Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Serbia - June 25-July 6

Hey everyone,
I know that I may write more than others - I hope that this will give you a good idea of what we have been up to... though if you're not a fan of wordy people, please feel free to skim. ;) Drew's updates are great too! :)
Take care, Erin

PS - We're currently in Montenegro - the newest country in the world! Expect updates when we return between July 14-17... We would appreciate prayers for safe travels as we head to the coast this afternoon.


Sunday, June 25

Due to the fact that there is no Protestant church on the Serbian side of the city, we headed to the Albanian side to go to church on Sunday morning. One of the formalities between going from one side to the other is that you have to change your license plates on the car each time you pass back and forth. We learned from the first day we arrived that this was an important custom, because the Albanian side has license plates with “UN” on them while the Serbian side has license plates with “KM” on them. “KM” stands for Kovoska Mitrovica, which is the Serbian name for the city. However, Albanians do not recognize that name, so having a “KM” license plate on the Albanian side could potentially make your car a target. So, that morning, just as we had on many others, we paused before going over a bridge to the Albanian side to put on our “UN” license plates. When we arrived at the church, we found a beautiful building only recently built with a large sanctuary, fellowship hall, and even classrooms. We learned that there were two groups of missionaries working there – one team from the United States and one team from Finland. However, the family from Finland will soon be leaving and the United States team will be taking over fulltime. There is a small congregation there that can vary widely depending on the Sunday, though when we attended the service there were about fifteen to twenty people. We met a number of Albanians as well as a number of policemen from Africa (Nigeria and Zambia), who are serving for a year in Kosovo along with all the other UN and NATO soldiers. We sang in Albanian and English and instead of having the pastor share a message, he invited anyone to come forward and share anything that God had placed on their heart. Annika and I both shared pieces of our testimony and enjoyed listening to the words of many other amazing people (almost everyone spoke in English). Following the service we spoke with many of the church members and then went to the city center on the Albanian side to meet up with Nehat. Nehat is a young man who is very interested in potentially becoming a pastor someday himself, though he is also relatively new to Christianity and has not been able to share his faith with his family. His story is similar to that of many students that we have met, both Serbian and Albanian, who are unable to tell their families about their belief in God, because they fear potential consequences (such as being kicked out of their house) from their Orthodox and Muslim family members. We enjoyed getting to know him, though ultimately it was time for us to head back home on the Serbian side of the city. When we arrived at Kuka Maria and Nicky’s flat, we decided to go on a walk through the hills to see the ruins of a nearby medieval fortress. Unfortunately a rainstorm began and we did not make it entirely to the top, though we made it quite a ways up and were able to appreciate how beautiful this part of the country is. Kosovo is such a rich, green region – there are so many trees and the land is much more mountainous than the central area of Serbia where Belgrade is located. There is a lot of agriculture here, though you cannot help but hope that the people here will find a way to preserve the environment. There is so much natural beauty and yet the evidence of pollution is also everywhere – garbage can be seen on the banks of every river, on the sides of the roads, and in overflowing dumpsters throughout the city. Still, as we stood up in the hills and looked down at the view below, everything appeared peaceful – however, as if to keep us from forgetting the tension that exists here, a lightening storm could be seen in the distance. Then again, perhaps you could consider the lightening storm to be a reminder of God’s power – He will calm the storm in His time, we must be patient and believe.

