhere around $1500, and we had nowhere near that much money to spare. Thankfully, the missions committee at the church where Jennifer and I attended agreed to fund the trip in full—yet another answered prayer!While in the Czech Republic, my group and I traveled around with a local Czech Baptist pastor, speaking about our faith in local churches, retirement homes, and even in several public school classrooms (can you imagine that?). Most of the people to whom we spoke were young and had lived their entire lives under a Communist regime which greatly persecuted all religious traditions. Many people in our audience were very interested in what we had to say. I was greatly impacted by the spiritual interest of the young people that we spoke to, as well as by the warm hospitality and friendliness of the Czech people.
During the trip, I met a Southern Baptist missionary who was the pastor of an English-language International Baptist Church in Prague, the capital city. As I told him about my desire to serve as a missionary in Eastern Europe, he became excited. He said, “I have been looking for someone to come here and help me try to reach the large international student population for quite some time. Would you like to come help me?” I told him I would think and pray about it, and that I still had a year of seminary to go. After thinking, praying, and discussing it for a couple of months, Jennifer and I decided that we would accept. When we called the missionary in Prague and told him, he was thrilled. He immediately wrote a job request for us and sent it to the central office of the mission board.
A year later, I graduated from seminary, and about six weeks after that, we were on a plane to Prague. Unfortunately (or so it seemed at the time), the missionary who invited us to Prague decided to resign due to health problems and to return to the U. S. He was only in Prague for about ten days after we arrived, barely enough time to get us oriented. About two weeks after our sponsors left, another missionary family came to take their place.
They were veteran missionaries who had already served in two other countries, one for over ten years. They were a great help to us, but of course, they had no more knowledge of Prague or its international student population than we did. So, instead of having someone tell us what to do and how to do it, we were going to have to figure out how to do our assignment from scratch.
Our time in Prague was very difficult for all of us. Not only did we have to learn a new language and culture, but just doing what we had to do to live was a daily struggle. We had no car, and so we had to walk or take public transport (which is excellent in Prague) everywhere we went. We had to go to the grocery store every day, buying only what we could carry home. We lived in a small, one bedroom apartment. Audrey, who was five at the time, did not even have her own room–she had to sleep on a sleeper sofa in the living room! We had no phone line for the first month or so, and after we did get one, it only worked about half the time.
In addition to all this, we struggled with the climate. The summers were nice and mild, but the winters were brutal! During the winter, the temperature routinely dropped below zero. One morning, it was minus 23 degrees Celsius. We had double windows, with a space in between, where we kept our milk, so as to save space in our tiny refrigerator. One day, we pulled the milk out, and it was frozen, despite the fact that it was technically INSIDE our apartment! Also, the amount of daylight in the winter was depressingly small. At the peak of winter, the sun rose at about 8:30 and set at about 3:30.
Needless to say, we had never experienced life like this before.
But the hardest thing of all, at least for me, was not having any clue at all how to do my job. I had gone from being a highly competent teacher and church planter to a total incompetent. Although I did undertake a few productive ministry tasks—teaching Sunday School, helping lead worship and preaching occasionally at our church, and leading a home Bible study for adults, I was plagued by the fact that I was not really doing what I had been brought to Prague to do. After several months of research and talking with other ministry groups in Prague, I finally did find a dorm full of international students, and I began planning outreach events for them. Still, our frustration over our lack of effectiveness made us very open to consider alternative service opportunities in other parts of the world. When one such opportunity finally did come, we were ready…
Change of Scenery
The civil war in Bosnia ended in November of 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accord. At that time, the Bosnian state, which had formerly been one of the six republics that comprised Yugoslavia, was divided into two autonomous “entities”: the Muslim/Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. Scattered throughout Bosnia, particularly in the Federation, were a small number of national Baptists and other Evangelical Christians. Their leaders, with the help of the Croatian Baptist Union, had conducted humanitarian work throughout Bosnia during the war and had won a substantial number of converts. When the war ended, these leaders appealed to our mission agency to send some missionaries to help expand their work.
