The Bosnia IST Story
Bosnian girl looking over her shoulder.
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A little about our Bosnia ministry
Greetings in the name of the Living God! I invite you read about this ministry and prayerfully consider helping us bring healing, offering hope and building peace.
The break-up of Yugoslavia
Throughout the early 1990s, the former country of Yugoslavia began to split into several new countries, more or less along older national and ethnic boundaries. Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in early 1992, sparking a brutal civil war which lasted into early 1996. The three major ethnic groups in Bosnia are the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks. The Serbs and Croats are Christian (Orthodox and Roman Catholic, respectively); the Bosniaks are Muslim.
This is a country and people of contrasts. The countryside is beautiful, but scars from the war are all around. There is forward movement toward becoming a stable, healthy country, yet many cannot let go of the past. The people are generous, hospitable and loving, yet many are still ruled by their fear, grief, and even hatred. The children are so loving and beautiful, but their wounds from the war run so deep.
NEW JERSEY SYNOD BOSNIA IST HISTORY
The New Jersey Synod began its ministry to Bosnia in 1999 when the Synod’s Commission on Youth Ministry (predecessor body to the Youth Ministry Mission Team) heard newly arrived Youth Ministry Specialist Jason Reed speak of his previous experience leading servant trips to Croatia and Bosnia. The Commission asked; “Can we do that?” The results of that question lie before you.
In 2000 the Synod held it first International Servant Trip (IST) to Croatia and Bosnia. We sent 11 people from 5 congregations in New Jersey (and 2 from the Metro Washington DC Synod, and 1 Roman Catholic from Ramsey, NJ). This first Travel Team held 5 Friendship Camps in Bosnia and several Bible Camps in Lutheran Congregations in Croatia. Friendship Camps are day-long camps held in orphanages and schools for children ages 10-13 (though we get younger and older children as well). At the Camps we lead cooperative games, do diversity training, provide art and music therapy, and offer as much fun and love as possible.
In 2001 we returned to Bosnia and Croatia with a Travel Team of 27. In 2002 the New Jersey Synod became a Companion Synod to the Lutheran Church in Croatia and split the trip - one team and trip to Bosnia and one to Croatia.
As a result of our continued positive presence in Bosnia, schools for Friendship Camps in new towns continued to open up for us. In 2004 we were invited into 6 new communities, 4 of which were in Republik Srpska, the Serb portion of Bosnia. This was a critical shift, allowing us access to children in communities that have few resources and little interaction with the USA and the West.
To respond to this increased ministry opportunity, in 2005 we began sending a North and South Team to Bosnia, allowing us to offer 16 Friendship Camps each year. As the years go by, we continued to be invited into communities that experienced some of the worst the war had to offer: Srebrenica, where the largest massacre of the war took place; Kozarac, home to the infamous Trnopolje Death Camp; and so on.
Since its first Bosnia IST in 2000 there have been 177 Travel Team members, young and old, from 39 congregations in the New Jersey Synod (along with people from 7 other ELCA Synods and several other faith communities) sent to Bosnia to bring healing, hope and peace to the children, communities and country of Bosnia. 55 Travel Team members have served more than one year!
To date we have held 167 Friendship Camps, directly serving over 24,000 children (no telling how many of those children have attended camp more than once)! We continue to be the only ELCA presence and, for all intents and purposes, the only Lutheran presence in this country.
What We Do
Each summer we have the privilege of serving around children at Friendship Camps we hold throughout the country. We play, sing, dance, explore peace and laugh together. We share meals and stories and hopes and dreams and tears with them. We teach and learn about peace and reconciliation together. We share the love of God with them, and, in turn, find ourselves looking into the face of Jesus.
We visit, serve and praye in churches and mosques, schools and orphanages, homes and restaurants. We walk the grounds of concentration camps, cemeteries, memorial sites, mass grave sites and identification facilities for human remains recovered from mass graves. The increased tensions in the region in recent years have made the last several trips particularly important and the joy and community that we shared particularly satisfying.
It is hard work - long hours, taxing physical labor, emotionally draining efforts. It is wonderful work - meeting and living with such beautiful, wounded, generous, loving people. And because of the nature of peace-building in such a broken world; it is messy, challenging and incomplete. In other words, it feels like a truly faithful response to Jesus’ call to “Feed my lambs” (John 21).
Thank you for your support, partnership and participation in this ministry. It is good, hard work we are called to do together. And we certainly can only do it together.
BOSNIA IST GOALS
Our ministry goals continue to be very direct: HEALING, HOPE, PEACE. Although there are countless stories, allow us to briefly share three stories.
Our ministry brings healing: Mark Schulz (Zion, Long Valley) tells of a camp where he saw a young boy sitting alone at lunch. He went over and tried to talk with him - at one point even bringing over an interpreter. By the end of lunch he had yet to illicit a single smile or word. However, at the end of camp as Mark was saying goodbye to some other boys, he felt someone hugging his leg. He looked down and, sure enough, it was that little boy from lunch, who looked up at him and started counting…one, two, three, four…until Mark, laughing, stopped him. One of the school teachers who had been observing this, walked over to Mark and told him that that was the first time anyone at the school had ever heard this boy talk.
Our ministry offers hope: A young girl looked sad as our Friendship Camp in Bihac ended. Bobby Houser, one of our partners in this ministry, walked over to her and asked her what was wrong. “No one cares about me. There is no reason for me to be alive”, she responded. Bobby got out her calendar and flipped it to the following summer and pointed to a date. “This is the day we will be back here next June. I love you. I want to see you here next year.” The following summer our bus pulled up to the school, and who was sitting on the steps, waiting for us? That young girl.
Our ministry builds peace: Jason Reed (St. Paul, Hainesport) was in the Serb village of Sipovo waiting in a bank for them to exchange some of the team money, when a Chetnik (a radical, nationalist Serb) called out to him in serbian, “Why do Americans hate Serbs”, - but he asked it in a very personal way - “why do you hate me?”. Jason responded that he didn’t hate him and that all Americans didn’t hate Serbs. “But you bomb our towns and kill our people”, was the Chetnik’s response. They talked for five minutes, until the money was ready. As Jason left, Vesna, his interpreter (a Baptist Serb from Croatia, if you can believe it) turned to him and said, “Do you know what they are talking about back there (in the bank)? They are questioning everything they thought they knew about Americans; everything they have been told about Americans.” The next year we returned to this town Jason was interviewed on their radio station, and had the opportunity to share why we came back to Sipovo.
OTHER ASPECTS OF THE MINISTRY
While there are many other aspects of this ministry, four bear mentioning here:
1. Leadership development. We have intentionally provided leadership training for all members of the Travel Team, including extra work with our group leaders. Travel Team members have gone on to serve in many ways. Some examples include:
Lindsay Bonanno (Hope, Freehold) is serving in the Peace Corps in Mali (North West Africa).
Lori Lepelletier (Redeemer, Succasunna), is currently in Mexico on an ELCA Servant-Hunger-Poverty Trip and plans to start seminary in the Fall.
Larissa Kravanja (Nativity, East Brunswick) traveled to South America and Africa with a UN Women’s Organization.
Dan Nelson (Calvary, Cranford) spent a summer in Africa on a humanitarian aid mission.
Jenn Berryann (Holy Communion, Berlin) serves young people as a High School English teacher, Youth Director for her congregation, and Youth Ministry Mission Team Leader.
Susie Wilson (Redeemer, Ramsey) has lead International Servant Trips to Mexico and other servant trips within the United States.
2. Congregational Involvement. Each year members of our congregations spend thousands of hours serving the children of Bosnia through the Home Team projects. They have made thousands of teddy bears, lions, giraffes, monkeys, hug pillows, and more. Their involvement can deepen their understanding of Christian servanthood in the world and increase their awareness of the need for peace and prayer in the world. It can also serve as a springboard for new ministry endeavors. For an example, see the attached note from Roger Knauss (Redeemer, Ramsey) on green paper.
3. Inter-religious. In Bosnia we serve in a very religiously diverse country. While the children we work with are from all the different ethnic and religious backgrounds, our interpreters are primarily (though not exclusively) Muslim. Over the years our relationships with them have developed into ones of deep respect and love. This past summer we brought five of our interpreters home with us to meet our congregations and country, and to help lead several programs at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in San Antonio, Texas. The inter-religious nature of our ministry, particularly in relation to our Bosnian Muslim coordinator and interpreters, is an emphasis of the ELCA, and one which we are exploring new ways to strengthen.
4. The wider church. This Trip is well-known in the ELCA, having been featured in the Lutheran Magazine, in Mosaics, and at the last three ELCA National Youth Gatherings. Consequently, we have become a model for international servant ministry, and have provided advice and training for many other groups and synods. Our ministry also continues to call attention to the need to provide ongoing relief in countries suffering from the after-effects of war, especially to the children.