Monday, June 26

On Monday we met up with the Finnish family that has been working with the Albanian Protestant church to help them get ready for a kids camp to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday. They have put on this camp for several years now, though it is only for Albanian children. Kuka Maria, Annika, and I went with the pastor and his family to an amazing camp facility in the mountains (about forty-five minutes away from the city). We spent the day cleaning the facility – mopping and sweeping, wiping down surfaces, and setting up a basketball hoop and volleyball net. We were told that the facility had been built by Christians from Germany after the 2001 conflicts, although I could not help but wonder how much use it gets – how many kids in this area have a chance to go to a camp like this? After tidying things up with some challenging cleaning supplies, we headed back to the city and worked with Kuka Maria and Nicky to prepare for the girls club that meets weekly at their home. The girls club usually meets every Tuesday, though because we were going to be at the kids camp the next day we had to have it the day before – Annika and I were excited to get to know all the little girls in the neighborhood, considering Kuka Maria and Nicky have been very well received and many girls love to come. We had only four girls that afternoon, though we had a great time playing games with them (like “poison candy” with some Jelly Bellies from home that we brought as a gift), making cards for one of their friends who just moved away to a new village, and performing a chair skit for them (there is a chair with the word “sin” on it and someone gets stuck to it). The girls were between 7-10 and they were all smiles all afternoon. You could tell that they really love spending time with Nicky and Kuka Maria and they seemed to want to stay forever (we finally had to bring the game of “Red Light, Green Light” to an end, much to their dismay). All in all, it was very inspiring for us to see the impact that Nicky and Kuka Maria have been able to have within this community through building relationships with families. They believe that they are the first missionaries to work with Serbians in Kosovo, considering it is much more common for missionaries to work with Albanians in this region. I can only hope that in the future more missionaries will see that needs exist within both populations and it is essential that Christians do fall victim to stereotypes, but rather come forward committed to reaching out to anyone and everyone in need. That evening we went to have ice cream and watch one of the World Cup games at a café next to the main bridge. We met a young man from the United States who has come to Kosovo to work with the World Health Organization. Specifically he will be working with the local Roma community in Mitrovica, because there have been instances of children having health problems due to high exposure to lead. This is a really interesting topic, considering where Kuka Maria and Nicky live the water is not safe to drink due to high levels of lead. Unfortunately many people in the region, such as the Roma, do not necessarily have the luxury to be able to filter their drinking water and this could pose potentially significant health risks to Roma, Serbians and Albanians alike. There is potential controversy in the instance of the Roma, because there is some concern about the fact that the Roma were relocated to the area that they live in now by government officials. Certainly it is unsettling to think about the possibility that people would be moved to an area in which their health could be compromised, though this is what this doctor will be looking into for the World Health Organization. Another random thing about this area is that everyone gets free water and electricity. I know that this may sound unbelievable, but it is true – no one pays anything for water and electricity in their homes (and I assume the same goes for businesses, etc.). Nicky and Kuka Maria were not able to explain exactly why this is and who is covering the bill in the meantime (UN, NATO?), though that was yet another surprising discovery in this region.

Tuesday, June 27

Today we spent the day with around thirty Albanian children from ages 7-11 in the mountains of Kosovo. Although we have been picking up bits of Serbian, we felt like we were back at stage one when we realized that we knew nothing of Albanian… However, the kids were great and many of them spoke a bit of English – we also had a number of people helping with the camp that could assist us with translating. We started the day with breakfast and then moved into games (volleyball, soccer, basketball, jump rope, etc.). Considering it was quite hot outside a number of kids stayed inside working on puzzles and games (“Guess Who?” and “Twister” were quire popular). When I first went outside to see how things were going, I noticed five kids off in the distance who were watching closely all of the kids at the camp as they played all the outdoor games. Other members of the camp staff also saw the kids and noted that they were kids from the local village. The five kids continued to advance towards the facility slowly, as if trying to decide whether or not they were allowed to come play with everyone else. All of the Albanian kids had paid 1 Euro to attend the camp (primarily to cover the cost of taking a bus to the facility and food – a great deal), though I was pleased to see that the staff wholeheartedly welcomed the kids to join in with everyone else. It was wonderful to see their faces light up as they were invited to participate in games, eat lunch, sing songs, and listen to Bible stories. Although I enjoyed working with all of the kids I met there, I felt that those five little faces touched my heart the most: one of the little girls put a banana in her pocket and tried to hide it, one of the little boys always seemed to be chewing on a piece of straw, and the other little boy had a deformed hand with only three fingers that he always hid behind his back, as if he was afraid to let anyone see it. When at last we left the camp at the end of the day, the five kids all stood to the side and watched all of the kids walk towards the bus. After a few minutes, they turned and headed off into the surrounding fields – before long I could barely see their heads among the tall grass as they disappeared home. The camp was a fantastic experience for the kids that attended, considering it was a perfect escape from life in the city. Unfortunately it was our last full day in Kosovo, because Annika and I had to leave the next day. The camp was also going to take place on Wednesday (tomorrow) with older kids (12-16), though due to commitments back in Belgrade we would have to be on a bus early the next morning. So, we said goodbye to everyone there at the end of the day and headed back to the village where Nicky and Kuka Maria live. We had a nice evening talking with both of them about how valuable we felt that our time here had been and how much we admired the work that they are doing. Before long it was time for bed and we fell asleep in our cozy beds for one last night in Kosovo.

