From the Baltics to the Balkans

Partnering with God’s People in Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina

By Charles Kelley

RIGA, Latvia – I occasionally hear Americans refer to Latvia as one of the Balkan states situated on the Balkan (not Baltic) Sea. Even our president spoke about the Balkan Sea. One reason for this confusion is that most of the Balkan peninsula was part of Yugoslavia, which broke up after the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The geography of Yugoslavia simply wasn’t taught when we were growing up.

I also have known very little about this fascinating region of Europe. My plate has been full enough with all things Baltic…Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. But in the last couple of years, it has been evident to our team and board that the invitations BBI has been receiving throughout Europe should be taken seriously.

So, after much prayer, I accepted invitations to minister in both Serbia and Bosnia this year.

Pastor Berra leads a congregation in Novi Sad, Serbia, an important cultural center of the country. He is a former heroin addict and now a good leader, serious scholar, and one who understands the importance of the role of art and artists in the church. Pastor Sasha leads an evangelical church in Sarajevo, Bosnia, about five hours from Novi Sad. This city suffered greatly during the Bosnian war with Serbia from 1992 – 96. He is also a former heroin addict whom the Lord transformed when he was about 20 years old.  He has developed into a good leader, historian, and a painter of great skill and some renown in his city.

Pastor Bera asked his long-time friend, Sasha Nicolinivic from Bosnia, to tell the people about the special exhibition of his art in the church that very evening.

I met both of these men two years ago in Poland at the European Leadership Forum where I lead the network for European Artists from more than twenty nations. At the network, various participants, including those from our Latvian team, share best practices about reaching and ministering to artists, often the most influential people in their countries. We also present good examples of how to speak strategically to our needy societies through both visual arts and spoken word. So, Sasha and Berra invited me to their worlds to introduce me to their cultures, speak with artists, to minister in churches, and consider future collaborative possibilities.

I spent most of Saturday, Feb. 16th with a fascinating mix of people: an actress, theatre set designer, dancer, drama teacher/coach, storyteller, Broadway-style musical singer, poet, movie critic, fashion designer, painter, classical musician, cake decorator, art teacher, graphic designer, worship leader, Josiah Venture youth workers, three pastors, and one bishop.

I loved my hours with this eager group of artists. They are interested in beginning a movement of Christian artists in Serbia. What we do in Latvia serves as a wonderful example.

Topics included God’s imagination and creativity, and human imagination and creativity. We explored God’s truth, goodness, and beauty and the artists’ call to create art that reflects truth, beauty, and goodness. We examined the relationship between gifts and calling, passion and vision, and the importance of creative collaboration. There was a wonderful spirit in the room and really excellent questions and discussions. On the last afternoon, the guys took me to the Serbian national art museum. They are kindred spirits, all of them…pastors with a deep appreciation of the importance and power of the arts. Some of the Serbian masters are truly remarkable.

I was invited to speak in a little house church that meets in the home of Greg and Jelena Sivulka in Temerin, Serbia. It was a really sweet atmosphere.

The next morning, I was the guest speaker at a home church led by an interesting pastor, Greg Sivulka. Originally from Southern California, Greg has lived and worked in Serbia for many years and speaks the language almost as fluently as a native. He leads the congregation, plays piano, and sings exceptionally well. I shared my personal testimony and told stories of many surprising things God has done through BBI in Latvia and beyond.

Jelena is the founder and director of Hana’s Hope, an NGO in Serbia that ministers to families with children with mental disabilities. She and Greg have three children, including Hana, who has severe autism.

After the morning service, Sasha and I visited with Greg’s wife, Jelena, for several hours.  I also met her for the first time in Poland at the European Leadership Forum, where she leads the Counselor’s Track. An effective leader in her own right, Jelena is a psychologist and theologian. She is the founder and director of Hana’s Hope, an NGO in Serbia that ministers to families with disabilities. She and Greg have three children, including Hana, who has severe autism. Jelena finds that painting helps maintain mental health in the midst of challenges and suffering. Jelena says that art is the language of her soul and she is very interested in hosting Secret Double in Serbia in the future.

That evening it was my joy to preach in Pastor Berra’s church.  The sanctuary was almost full and, with great interest, I noticed the large group of addicts who lived at the church’s residential treatment center. I preached on Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents. After the service, Pastor Sasha and I drove south for six hours to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. He is the pastor of one of about 20 evangelical churches in the whole of the country. Sasha spent the next day showing me his world. As we walked to a coffee shop, we passed several high rise apartment buildings each of which had been bombarded during the Bosnian-Serbian war in the early 90s.  Not all war damage has been repaired and some of the structures just live with thousands of bullet holes.

On Sunday evening I was invited to preach at an Evangelical Church in Novi Sad, Serbia. Pastor Dusan Berra has a wonderful heart for his people.

This is a special coffee shop for Sasha for it was exhibiting two of his wonderful abstract paintings.  We discussed not only his art but the idea of using the arts to speak good news to society.  This is quite a challenge in a country whose largest religion is Islam. Nevertheless, we brainstormed together and perhaps these sessions will lead to something significant.

Sasha showed me Sarajevo with to skill and knowledge of most professional tour guides. It is a city that has experienced much sorrow for hundreds of years.  Bosnia’s history is too complex for me to understand but it reminds me of Latvia in that neighboring powers have taken turns over the centuries of conquering and occupying it.  At first, there were the Slavs and then the Turks (Ottoman Empire), followed by the Austo-Hungarians. 

This is the exact spot where World War One began. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his pregnant wife Sophie, were assassinated on 28 June 1914

Sarajevo was thrust into the international spotlight when a young Bosnian Muslim assassinated the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian throne in 1914.  This marked the beginning of WWI.  At the close of the war, Bosnia was incorporated into Yugoslavia. It was dominated by the Nazis during much of WWII and then it was once again included in Yugoslavia, a communist nation.  When the Soviet Union collapsed, Bosnia declared independence in 1992, but was almost immediately engrained in a cruel war with Serbia which lasted about four years.

My friend, Sasha, having served in two armies and the siege of Sarajevo, personally experienced much of this national turmoil. His mother is Muslim and his father Orthodox, so when he became an evangelical believer as a young man, there was a serious price to pay. 

I am not sure what the future will hold in terms of BBI’s future partnership with these dear people in Serbia and Bosnia. We have agreed to meet in Poland during the European Leadership Forum in May and continue our discussions of potential collaboration.  

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