We travelled nearly 7,000 km, through 15 nations with either a Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic or atheistic background. We encountered 9 currencies, 17 border crossings, and met 205 people.
“You are the first people who visit us just to hang out and listen to our stories and experiences”, said Sajmir from Lushjne in Albania. “Normally everyone just visits the capital, so we hardly ever get a visit. And if it is a visit, it is about ministry and seldom about us”.
This was eactly what we had hoped for. Under the umbrella of the organisation LeadNow, seven of us younger and older leaders (26-51 years old) from Germany and the US went on a three-week European Encouragement Tour (23 July-12 August) around the Balkans to encourage (younger) leaders, get to know their contexts, listen to their stories and understand more about the challenging issues occurring in the Balkan region.
We travelled nearly 7,000 km starting in Hamburg and driving down to Thessaloniki and then turning back, through a different route. The tour took us from Germany to Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and back to Germany.
We enjoyed breath-taking scenery and many mountains. God’s creation is surely very evident in the Balkan region and we often praised God for creating such beauty.
The people we met were connections made through the former Mission-Net congresses, the Lausanne Movement, Evangelical Alliance or through the European Leadership Forum. Most of them I knew from before, but for most of the team this was all new and seeing the leaders in their contexts was even better.
In most cases we had encounters and meetings in the capitals but in three cases we made the exception and added a tour stop due to younger leaders requesting a visit from us. Because this was one of the driving factors of engaging with leaders who are tired, face the consequences of the pandemic, are challenged by the political or ministry situations, we wanted to meet these leaders like Sajmir.
Wherever we went, we asked questions learning about their stories with God, about church in their context and issues their nations are facing right now. We always ended up praying for them and in eight places we felt led to also leave a donation to support their work. This was our small contribution expressing our appreciation for who they are and what they do.
[destacate]We travelled nearly 7,000 km starting in Hamburg and driving down to Thessaloniki and then turning back, through a different route
[/destacate]We had fundraised for this trip before so that the cost for each participant would be affordable and we praise God for all the things he has provided through wonderful givers. And even more that we were able to pass on the blessings.
As we travelled through 15 nations with either a Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic or atheistic background, we encountered 9 currencies and 17 border crossings costing us a total of 407 minutes. We faced three different alphabets like Latin, Cyrillic and Greek and also dealt with 12 languages.
In total we met 205 people. It was an incredibly rich experience in such a short time. In addition, we have enjoyed the amazing and generous hospitality by so many different people opening their homes, Bible schools and churches for us to sleep at.
We learned about the various tensions in the Balkan and how racial, ethnic or religious tension is something people encounter on a regular basis. Be it the tension between Kosovo and Serbia, North Macedonia and Bulgaria, the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the government rotates every 8 months from Bosnians to Serbs to Croats. How can any stability grow in such circumstances? Listening to Christians on all sides was intriguing and challenging at the same time. How can we all serve the One God and seek peace and reconciliation?
One evening, the tension really hit home as our planned trip from Kosovo via Serbia to Bulgaria had to take a detour due to new tensions evolving at the border between Kosovo and Serbia. We made it across the borders via a detour but what about our sisters and brothers on all sides of the conflict who stay behind?
As a team in the mornings we read 1 and 2 Timothy together, exploring how the Apostle Paul encouraged the young leader Timothy to learn and endure.
As we hit the Greek cities of Thessaloniki and also visited the ancient city of Philippi where the first European, Lydia, was baptized, the Bible came alive to us in a new way. And as we travelled to encourage leaders in various places we could somehow identify on a small scale what Paul´s ministry must have been like encountering and investing into people.
The countries we visited often have a small community of believers. From 200 believers to 5,000 people. Only a couple of these nations have more than 20,000 Evangelical Christians. Having attended a church service in Montenegro which only has about 150 Christians in all of the country, we have met about 25 of them in one place. This is incredible and we pray for God’s intervention and multiplication of His Kingdom in these nations as well as for us.
As we travelled, the phrase often repeated on the van was, “we have met more heroes of faith”. We were deeply challenged by listening to our Christian family members.
[destacate]In total we met 205 people. We have enjoyed the generous hospitality of so many opening their homes, Bible schools and churches
[/destacate]We saw their deep love for God and a sincere desire to see His Kingdom come. They are all so passionate and committed to their faith and calling despite tough circumstances and challenges. Most of them are pioneers, church planters, leaders and many of them first generation Christians in their families. Most of them come from a multi-ethnic background which in turn affects their way and methods on doing ministry. One common denominator is that they have all faced hardships, rejection, war, intense pressure from the governments, abandonment from family members, criticism, lack of tangible or visible success and other challenges and still, they cling onto Jesus like he is the only safe line, and he is.
Diana, a younger leader in Slovenia shared with us that already as a seven-year-old she had attempted to commit suicide. But God spared her life. She realized that Jesus is the only answer for her and decided to follow him. When she went through with her commitment, that was the last time her dad spoke with her. And this is 8 years ago.
For the attendees we had hoped for a wider vision of what God is doing in this region, learn from our brothers and sisters but also wanting to discern where LeadNow as an organization should invest more intentionally. The last part will take some time to reflect upon but we can surely say as a team that we are heart warmed and heart broken through this experience as we engaged with brothers and sisters from this region.
Originally, we had planned to travel in two camper vans, but due to German insurance policies it was impossible to hire any vehicle driving through the Balkan as we had planned. After months of planning and research it seemed impossible. Out of the blue a friend of a friend of a friend offered us their 9-seater van, the leader from the prayer house in Annaberg-Buchholz. It was a very timely gift and the van was one of the miracles we have seen God provide.
[destacate]This experience provided us with a deep sense of God at work in the Balkan region, there is so much to learn from our brothers and sisters there
[/destacate]Because of having two seats spare, we were able to provide people with lifts as well. One of the fun encounters was meeting young British leaders Katie and Cameron at church in Montenegro. As we both headed towards the same destination, Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they spontaneously joined us on our ride. It was a beautiful day. Cameron said, “This is far better than travelling with friends. This is God’s family at its best”. And it became a blessing to all sides.
This experience will linger on our hearts and minds for much longer. It has challenged us anew to rethink the way we love Jesus and how this love permeates all that we are and do. It has also provided us with a deep sense of God at work in the Balkan and that there is so much to learn from our brothers and sisters there.
Maybe you know someone there who might just need an encouragement from you today!