Wednesday, June 28

On Wednesday Annika and I went into Mitrovica to catch the bus back to Belgrade. We were told that we were going to take a “direct” bus to Belgrade, which would probably be incredibly fast in comparison to the ride we had on the way to Kosovo. However, when you hear something like that you know that that would just be too easy. As we said goodbye to Nicky before boarding the bus, she overheard the bus driver say that the air conditioning on the bus was not working. The bus was quite large and full of people, though there were no windows to open – the only way to get air in was to have the doors open, which was what happened for the entire trip. Annika and I settled into our seats, though soon realized what an incredibly hot trip this was going to be… The bus made its way through the mountains, stopping at the international border, and then continuing further into the mountains. The narrow roads and constant curves were a challenge for any passenger not to succumb to car sickness, as we discovered when the guy next to us became quite ill at one point. Annika and I tried to keep our sense of humor going by playing silly games (there’s nothing quite like playing “I Spy…” when you are the only people on the bus who can speak English and there’s not much to spy…) and talking about anything and everything under the sun. At one point we had a chance to get out and get a cold bottle of water, which we joked was the highlight of the experience. After seven and a half hours (there was also some construction going on, of course), we reached Belgrade and escaped from our bus, which felt much more like a sauna. Although Belgrade is also quite warm, we had never been so glad to have fresh air and be outside. Samuil picked us up and brought us back to our flat, where we discovered that the boys had been planning an evening of American football followed by a BBQ. We had around thirty people meeting up at our flat to head down to the field nearby for some football and then come back for some awesome Serbian BBQ. Samuil helped us pick up meat (the meat is already BBQed, so no worries), bread, and salad (just tomatoes and cucumbers, as usual), as well as drinks, and we were ready to go. Our flat was buzzing with voices and laughter for hours, as we had a chance to speak with students and just enjoy fellowship with each other. Despite the long bus ride earlier in the day, I felt so happy to see all of our friends there, considering so many of the faces have become familiar and everyone welcomed Annika and I back with so much excitement. Many people asked us about Kosovo, considering few Serbians have traveled there, especially in recent years. Again, it seems so strange to me to think that certain areas of your own country are off-limits to you and you fear for your safety to visit, yet that is the reality here. Still, I know that our trip to Kosovo was eye-opening for me and I hope that God will help Annika and I discover how we can share what we learned there with those around us, considering people are anxious to know about the situation there.

Thursday, June 29

For some time we had been talking about organizing a trip to see the south of Serbia and meet up with students from EUS in that area. Although Annika and I were in the south only the day before, we decided that Thursday was the best day to drive three hours down to the city of Nis to visit students. The drive down to Nis was long, yet very worthwhile. When we arrived we met up with Valentino, who is very involved with EUS in Nis. He will be going into the army in the Fall, so it is important that other students come forward to help with the ministry in this area while he is away for around nine months. Although it was late in the evening by the time that we arrived, we headed with Valentino down to a café on the river by the fortress to meet with some students. We met up with Sanya, Tanya, and Nicoli at the café, who were all amazing students to speak with. I talked with Sanya primarily, who is a college student very interested in human rights and political activities within the city. I really enjoyed speaking to her about her experiences during the war (her father is Serbian and her mother is Bosnian, so her family left Bosnia for Serbia during the recent conflicts) and also her political involvement with the Civil Alien party. We talked about the upcoming anniversary of Srebrenica, perhaps one of the worst incidents of genocide since World War II, although it is not very widely publicized. We also spoke about the challenges faced by the International Criminal Tribunal in ensuring that war criminals are brought to justice. As a political scientist, it was one of my favorite conversations of the trip, considering this area is fascinating when it comes to politics and it is fascinating to hear the perspectives of those who live here. That night we slept in the EUS office in Nis, which was a lovely little flat converted into a room for worship, a kitchen and a bathroom. When we headed to bed we were eager to see more of the city in the morning, considering Nis is a very beautiful and distinct city of its own.

