Editor's note: News editor Andrew McChesney is currently traveling in Eastern Europe with Trans-European Division communication director Victor Hulbert and reporting on Adventist work in the region. For a list of others stories, follow the links at the end of this story.
Seventh-day Adventist pastor Igor Mitrović once believed that the church’s prophetic calling was to proclaim the Second Coming of Jesus.
But after working on the frontlines of Europe’s refugee crisis for the past year, Mitrović sees a second and equally important prophetic calling: to help the helpless.
The two callings are not unrelated, Mitrović said in an interview at a refugee crisis center that he helps run in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade. By reaching out to those who cannot help themselves, Adventists are sharing the gospel with as much power as with an evangelistic series.
“Whenever you find a stranger, someone very helpless, you are called to raise your voice and protect,” Mitrović said, citing Old Testament prophet Amos and his strong denouncements of the exploitation of the helpless in passages such as Amos 2:6-8 and 8:4-7.
Mitrović, who has worked at ADRA’s country director in Serbia for the past five years, also expressed new appreciation for biblical characters who were refugees and said the church’s front-line refugee work was pointing both refugees and non-Adventist partners to the gospel. He shared how an interpreter recently began attending an Adventist church.
ADRA is not alone is assisting refugees in Serbia. Many of the small Balkan country’s 6,000 Adventists sprang into action as refugees poured in last year, collecting food, clothing, and water and then distributing the supplies. Church members also wanted to open up their homes, but the authorities forbade this, saying they needed to keep track of the refugees by housing them at state-designated facilities, said Djordjija Trajkovski, president of the Adventist Church’s South-East European Union, whose territory includes Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
“Church members have had a very positive attitude about the refugees coming to Serbia,” Trajkovski said. “We were surprised at the speed some churches organized themselves to help. Many young people volunteered at the spots where refugees needed initial help, especially at the beginning when other NGOs were not prepared to help.”
He said church members were able to empathize with the refugees because they had experienced similar hardships amid a devastating armed conflict that erupted following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“They understand what it means to be in a situation like this,” Trajkovski said. “As with every trouble, this one made people more united. It made them unite in their efforts to relieve the pain and suffering of their neighbors.”
ADRA took the lead in opening a refugee crisis center with four other organizations near Belgrade’s main train station in July 2015, just when Europe’s refugee crisis spun out of control.
“ADRA has invested significantly in establishing both an international and country level response to disasters,” said Jonathan Duffy, president of ADRA International. “The situation in Serbia serves as a good example of the plan working where we were able to mobilize and respond rapidly.”
These days, about 5,000 refugees are living in Serbia at any given time, a decrease from highs seen a year ago when thousands of people flowed across the country’s border daily, Mitrović said.
Many of those refugees stop by ADRA’s Asylum Information Center, which provides food and other supplies, psychological support, activities for children, and information to parents and teens on the upper floor. The ground floor, which is run by another organization, provides legal support and free Internet. The refugee center is open around the clock, and ADRA has seven paid employees working with 50 to 70 unaccompanied minors or families daily.
Mitrović said the ongoing refugee crisis serves as a wake-up call for Adventists to not only dress up in “nice suits” and proclaim the gospel to strangers in “nice venues” but to also engage with strangers who are helpless.
He could well find a basis for his stance in the earthly ministry of Jesus, who is recorded as spending much more time healing the sick and caring for the marginalized than preaching sermons.
Working with the refugees has allowed Mitrović to see biblical characters like Jesus in a new light.
“All of the Bible’s main characters have been refugees: Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jesus,” said Mitrović, who projects a no-nonsense image with a muscular physique, a shaven head, and a determined voice. “When you have first-hand experience, you can appreciate the Bible stories a little differently.”
Visit ADRA’s refugee center in central Belgrade, Serbia, with Victor Hulbert of the Trans-European Division.
Like the biblical characters, today’s refugees have stories of homes lost and of being uprooted in various ways, he said. All they have is their belongings as they seek a place to call their own.
“They have this wonderful opportunity to learn how God can help,” he said. “Most of them come from a proper religious background. I think if they encounter an authentic Christian community along the way, then they will be very much open to God’s call.”
He said he has seen a similar openness to God’s call among non-Adventists partnering with ADRA as interpreters and social workers. He said that although ADRA had a small office in Serbia, the refugee crisis put it in a position to attract highly qualified professionals to help. As a result, the first people to see the gospel in action has been those non-Adventist partners.
Mitrović said his faith has not been a topic of discussion in the office, but just a few days ago a coworker told him, “Did you know that my aunt is a Seventh-day Adventist and she helped me when I fled from Croatia?” On a different occasion, another said: “My grandmother is an Adventist from Australia. She helped me and my family during the nasty wars of the 1990s, sending money.” Others told him that they have been listening to church sermons by him and other ADRA staff members online.
“We will partner successfully with God in reaching people when we partner with these people in reaching others,” he said. “The first people to be reached will be those whom we partner with every day. This is my experience.”
This approach of taking a leading role in partnering with non-Adventists to help third parties in an emergency is an exciting way to think about mission, he said.
“Can you imagine a closer relationship than this, when you are working 24/7 some days with little sleep?” he said. “When you sweat and bleed for other people, you get connected so well. Then they can see what you are made of. You are made of love.”
He added, “More often than not, we learn from non-Adventist colleagues what it means to be made of love.”
Mitrović told of an ADRA interpreter in southern Serbia was has started attending the local Adventist church. The man lived a wild life after growing up as an orphan in a Roman Catholic monastery in Armenia, moving to Israel, and then touring with a rock band in Eastern Europe. He settled down in Serbia after a Serbian woman gave birth to his child. A fluent Arabic speaker, he signed up with ADRA because of a past experience working with refugees in Jordan. He started attending the Adventist church through the influence of an ADRA driver.
“He has a heart for people,” Mitrović said.
While ADRA is doing all it can to help in Serbia, Mitrović said the refugee crisis remains enormous and is likely to only grow worse.
“We are basically helpless,” he said. “All we can do when we see a need is to be smart in providing the best possible remedy. But the only solution will be the Second Coming.”
Adventists, however, should persevere in doing good, he said.
“In calamities, something strange happens to the heart,” he said. “It either gets hardened, or it can for the first time become soft.”
Stories from East European Trip: