As the Serbian people face their first winter with a new democratically elected government, evangelicals are scrambling to minister to a nation left nearly bankrupt, according to a key evangelical ministry based in Belgrade.
Jasmina Tosic, co-director of Bread of Life, a ministry that has largely focused on refugee aid during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, laid out a plan to meet the physical and spiritual needs of more than 15,000 Serbian families this winter. The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund is among Bread of Life's sources of support.
But, Tosic wrote in the ministry's newsletter, Bread of Life has received only a few offers of outside help for the plan.
"We are putting our trust in God and find ourselves continuing as written in Haggai 'giving careful thought' about our past and future," Tosic, a member of First Baptist Church, Belgrade, wrote.
The organization's winter ministry plan includes:
• a monthly distribution of food and hygiene items.
• one-time distribution of stoves and firewood, shoes and socks, clothing, underwear, jackets, blankets and bed linens, and minor renovations of living accommodations.
• thirty children's workshops to provide one-time food and hygiene aid and ongoing psychosocial programs for children.
• a home care ministry to provide visits to indigent persons with special needs, particularly health and psychological needs.
• an ongoing self-reliance program that runs alongside the emergency aid program to provide a foundation for the future.
Since a democratic election knocked the nation's longtime despot Slobodan Milosevic out of power in October, the new government has discovered large budget holes for basic needs like electricity, food, and pensions.
And the West has been caught unprepared to offer quick help, The New York Times reported in a November article.
Serbian officials say they need $500 million in energy, food, medicine, and pension support to get through the winter.
With the arrival of winter, electricity is currently one of the most vital of those needs. But, The Times reported, Milosevic spent most of those reserves to get through the Sept. 24 election.
According to Tosic in the Bread of Life newsletter, the events of the past year have "brought Bread of Life to a crossroads." The Serbian people are expecting a dramatic change in the condition of the everyday life but the government has been left with nothing but an empty storage room by the previous government, Tosic wrote.
"We believe the people of Serbia will soon become disillusioned and desperate," Tosic wrote. "As Christians, we find ourselves facing a strategic task this winter to help fill the 'basic needs' gap that is widening with every minute. This is not only crucial because of the immense needs but also because it will be a brief opportunity to grasp the disheartened and present them with Christ's love."
Tosic also said the new government is trying to decide between establishing a state church or following the rest of Europe to establish laws guaranteeing more religious freedom.
"For Evangelical Christians there is no question," Tosic wrote. "Our present concern is whether authority can be established quickly enough as we desire to see this happen without major unrest and disturbance. Our people need peace, a chance to rebuild their lives honestly, better opportunities for work, and spiritual awakening and revival."
Despite the major humanitarian crisis caused by the recent change of government, Tosic praised God for the peaceful transition of power in Serbia.
But she considers the peaceful situation in Serbia to be delicate.
"For the moment, it is calm here, yet we consider our present condition fragile," Tosic wrote. "We hope that you, our friends, will join us in prayer for the efforts of our new government and the people of Yugoslavia."
Bread of Life began in 1992 after Tosic quit her administrative job at a meat-packing plant in Belgrade and moved into a room in First Baptist Church to begin planning refugee ministry strategies with co-leader Beba Varga from Croatia.
The ministry can receive donations, made out to SBC World Hunger Fund/Bread of Life, mailed to Office of Finance, International Mission Board, Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.
Steve Nelson, director of hunger concerns with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, "The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund has opened doors for thousands of war victims to receive desperately needed food and to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Through this bold ministry of faith, many have come to realize that even in the midst of trials, Jesus saves and changes hearts."
Bread of Life can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Urgent Need for Missionaries
by Brittany Jarvis
Yugoslavia's turbulent change in government has created new opportunities for International Mission Board missionaries among the Serbs — as well as creating a need for new missionaries.
In late September, Yugoslav citizens voted out strongman Slobodan Milosevic as president, replacing him with Vojislav Kostunica. When Milosevic balked at leaving office, the resulting demonstrations left political buildings charred.
Kostunica's new government has aligned itself with the Orthodox Church, but it also seems to be extending more religious freedom to Baptist work, said Ben Hanna, an IMB missionary.
"There is an urgent need for missionaries to move to Serbia to share the love of Christ and see churches started," Hanna said.
Most of the missionaries' work among the Serbs currently takes the form of prayer. Hanna reports prayerwalking teams from Bosnia are interceding for God's work in Serbia. An extensive prayer network also has been established to pray down barriers to the gospel.
"True change will come when believers cover the land with prayer and love," Hanna said.
In March 1999, Milosevic "led Serbia into its fourth war in a decade and the worst economy in Europe," Hanna said. "We cried as we saw NATO bombs fall around our friends and fellow believers on Easter Sunday. We prayed for an end to the fighting, but mostly we prayed for the peace of Christ to rule."
When the smoke cleared, Serbia was scarred from 30,000 bombing sorties in eight days. During the bombing, Southern Baptists distributed food to the most needy people.
"The aid told the believers there, 'We love you. We have not forgotten you,'" Hanna said.
After the fighting, Southern Baptists continued to meet the needs of Serbia through three relief projects. In one project, emergency food and stoves were given to more than 3,400 families. The Baptist church in Nis distributed food packets and stoves provided by the International Mission Board — and watched worship attendance grow from seventy to more than 600. Texas Baptist Men also have pitched in by committing to provide 10,000 winter coats for children.
Those acts of love are changing popular opinion about Baptists in the country. The government used to hold a cautious opinion of Baptists, which was fueled by anti-Baptist propaganda produced by the Orthodox Church. When Bill Clinton — who identifies himself as a Baptist — bombed Yugoslavia, many Serbs equated all Baptists with Clinton, Hanna said. And after living for numerous years under dictatorial rule, the people of Serbia are suspicious of any promises of hope.
"They don't put much stock in words, having had fifty years of communist rule, followed by a decade of lies and broken promises," Hanna said.
But as missionaries live out the hope and faith they believe, Serbians are seeing that Christians offer more than just empty promises.
Find prayer items for Yugoslavia at www.imb.org/CompassionNet/countries.asp and learn about specific needs for new missionaries at www.imb.org/FPNeeds.
Tobin Perry is a freelance writer in Wenatchee, Wash.