Friday, June 30

In the morning we met up with Nicoli, one of the students from the night before, who helped us find a bakery for some breakfast and make our way into the city center to find Samuil and Mimi, who works with EUS in the nearby town of Leskovac. Although it was a long walk in the hot sun, we enjoyed speaking with Nicoli about life in Nis and getting to know him better. When we reached Samuil and Mimi we continued to walk around the city for a bit, which gave us a chance to appreciate the mixture of architecture – there is a strong Turkish influence here. Ultimately we loaded up into the car, said goodbye to Nicoli, and headed to Leskovac to have lunch and meet with more students. Leskovac is famous in Serbia for its BBQ, so we stopped to sample some of the local cuisine – and we all agreed it was perhaps the best food we had ever tasted! Following our adventure with BBQ, we went to a local café to meet students from Leskovac. We spent some time talking with Sara, Tamara, Tanya, Philip, and a few other students, which gave us a chance to learn more about life in the south of Serbia. I spoke for a few minutes to everyone about some experiences in my life in which I have really seen God at work, which was a great opportunity for me to share something a bit more personal with those around me. When we at last said goodbye, Samuil told us that we had another stop in Leskovac before we returned home, which turned out to be something entirely different than anything we had previously seen. We went to visit Pastor Selim in the Roma community of Leskovac, who is leading a church of over a thousand Roma in a gigantic tent – you really have to see it to believe it. It made me think of all the “big tent revivals” I have heard about in past generations, though there is an incredible ministry taking place in this area. Pastor Selim showed us a room with a computer in which they have began to broadcast a Christian radio station in the local area, as well as a large building where the church meets during the Winter (the tent is too cold). It was amazing to walk into the tent and hear about how on most Sundays there is only standing room, with all the young people standing so that older people can have a seat. We also met Pastor Selim’s two daughters and had a chance to go see his new home. Pastor Selim attended Bible school in England and receives a stipend from England to run his ministry here, though he has an incredible story. In recent years him and his family have faced increasing persecution from the Muslim leaders within the Roma community, so much so that his wife was seriously injured recently and his family could no longer live in their home. However, something amazing happened – a foreigner came to visit him and said that God had put it on his heart to give Pastor Selim a large amount of money. With this money he was able to buy a new house for his family in a safer part of the Roma community. His wife and his son were out working so we did not get to meet them, though it was great to learn more about what life is like for this pastor in Leskovac, who is leading perhaps the largest Protestant church in all of Serbia. Finally we headed back to Belgrade and had a chance to observe yet another awesomely powerful lightening storm as we were driving. Nada was kind enough to prepare a wonderful dinner for us, so we gathered at Samuil and Nada’s home for a group dinner that gave us all a chance to talk about what we had experienced in Nis and Leskovac.

Saturday, July 1

On Saturday morning, our team decided to take Nada to coffee, because we really wanted a chance to thank her for hosting us at her home so many times and also to see her off, considering she was going to fly to Australia that night for a Christian Medical Ethnics conference. We had a wonderful time talking with her over iced coffee in local Café Domino and we will certainly miss her while she is away for two weeks (no doubt, Samuil will miss her too!). However, it sounds like quite an adventure, so we hope that she will have an amazing trip! After our time with Nada, Annika and I walked down to the river to catch up on some reading – we are trying very hard to keep up with the Deputation challenge (reading through the entire New Testament over the course of our trip). However, eventually it was time to go back to Novi Sad to see an American band, Next Exit, perform in a free Christian concert in the city theater. Annika and I jumped on the bus, considering the boys were practicing baseball for a bit at ADA with the Serbian team and had planned to come later. When we arrived in Novi Sad we met up with Zeljko and Goran and proceeded to head to the city theater to experience the concert. The band, Next Exit, had performed in Belgrade earlier in the week on Tuesday, which Annika and I had missed due to being in Kosovo. However, this time we had a chance to see the whole show, which was great – the band plays a lot of blues, jazz, and other random music of their own and also weaves in a message about God’s impact on their lives. There were lots of people there and I think that in general people had a really good time, especially considering it was free entertainment. During the concert, Annika and I met several girls who attend the Christian Fellowship Church in Novi Sad and the boys also did a great job reaching out to new people to start building friendships. When the concert ended we walked around the city for a while, admiring the elegant architecture and charming streets, and also just catching up with each other. We had not seen Zeljko and Goran in a while and we also had several new friends with us, David and Boyana, who were a lot of fun to talk with. Eventually we headed to Goran’s home to spend the night at his family’s house and tried to get a bit of sleep before two church services the next day… we were happy to be back in Novi Sad and eager to see what church would be like in Novi Sad, which is much more liberal with regard to permitting Protestantism than Belgrade.

