Editor’s note: Peter Kuzmič is president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary, Osijek, Croatia; founder of the charity, Agape Ministries, and professor of world missions and European studies, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
“I’m going to make it. I may not look like much when I get there, but I’m going to make it.” These words have greeted family, friends, and acquaintances of the oft jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, emissary of the evangelical church of the Balkans, founding pioneer of Croatia’s Evangelical Theological Seminary(ETS), my friend, the Reverend Dr. Peter Kuzmič. They have borne the truth of the determination of this esteemed leader, with innumerable crises of every variety and kind interrupting at all hours of the day and night, along with dogged determination, in spite of everything, “to make it.”
Traveling the Balkans
It has been my privilege to travel with Peter on several occasions throughout the Balkans. Spending 30hours in a car together over seven days on one journey with Peter gave me an up-close and personal education from this renowned friend. Traveling the Balkans Peter Kuzmič requires more from his cell phone than from perusing local maps. He has traveled these roads sufficiently to know them thoroughly, with his datebook giving the contact information of his ministry colleagues, many of whom are graduates of ETS. The home-grown knowledge of the back roads and byways of the now seven countries that formerly constituted “Yugoslavia” serves him well. The roads are more single lane than highway, particularly when winding through the mountains, with perilous drop-offs on the side of the road that require the full attention of the driver. It is sometimes a matter of safety as well as to know where “not to travel” or where to travel expeditiously with nonlocal license plates. Peter’s innate gifts of diplomacy and ambassadorship are also on display when the local enforcer of speed limits is encountered.
In town after town and city after city, ministerial colleagues are found, eager to see this renowned church leader. Peter greets each person with such joy, exuberance and enthusiasm, as to make any person feel-good for having seen him. These are jovial greetings, with laughter, hugs, and broad smiles all around. Seeing this, one cannot imagine even the apostle Paul, who himself ministered in this area, receiving warmer or more heart-felt greeting of mutual affection from those he had helped teach and nurture. Stories are shared of the challenges, and even perils, of being ministers of the gospel in this part of the world, wars now over, but with serious tensions occasionally still coming to the surface. And often, people come seeking the sage advice of this seasoned, experienced church leader for a particular situation or problem. On leaving town, one feels that a palpable sense of blessing is left behind, having witnessed ministry, particularly through the gift of encouragement, in action.
Compassionate Ministry in War-Torn Sarajevo
In one town, you hear stories from Sarajevo about Bosnian couple who opened a “restaurant” in a basement during the war. Elderly widows and men, all Muslim refugees, including some of the last to leave Srbrenica before the ethnic cleansing atrocities, were given a hot meal for lunch. Although there was only enough food to provide one meal a day, for many their only food, they would return in the evening to socialize. These folks, who had fled from their homes often with no more than a small plastic bag carrying what little they could of their belongings, were provided with clothing, shoes, and lunch. Maybe more importantly, having a place and time to talk in the evening gave them a community. They had seen knives pulled and throats cut; many had lost more than one of their sons. Although some could not retell their stories because of the trauma, others gathered to ask, “How do we survive, where do we go from here? “Remarkably, one woman, who had lost two children, prayed for, even blessed, the perpetrators: “May God give them what He should have given my children.”
“We wanted to provide a good meal and befriend them, to offer something that would restore their dignity so they knew there was someone who loved them,” recounts this amazing couple. And so the love of the universe, expressed through the hands of two humble people, reaches God’s creation.
Threatened with physical harm on more than one occasion by those afraid of Christian “proselytizers, “they continued their ministry for over two years nonetheless, even within earshot of shelling and gunfire. Their ministry has moved to a different city, but their witness is ongoing, a beacon of light, hope, and love. Surely these people were “angels”—messengers of God—to a people in distress. And Pesewas, and still is, their teacher, their encourager, their supporter. It was these urgent and basic needs for human survival during and after the wars that led Peterson found Agape, the ministry of humanitarian aid, compassion, and social justice, which provided relief to thousands in need, including refugees gathering in a basement “restaurant” in Sarajevo, and whichcontinues its work today.
Enlarging Evangelical Borders
It is not just ministry colleagues who respect Peter’s work. The mayor of Tuzla, a Muslim, who received international acclaim during the war in Bosnia, had great admiration in particular for Peter and the work of Agape, and considers him a good friend. In this part of the world, evangelicals who only talk to other evangelicals will have a small circle of conversation. Peter has enlarged the borders of ecumenical, and even political, dialogue through his personal witness and example. Concerning those in need, he says, “We must give them bread for their stomachs in order that their ears may hear our words about the bread of life.” At the judgment day described in Matthew 25, one can imagine thousands offering testimony of the Agape ministry: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was stranger and you welcomed me.”
Lessons of History and Culture
At his core, however, Peter is a teacher. Traveling with him one receives lessons of history and culture, the trials and travails of the current generation, and centuries of history. Discover the palace of Roman emperor Diocletian in Split, walk by the location of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo that instigated the First World War, and hear the eyewitness accounts of the story of the survival of Osijek, the home of ETS, some of its buildings still pockmarked from the 150,000 artillery shells trained on the city during the Serbian “Aggression.”