It has been a great privilege to serve Jesus Christ in the children of Bosnia with and on behalf of the New Jersey Synod. It has served as a valuable model of many generations of the church responding together to Christ’s call to serve those in need - a group of children with whom we have no other connection their our shared humanity.
The Travel Team is made up of individuals committed to spending two weeks serving as the "hands and feet" of the ministry in Bosnia. As you can imagine, serving on a Travel Team can be a rich, deeply rewarding, life-changing experience. It is also requires a lot of time, dedication, and hard work, including monthly meetings throughout the spring to prepare for the trip. Travel Team members need to be committed, healthy, and between the ages of 16 and 86. Applications for the Travel Team are available by mid-October of each year.
Our Home Team consists of those involved in Bosnia IST back here in the USA. There are many ways for individuals, groups, and congregations to become involved - particularly to provide the Friendship Camp supplies, raise funds for the trip and offer prayer support. The Home Team Guide, which outlines these opportunities to serve, is available in January of each year.
Bosnia IST Coordinator
Here are some daily updates from the 2012 Bosnia IST written by Travel Team members during the trip:
Spirits were high as we boarded the bus for our first camp of IST 2012. Having visited the Srbrenica memorial last night the pain of that horror was fresh in our minds and perhaps a little distracting to the task at hand any concerns however were quickly dispelled as we approached Leptir. A young girl came running around the corner as we entered their street her excitement was visible even from a 100 yards away. The children were waiting! This school for special needs children is always an especially rewarding experience for the team and this year was no exception. Roughly 70 smiling faces greeted us as we stepped off the bus and the team quickly got to work. It was encouraging to see a new addition to the school however it didn't offer us a large activity room so Larry, Baby and Beth got us started in the parking lot "breaking down walls" and dancing like gorillas ;) This was followed by Johnetta and Carrie helping the kids to make "shrinky dinks" to be given away at the national youth gathering next month as their servant project for the camp. Drama braved the heat and Chief Yook Laura and Chief Zook Edbia gave Oscar winning performances in the Butter Battle Play. Games was the usual hit with Julie and Wayne leading the famous parachute activity and a record volleyball toss! Off to Jajce now thank you home team for your continued prayers (especially for the bus right now!)
Mir - Cliff Konnerth
The Jajce camp is a bit unpredictable, with its status as 2 schools, one for Croatian children, and one for Bosniak children, under one roof. This camp is turning into an annual adventure into the unknown. Today's bus was met by 250 very excited and rambunctious kids, eager to take part in our camp. School in one part of the building was still in session, so we were initially unsure of what parts of the school would be available to us. With everyone working together, we got all of our groups set up and began camp. Azra reported that we had an even mixture of students from both schools attending the camp, which was very encouraging news. Our games team of Emily and Sam, with their interpreters of Lazar and Aldin, rose, as always, to the challenge and managed some very large groups by dividing themselves and the kids into separate activities. Julie was quite the hero with a very energetic and very large group to travel with. She powered through with a smile! There was no shortage of energy during the closing when the children sang our theme song with gusto! It gave Larry and Beth time to practice their Bosnian on the chorus. There were cheers and some boos when teacher gifts were being distributed at the end of camp. Some of the boos were for teachers from the other school. While that can be at first disheartening, it was unclear whether this was rooted in any animosity, or simply a harmless rivalry between schools, as sometimes happens in the US. It was clear that our work in this school is not done.
Sarajevo and beyond
Sarajevo is such a beautiful and diverse city. It would be difficult to believe it was a place of ethnic conflict and civil war without the proof that remains embedded in the walls of buildings. Attending a Catholic church service entirely in Bosnian early Sunday morning proved to be encouraging regardless of a language barrier. The face of Jesus in the war damage on the wall of the church next to stained glass images of saints of old is the best possible image definition of redemption. It was a surprise to learn that Sarajevo has its own Twin Towers, which were destroyed during the war and then rebuilt afterwards. When ours were destroyed in a matter of minutes, the people of Sarajevo were so empathetic because of their experience with losing their own, they held a benefit concert to help the victims and their families. Even thousands of miles away, people can still hurt for each other, care for others, and help one another. The children of Srebrenica were so loving and kind. One boy named Arnel told us to come back next year after learning more Bosnian. It was hard to imagine that these children came from the same town where a factory had been used as a concentration camp for Bosniaks. Hearing from a woman who lost her entire family during the war, including her husband and two sons, was heartbreaking and sobering. Jajce was a different story. The school building was divided between Croat and Bosniak students and teachers. When the Bosniak teachers received their tote bags, Croat students booed and jeered. I have never heard anything like that before.