Sunday, July 2

In the morning we went first to the Pentecostal Church, which instantly made us feel like we were back at church in the United States. The church building was a huge room with lots of comfy chairs and an energetic worship band. The facility is quite new and construction is still taking place, because they are building a Bible school adjacent to the church. It was very exciting to see how the members of the church have really come together to help bring the ministry to where it is today with the new buildings and all. The church service began with a number of songs in Serbian (which we tried our best to sing along with) and then a time of prayer for a baby recently born to members of the congregation. Our team was introduced by the pastor at one point in the service, though we did not share anything – we had a chance to just let it all sink in, thanks to the help of Zeljko’s translation of the service. After the service we met Zeljko’s parents, who invited us to come to their home for lunch and spend the night at their home. Considering lunch would not be for a few hours, we went out to explore the city a bit with Zeljko, David, and Goran and enjoy some Serbian pancakes for breakfast. At that point it was time to head to Zeljko’s home, which we soon discovered was one of the hidden gems of Novi Sad. Zeljko’s parents have a beautiful rose garden that spans around an acre behind their house and they actually have a business selling the roses that they grow. The yard has amazing landscaping with many fruit trees and it just feels like the perfect place to spend a summer day – sitting under a tree, smelling the roses, eating a plum (if you like plums…). We also found their home to be very comfortable, as evidenced by the way in which most of our team was able to go inside and take a nap prior to lunch without hesitation. I stayed up talking with Zeljko’s brother, Goran, and his mother, as well as writing some postcards to friends and family back home. When we at last sat down to lunch, we all sat at a long table in the front yard under the trees and enjoyed many delicious courses of food. That meal will be one of my favorite memories of Serbia, considering sitting there together at that table it felt like we were one huge family – and we were, in Christ. I will always be grateful for the way in which Zeljko and his family welcomed us into their home so warmly and graciously. After lunch came to an end we had to hurry to our second church service of the day at the Christian Fellowship Church in Novi Sad. We had visited this church briefly when we came to Novi Sad a while ago, though this was a chance for us to experience a service there and meet the congregation. We knew we were in another world when we were handed headphones, through which we could hear an English translation of the service – what a treat! The pastor invited us all to come forward and we introduced ourselves briefly, at which point Annika shared a bit about something that God has been teaching her lately. There were many people at the service and the church even had a balcony – again, we could not help but contrast this experience with what we have been a part of in other parts of the country. Samuil shared the message at the service and then we all proceeded to go to the little café that they created in the church. Several girls in the church actually work at the café and help serve the coffee to people, who can sit at a few tables or outside in a covered area. At the café I met a woman whose husband is the assistant pastor of the church. She told me about how she has spent the last few years trying to develop a Christian crisis pregnancy center, which would potentially be the first of its kind in Serbia. It was interesting to speak with her about this project she has taken on and hear about how she is now in the process of seeking outside funding to carry out the plans she has developed. I was really impressed to see someone taking so much initiative on a project of this type – and I certainly hope that things will go well for her in her efforts. While at the café we received an invitation from the pastor to come to his house for something to eat. When we made it to his home we met his wife and children, who are such a lovely family. We enjoyed speaking with them for some time and snacking on Serbian pizza (tomato sauce is just ketchup here – not quite like at home). At last we thanked them for the opportunity to learn more about their ministry and headed over to see the Next Exit concert taking place in the city outdoors. We made it for the last few songs of the evening and then returned to Zeljko’s home to get some sleep after a wonderfully eventful day.

Monday, July 3

In the morning we enjoyed a delightful breakfast and said goodbye to Zeljko’s family before heading over to the local student center near the university. When we arrived with our bags at the student center we made an interesting discovery – Samuil’s car had been towed by a “spider” (I guess that is what a tow truck translates to over here), because he parked in a not so legal spot. While Samuil went to recover his car, we had a chance to meet up with several students at a café and had some wonderful conversations. I especially loved talking with one boy in particular about politics in the United States and what it might mean to be a Christian involved with politics. Eventually we all piled into Samuil’s recovered car to return to Belgrade. When we arrived back in the city we went over to the weekly EUS meeting, which was a very informal meeting with the intention of giving the students a chance to just catch up with each other. It was nice to speak with so many students, enjoy some refreshments, and listen to a “brief” message from Samuil about staying true to our faith during summer – plus students heard lots about the upcoming EUS camp for college students in Zlatibor (July 20-27). We know that it will not be easy for many of these students to come up with the 35 Euros that the camp costs, though we hope that students will still come forward to let us know that they are interested – Samuil is committed to helping all interested students make it there (we hope to have many scholarships to offer students). Following the EUS meeting, we invited students to come over the our house to watch one of the World Cup games and spent the evening cheering competitively for our favorite teams (Germany vs. Italy…).