Needless to say, there was not a large number of people flocking to serve in war-torn Bosnia, which was only in a state of peace because of the 60,000 or so NATO troops stationed there. Eventually, however, four veteran missionary couples who had either just retired or were about to retire agreed to serve for six months until longer-term volunteers could be found. They began arriving in September of 1996.
Part of their task was helping to continue the humanitarian work that had begun during the war. But their main task was to win converts and start Bible studies that would ultimately lead to churches. Two of the couples went to the northeastern town of Tuzla, which had not been damaged nearly as much as some parts of the country, such as Sarajevo.
By January of 1997, Jennifer’s and my frustration about the difficulty of living in Prague and the lack of direction in our ministry had reached its peak. In spite of this, we never had any thoughts of going anywhere else. We knew that things had to get better eventually, and that God would grant us the ability to carry out the ministry that He had called us to. We were just not aware that the ministry would be outside of the Czech Republic!
One day, while we were reading our mission agency’s monthly magazine, we came across an urgent appeal for more volunteers to go to Bosnia. The initial volunteers’ terms were almost up, and still no one had stepped forth to replace them. As I read the appeal, it happened again: The Lord seemed to speak to me in that mysterious, voiceless manner that I had experienced twice before. I felt like He was telling me in essence: YOU will be one of their replacements! I spoke to Jennifer about it, and she agreed that this was most likely the Lord’s will for us.
The next thing was to obtain permission to make this big move. We were serving a two-year term, and the policy of the mission board was that two-year volunteers do not move in the middle of their terms.
Around the first of February, I shared our desire with our supervisor and asked him, “Is it even possible for us to do this?” After speaking to his supervisor, he said, “It’s not only possible, we want and need you to go!” We were given a month to get ready and say our goodbyes. Then, on March 7, a missionary in Croatia arrived in the van that would carry us and our things to our new home. One of the first thing he said to us was,
“Well, are you ready to go to Bosnia?”
The trip to Bosnia took two days. The first 30 hours or so were uneventful. But soon after we crossed the Croatian border the van’s battery light came on. We decided that we had better not stop, lest the car not start again. Unfortunately, however, Audrey became carsick, and we finally had to stop at a roadside gas station. Sure enough, the van would not start again. While we were trying to figure out what to do, a group of men came up to the van. They seemed to want to help, but none of them knew any English.
At that time, I only spoke about 20 words of Serbo-Croatian, but this was 20 words more than anyone else in our group knew. So, I was quickly elected spokesman of our traveling band. Not surprisingly, I had no idea what the men were saying, nor could I explain our situation to them. One of the men finally indicated that we should open the hood. We did so, and he examined the engine compartment. He looked at me and said
THIS I understood clearly! Fortunately, he meant “battery,” not “motor,” but in any case, we appeared to be stuck. There was no way to get a new battery, because it was late Saturday night, we were in the middle of nowhere, and everything was closed (there are no 24-hour Wal-Marts in Croatia!).
Finally, the men decided to give us a push-start. This worked nicely, and we were soon on our way again. As long as we didn’t stop again, we would be in great shape! Unfortunately for us, another stop was inevitable. To enter Bosnia, we had to cross a river, and all the bridges across the river had been destroyed during the war. We would have to take a ferry, and we had heard that sometimes one had to wait in line for an hour or more just to get to the ferry.
After two more tense hours of driving, we finally made it to the line for the ferry. The van died about three times while we were waiting, but fortunately, we were able to push-start it each time. Finally, we drove onto the ferry. Can you guess what happened next? If you said “the van died,” you are correct! It took about twenty minutes to get across the river. Our plan was to push-start it once more right before we reached the Bosnian side. This plan was complicated by two factors: first, the ferry was jam-packed with cars, and second, the road leading away from the “dock” went up a steep incline.
Once we were across the river, we were unable to push-start the van. I tried to see if we could get some help from the ferry operators, but they had no interest in this. Instead, they just loaded up the ferry from the Bosnian side, and we got to ride backwards across the river to Croatia again. We were starting to wonder if we would EVER get off the ferry!