And then there was the cemetery. “You need to see this,” was the understatement of the day. We had pulled off the main road from Pristina, Kosovo, to Skopje, Macedonia, there to find a cemetery. Unfortunately, it was unlike any cemetery I had ever scene. In characteristic local fashion, many of the gravestones had pictures of the dead, but all were young, mostly men in their twenties, along with a few women, whose only common characteristic was that they had been massacred together, likely in haste, just off the main road, in one of many wartime atrocities.
Nearly 90 identified victims in all had life cut short: a robbery, a flagrant violation of what it means to be human, their faces and eyes staring out from their gravestones, seeming to ask, “Why did this happen? “Sadly, this haunting site was one of all too many, from Ovcara (200 sick and wounded people taken from a local hospital and killed—this place just a half-hour drive from the seminary in Osjek) to the Srebrenica massacre (over 8,000 killed in the worst genocide in Europe since World War II).Added to the frenetic, sometimes even chaotic, whirlwind of activity that characterizes a “normal day for Karmic,” perhaps these are the scenes, these are the moments from a lifetime of ministry interrupted by civil strife and war that cause this ambassador to say, “I may not look like much when I get there.” While his heart may be aching, it is almost inevitable to sea twinkle in his eye with his greeting, surely from a wellspring of divine joy. “I’m going to make it.”
The Congregation Gave the Sermon
A final story. The setting is a small church service on a Sunday evening in October. Peter waste preacher; however, in a real sense it was the congregation who “gave the sermon” that evening. The church building, very modest in size, was packed wall to wall with about a hundred people for this, their second service of the day. It was around harvest time, and the small room was beautifully decorated with great variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. During the service several people read their own poetry, which gave thanks to God for the gift of creation. For context, the previous day had included a visit to nearby Vukovar, the city that was destroyed in the “Aggression” (most would call it war), which in this region involved fighting between Serbs and Croats. This city, located on the beautiful Danube River, had suffered enormous destruction. A population of50,000 had been reduced to less than 3,000. Virtually every building had been substantially destroyed by the constant shelling. Although walls were still standing, most of the roofs were blasted through, and rubble was everywhere. A number of areas were roped off, indicating potential minefields or unexploded shells.
Substantial looting had also occurred, even to the extent of ripping the electrical wiring out of the walls of homes. And yes, this was the town whose hospital had several hundred people taken and killed in the mass grave of Ovcara. It is one thing to observe the physical destruction to buildings. It is yet another to imagine the human suffering, tragedy, and distress that those who lived through this carnage must have experienced.
Amidst Destruction—Counting Blessings
Back to the service, specifically its second hymn. About ten instruments, a variety of guitars, violins, and keyboard, lent a distinctively native sound to the music. Although the Croatian language was unfamiliar, the tune of this gospel song was unmistakably recognizable:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings—every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.
“Count your blessings?” This admonition sung by people who, although not in an area that had been occupied by “the enemy,” had been close enough to hear the bombs exploding and shells flying. They had been in the shadow of war, and indeed, if the intruding Serbian army had not been stopped at nearby Osijek, this community would have been easily overrun. Virtually everyone in that small room knew someone—family, friends, or neighbors—victimized by the “Aggression,” either dead, injured, homeless, or missing. Industries had been destroyed, buildings were still silent, causing massive unemployment of over 25percent, and likely to continue for some time.
They had seen the awfulness of war, the devastation of homes destroyed, of bodies wrecked, of families with gaping holes due to the foolishness of humanity destroying itself. And yet these people, all of whom seemed to be quite happy and content, were encouraging each other to “Count Your Blessings, “genuinely and earnestly.
After the service, a side door was opened to an ample display of food—sandwiches and desserts that were shared by all. This was an amazing display of abundance, sharing, and generosity by this small community of faith. And yet, its abundance was not in the bounty of food and harvest, but rather in its warm spirit, being able to appreciate the simple joys of being together as a community, and encouraging each other to “Count Your Blessings.” Quite a sermon indeed, and yet, likely, one repeated throughout this region with them any lives influenced, nurtured, and blessed by this evangelical patriarch.
Throughout the Balkans, there are many, many other stories and people who, when they reflect on the ministry of Peter Kuzmič, will certainly count him among their many blessings. And some day, hopefully in the far distant future, when he stands before Christ, one can imagine this being said: “I made it. My Lord, I may not look like much, but I made it.”♦
Stephen Hendrickson is the retired founder of Hendrickson Publishers and Christian Book Distributors, Boston, Massachusetts.
Edited excerpts published with permission from Stephen Hendrickson, “ ‘I’m Going to Make It…’; A
Balkan Itinerary with Dr. Peter Kuzmič” in First the Kingdom of God; A Festschrift in Honor of Professor Dr. Peter Kuzmič, ed. by Miroslav Volf et al. Osijek, Croatia: Evangelical Theological Faculty, 2011