Tuesday, July 4

We have been looking forward to July 4 for many reasons – including the fact that Samuil told us he would give us the day off and also the fact that all American citizens registered with the embassy were invited to attend an officially July 4 celebration at the ambassador’s house. We began our day with our usual team Bible study, as we continued to progress through the book of Mark. Following our Bible study, we held our weekly team meeting as a chance to check in with each other and bring up any questions, concerns, praises, etc. At that point we decided that we wanted to check out the local Chinese Market, which is an area in New Belgrade with many little shops run primarily by Chinese immigrants (though many Chinese families have lived here for generations now). We were fortunate that Slobodan wanted to come with us, so we were able to catch up with him and also get insider tips about the cool things to check out at the market. Unfortunately we soon discovered that only half of the Chinese Market is open on Tuesdays, though it was still a lot of fun to check things out and explore. After venturing through the Chinese Market for a while, we headed back to the flat to get ready for our big celebration at the ambassador’s house. When we returned to the flat we met Rachel, a college student from Chicago who will be joining our team for the rest of the time that we are here – she will also be staying longer than us to attend the ROM (Renewing Our Minds) conference in Croatia (and then she will encounter another Deputation team in action!). Although Rachel had just arrived today, she was also excited to check out the festivities, so we all loaded up into taxis and made our way to the party. When we pulled up to the house, we all felt our jaws drop. Ambassador Polt lives in a beautiful colonial style home complete with a gigantic American flag and the grounds surrounding the house were decorated elaborately with red, white and blue everywhere. We each paid 500 dinars to get in (around $7) and soon discovered that the party was being exclusively catered by… McDonald’s. I suppose that was the most “American” food available – so we lined up for double cheeseburgers, fries, apple pies, and sundaes (chocolate, strawberry, or caramel). We also stumbled upon the huge American flag cake, which looked incredible. We wandered the grounds for a while, coming across tennis courts, a swimming pool, a stage for a live band, lots of play areas of kids, and food stations galore. At one point Ambassador Polt came forward to read the message from President Bush to commemorate July 4 and his daughter sang the national anthem. We had a wonderful evening snacking, talking with other Americans, and enjoying our national holiday is such a unique environment. After several hours we realized it was time to leave, though we were fortunate to have an opportunity to speak with the ambassador and his family (his wife and daughter) for some time about the work that they do in Serbia. It was great to see how much they love Serbia and want to invest their energy in projects that will help the people of Serbia rebuild their nation in a constructive way after so many difficult years of conflict. They spoke about how earlier in the day they had a program to celebrate many of the “local heroes,” people who have received small business loans and been able to create thriving businesses to support themselves and their families. They also noted how they have been working on a number of exchange programs for students from Serbia to have the chance to study abroad and experience life in the United States, considering the study abroad programs at the universities here are not as developed as those in our colleges back home. Before leaving we were able to get a group picture with the ambassador and his family – and smuggle out three watermelons… (you can ask Drew about that story… honestly it was all perfectly legal).

Wednesday, July 5

On Wednesday, following our team Bible study, Annika and I headed over to the Roma community near Zemun to help Pastor Erman pack up donated clothing for the poorest Roma community in Belgrade. Pastor Erman led us over to the church and we began to sort clothing into piles for men, women, and children – it was more difficult than we expected, considering with a lot of the clothing it was rather hard to tell what was what. Another challenge for me was the dust, so I spent a lot of the morning sneezing and going outside for some fresh air. However, in the end we were quite successful – we packed 18 bags of clothing! We also spent some time cleaning up the room in which the clothes had been stored, so that Pastor Erman could get more use out of it in the future. After we finished, Pastor Erman invited us back to his home for lunch prepared by his wife, Sanya. Lunch was amazing – we definitely enjoyed the cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, salad, and a lovely pastry dessert. It was also exciting to hear about the wonderful service at Pastor Erman’s church on last Sunday, where three people were baptized and the church was full of people. The way in which Pastor Erman has been able to reach out to this community and draw people in is truly inspiring – God is working wonders here. Ultimately we made our way back to the flat in time for yet another World Cup game (France vs. Portugal), which a number of students attended. In true World Cup spirit the room was probably split half and half in favor of both teams, though we had great fellowship with one another.