After we arrived back on the Croatian side and the cars headed for Croatia were all off, I noticed that the first car in line was a white Jeep Cherokee with “UN” marked on the side. I thought, “If the driver works for the UN, surely he speaks English, and maybe he will help us!” As he drove onto the ferry, I frantically waved my arms and tried to signal him to pull in right in front of us. He complied and then got out of his car.
In perfect English, he asked me, “So, where are you going?” “Tuzla,” I replied. “Really?!?” he replied, “That is where I live! So, what will you be doing there?” “Missionary work,” I replied somewhat cautiously. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I am the pastor of the evangelical church in Tuzla.”
While we talked some more, he produced a piece of rope, which he used to tie our van to his jeep. Then, when we reached the other side, this Good Samaritan towed us into Bosnia. Jennifer and I believed then, and still believe today, that God sent this man to help us. If not, it was an awfully strange coincidence!
After we reached the other side, he offered to tow us all the way to Tuzla, a trip of about 50 miles, but which would take an hour and a half, due to the various NATO checkpoints along the away. We called our colleague in Tuzla who was waiting on us, and he immediately set out to come meet us with an extra battery and escort us back to Tuzla. We thanked our rescuer profusely and told him goodbye. When our colleague arrived, we slowly and carefully followed him the rest of the way to Tuzla. At about midnight, we finally arrived. It was my twenty-ninth birthday. Our adventure was over. Or, to be more accurate, it was just beginning…
Life in Tuzla
At about five o’clock our first morning in Tuzla, we awoke to hear a loud, wailing sound coming from somewhere in the distance. After shaking off our sleepy stupor, and remembering where we were and what we were doing there, we tried to figure out what it was that had so rudely awakened us after only five hours of sleep. We finally figured out that it was the sound of the muezzin (crier) of a mosque, calling faithful Muslims to prayer. We later determined that this mosque was across the highway from us, only about 300 or so yards away. Eventually, we would become accustomed to the muezzin’s cry, and it no longer woke us.
Another trademark sound of the city soon greeted us. Later in the day, as we were finishing lunch, a faint roaring sound began to approach. The sound grew increasingly loud until it became deafening and the entire house shook. When we looked out the window to see what the source of the noise was, we were greeted by the sight of a column of U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers, on their way back to the American military base that was only a few miles from our house. “Well,” we said to each other, “At least they are OUR guys!”
As the roar of the armored column faded into the distance, we experienced a third sound that we would hear often over the next year: Clippity clop, clippity clop, clippity clop. A glance out the window revealed this to be a ubiquitous feature of Tuzla: a horse-drawn cart. After all this, Jennifer and I asked each other, “What kind of place is this? What have we done?” We had truly come to a land of contrasts: Mercedes Benzes, tanks, and horse-drawn carts. Great mansions and totally burned-out and leveled houses. Cell phones and land lines that didn’t work. People filled with hate, others filled with joy due to their relationship with Christ, and everything in between.
At first we felt fortunate, because at least we had water around the clock. People who lived in the city limits and who had city water only had it from about 4 PM to about 8 AM due to the damage that the war had inflicted on the water system. They had to keep their bathtubs filled with water for the “down” times. The house we were renting, however, was just outside of town, and our water came from an underground spring.
This was great—until the summer, when the hot, dry weather cause the spring to start drying up. By July, the water coming out of our taps little more than a trickle, and we had to start getting most of our water from an outdoor spring. Showers were impossible. If we wanted a hot bath, we had to fill up a kettle with water from the bottles we kept it in, heat it on our stove, and pour it in the tub. For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of the phrase “drawing a bath!”
Even when the weather cooled and we again had water flowing through our pipes, the color of the water varied from rust to whitish to (rarely) clear. Even the locals marveled at the poor quality of our water. Once a Bosnian friend of ours turned on the tap and filled up a glass with water. It looked more like milk. He said to us,
“What is this, some kind of joke?!?”