From Brittany Evans, St. Paul, Hainesport
So not many people know that in Trnopolje there is a school that was used during the war. This school still stands today, but this place is no longer a place of fear and hatred. This school is one of the most hopeful places that I have visited in Bosnia itself. The school was rebuilt after the war and I have never seen a more peace filled place, especially where something so horrible happened to so many people. These kids were easily one of my favorite groups because they were just so well behaved, so smart, and just filled you with inspiration. Even though you know that they're just small elementary school kids and they fight over a ball and some kids might not want to cooperate, the teamwork is phenomenal. This was our first time visiting this school and there was definitely a greater good shining through, whatever that may be.
From Samantha Mack, Prince of Peace, Marlton
Mostar (Croat-Curriculum School)
Mostar has been my favorite city by far. With the beautiful river flowing beneath the majestic bridge and the warm welcome from all I met, you can't help but fall in love with Mostar. I had the opportunity to be part of a camp in a new location. It turned out to be a smaller, more intimate setting than I had experienced before, but absolutely the most powerful of the camps I have participated in. What got to me most was the drama exercise. It was the first time I almost left a camp activity because I didn't feel I could morally participate. As we were creating conflict between the two groups of kids over a silly difference of opinion, we playfully escalated the conflict, until (fake) violence erupted. The leaders, throughout the exercise, we're telling their "people" what to think of the others and how to treat them. It was the perfect way to teach the kids, and me, how these wars get started. It also made me mad at myself for not standing up for my convictions and leaving the drama (or at least move to a mid point between the two groups.) The person who seemed to get it the best was the teacher, Mira, who lectured the students - and us - about the importance of standing up for each other, caring about each other, and remaining resolved in our convictions. It is the only way to prevent war in the future, especially in this politically fragile area. I was told, before I left, to go forth and change hearts. The heart, or more so, the mind, that was changed was mine. The kids and teacher at the school in Mostar taught me how important it is to stand up for others, believe in yourself, and not allow others to influence how I feel about or treat others. My prayer for this town, and for Bosnia and Herzegovina, is that people will find the courage within themselves to stand strong against the influence of others to continue to love and care for one another.
From Carrie Izzo, St. Paul, Hainesport
Mostar (Bosniak-Curriculum School)
The team was split today for our two camps in Mostar. Team Emily (aptly lead by the one and only Ms Horner) braved the expected heat in the Bosniak curriculum school with fellow Americans Ebbie, Beth, Baby, Johnetta and Klif. The heat did show up as expected along with 85 excited children including several facebook friends and junior interpreters making our job a little bit easier. Emily had the kids scrambling after 200 tennis balls in the less hot morning session while Beth found a little shade outside to break down the walls and sing about funky monkey and his red underpants, all thoroughly enjoyed by the kids. Baby stepped into drama with Ebbie and gave a winning performance as chief of the Yooks followed by a lively discussion with Peacenook Cliff and Johnetta continued to brave the searing heat to cook shrinky dinks for the kids. God bless her! And God has blessed us all through this ministry as much as we sacrifice for these kids (did I mention it was really hot today?) we get back tenfold in their laughter and smiles. Thank you Lord for this opportunity and thank you home team for helping to make it happen.
In His name. Cliff Konnerth, St. Timothy, Wayne
At the close of each camp today we invited the children along with family and friends to join us for a concert at the foot of the Old Bridge Stari Most. Larry and Beth and their tireless energy left early to prepare while the rest of the team got to relax at the orphanage, Egypt in Mostar. We were also joined by local DJ and former interpreter Foco for the concert. What a beautiful setting. As the crowd built slowly (aided by several of the orphans from Egypt, children with whom we have a special relationship due to them hosting us year after year) I suddenly realized that we were missing our 6 PM prayer time but as I stood with my feet in the cooling waters of the Neretva river and enjoyed the amazing beauty of this place the words of Larry and Beth's songs of love, healing and reconciliation struck me as the perfect prayer for this county and anywhere in the world hatred and ignorance now dominate. Our last relaxing night in Mostar recharged my batteries for the ride back to Sarajevo and our last camp -Thanks be to God.
Cliff Konnerth, St. Timothy, Wayne