Thursday, July 6

On Thursday we had an opportunity to go to the poorest Roma community in Belgrade with Pastor Erman and his family to help give out the donated clothes that we had packed up. Annika, Drew, and I met up with Pastor Erman and enjoyed a quick snack of watermelon at his home before we headed over to distribute the clothing. Pastor Erman, Sanya, and their son Marco all came along as we went to the Roma community across the highway from the Hotel Intercontinental, an area which we had seen many times out the window of the bus. We managed to fit all 18 bags of clothes into Pastor Erman’s car, though Annika, Sanya, Marco and I all had to take a taxi to get to our destination. When we arrived, I honestly felt like I had to pinch myself to believe that I was really seeing what was all around me. I had never seen people living in slums like this – living in such utter poverty. The pictures I took can do a much better job of getting across the realities of this area much better than my words. This particular community has been in existence since 1999, at which point the city was flooded with Roma refugees and this became a large settlement with several thousand people in this one particular area. The community consists of small homes made of garbage connected by dirt roads paved with more garbage. The community is located to a large extent under a freeway overpass, which means that you could hear the noise from the road at all times. Furthermore, train tracks also border the community, with trains rushing by several times in just the mere two hours or so that we spent there. There is no water, except that from the river. We had the opportunity to meet many people, considering as soon as we arrived Pastor Erman told some of his friends there to tell others that we were here with some clothing donations. We stood outside the house of one Christian woman who Pastor Erman knows especially well – he noted that he sometimes holds meetings for Christians outside of her home. While we were standing there, we began to see many children come over to see what was going on. The first thing that I noticed were their feet – they were covered with blisters, cracked and weathered. I thought of all the times that I have looked at a baby’s perfect little feet, pink and unscathed, and wondered what it must be like to grow up crawling and walking on garbage. One little girl, who was perhaps around three years old, came up to us with a big smile, though we could see that her runny nose was caked to her face. I thought of all the times that I have seen a mother wipe the nose of her child, instructing him or her to just blow their nose into the tissue in her hand, and I wondered if someone had ever done that for this little girl. Then we saw perhaps the most concerning sight of all. There was another house next door to the one we were standing at and we could hear a baby crying. After a few minutes, we saw the baby come crawling out of the front door (or rather, through the flap of material in the door way). The baby looked utterly miserable – she was covered with dirt and her own feces. I felt helpless. Here was this innocent child, crying out for help, and I was thinking about whether or not it was safe for me to even touch her, despite the fact that I desperately wanted to reach out to her. Pastor Erman came to the rescue – he walked over to her, picked her up, and brought her to the Christian woman, asking if she would perhaps be willing to give her a bath. At that point I could see just how filthy this poor baby was and just how hard she was crying. Pastor Erman told us that he was always concerned about the family living in that house and he often tried to bring a little something extra for them when he would come to visit. We asked where the parents of the baby girl were and he led us over to the house and encouraged us to take a good look. The father of the baby girl was passed out drunk on the floor, there was bits of food, garbage, and feces everywhere, the smell was intense. We were told that the girl’s mother had taken one of her other children to the doctor. After we gave out all of the clothes (certainly we did not have nearly enough), we walked around the community for a little while – just taking it all in (the best we could, from our privileged position). At last we left and returned to our flat, though we could not stop talking about what we had seen. However, we had to put those thoughts on hold and get preparations taken care of for a wonderful evening with students. Students came over to play baseball and have BBQ at our flat, which was a great success. To conclude the evening, we went with students down to the river to the free salsa dancing lessons on one of the boat cafés – as usual it was a delightful activity to get everyone involved and we stayed until the music stopped. :)


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Kim Lewis said...

Wow! Erin you have written about some unforgetable experiences. I only read some of what you wrote, but it sounds like you guys are having an incredible time and learning so much, and are such a blessing to so many people there. Keep it up in your last couple of weeks and treasure every minute!