We assured him that it wasn’t and that this is how our water was most of the time. We tried using a filter, but it would get clogged up after only a few hours of use. So, we gave up and eventually went back to getting our drinking water from the outdoor spring. We certainly learned never to take water for granted any more.
Another hardship we faced was dealing with the Tuzla Baptist Church, whose leaders were, to use the popular phrase, “a piece of work.” First we were in good relations with them and attended regularly. Then we got kicked out. Later, we were invited back. Also, there are the Muslim fundamentalists who came after us a couple of times. But more on that next time, when I write about our ministry…
Ministry in Tuzla
The living conditions were not the only difficulty that we faced in Tuzla. We also faced challenges in our ministry. One source of opposition that we faced was, ironically, the Tuzla Baptist church itself. When we agreed to move to Tuzla, we were told that our evangelistic ministry would be twofold. First, we would support the existing Baptist church, which was largely self-functioning, except that they did not have a regular preacher. I quickly became their main preacher. Even when they had someone else preaching (always another missionary, some local and some from out of town), I led the singing and played guitar.
The members of the church were enthusiastic and sincere in their beliefs, but the couple who were the two main lay leaders were not easy to work with. They had suffered persecution during the war and were still struggling with the aftereffects. The husband, a Serb, had at one time been seized by a group of masked Muslim militiamen, taken with several other Serbs several miles outside of town, and told that the whole group was to be “executed.”
Miraculously, he and several others were later released, with no explanation. Not long after we began working with them, we found that we had inadvertently offended them in several ways, by doing things such as not inviting them to our house within a week or so of our arrival. It took us a while to realize that Bosnian people are extremely hospitable and constantly have friends and relatives over. To not invite someone over when meeting them is a great insult. When we tried to explain that we did not mean anything by our slights, they did not believe us. Soon, we were told that we were no longer welcome to visit their church.
Thankfully, after several months, they forgave us, and I was soon preaching there again.
The second major part of our ministry was to lead several loosely connected home Bible studies that had been formed before we came and to guide them toward becoming house (really apartment) churches. This went well, except that the groups never really grew, and finding lay leaders proved nearly impossible. This ministry was also a source of contention between us and the Baptist church, for two main reasons.
First the Baptist church did not believe that there should be any other churches in town (and actually, they were probably right!). Second, there was some bad blood between members of the church and members of the Bible studies that went back well into the war and even beyond.
We also encountered problems with Muslim fundamentalists. At one evangelistic program that I and several of my colleagues (some other missionaries came to join us soon after we arrived) conducted, a group of young Muslims sat through the program until the very end. At that time, they fanned out across the room, whipped out their Korans, and began preaching to the crowd. Almost no one stayed to listen, but the few who did debated with the preachers. Thankfully, there was no violence. On another occasion, we thought there might be, but time does not permit the telling of that story.
Although there were plenty of difficulties during our time in Tuzla, there were also many joyful experiences. We forged strong bonds of friendships with both missionaries and nationals. We saw the faith of many Bosnian Christians strengthened, and we even saw a few embrace the faith for the first time. One of the most exciting and enjoyable ministries we had was my baseball ministry.
Once while jogging, a young man came up to me and asked in English, “Do you know the rules to baseball?” “Of course!” I replied, “It’s my favorite sport!” As we jogged together, he explained that a group of U. S. soldiers had once come into town with some baseball equipment and taught him and some of his friends to play. They had not returned, and since that time, he was looking for someone to help him and his “team” learn to play better.
I eagerly accepted this invitation and soon I was teaching and playing baseball with a dozen or so boys aged 15-18. With the help of some other soldiers and some churches in the U. S., I was also able to donate much more equipment to them. I helped them with their English skills. Most importantly, I was able to share my faith with them, and two made professions of faith. The baseball players were constantly in our home, eating brownies and other goodies that Jennifer made, watching American movies with us, and discussing Christianity. As long as I live, I will never forget those young men and the great times we had together.
Soon, our two-year term drew to a close. In the months prior to our departure date, we began thinking, praying, and seeking God’s direction.
Where would we go next, and what would we do?
Check back soon to find out…