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.
I’d never seen a Seventh-day Adventist hug-a-thon before. But after joining a group of hugging teens on a walk through the Serbian city of Novi Sad last Sabbath, I am ready to be a bear.
A fuzzy brown bear led a dozen Adventist teenagers in giving hugs to passersby on a popular pedestrian zone in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, on Sept. 10. The “bear” — actually a 16-year-old boy from Bosnia — and the other teens study at the local Adventist-owned Živorad Janković boarding school.
The clean-cut teens with warm hugs and bright smiles brought a breath of fresh air to a downtown area filled with lazy outdoor cafes, rip-off name-brand clothing shops such as the “Undercover Colors of Benneton,” and sidewalk souvenir vendors hawking obscenity-covered refrigerator magnets.
An elderly woman wept after receiving a hug from the bear, followed by tight hugs from two teenage girls.
“I haven’t been hugged in a long time,” she said, tears running down her cheek.
Most passersby were all smiles.
The bear ambled on thick elevated paws down the street, giving hugs to wide-eyed children, delighted women, and red-faced but clearly pleased men.
Two young woman distributing advertising brochures stopped their work to hug the bear and pose for selfies with their cell phones.
After getting a hug, a boy of about 10 pushed his grandmother into the bear’s arms and gestured for his mother, seated at an umbrella-covered table at an outdoor cafe cloaked in cigarette smoke, to join them.
A group of four young men, smartly dressed in suits and ties, each accepted a hug and, faces beaming, pulled out their cell phones to take photos.
The occasion for the hug-a-thon was World Suicide Prevention Day. Suicide is a serious problem that claims hundreds of lives a year in this small Balkan country of 7 million people. On Sabbath afternoon, the Adventist teens passed by a public service billboard for World Suicide Prevention Day reading, “Get connected, communicate, and take care of each other,” as they gave hugs and distributed flyers for a health club that holds weekly meetings in a nearby Adventist church.
“This is the first time that we have had this free hug event in Serbia,” said Vlado Havran, health ministries director for the Adventist Church’s South-East European Union, whose territory includes Serbia and the other countries of the former Yugoslavia. “Suicide is an important issue for our country,” he told me as we followed the bear.
Havran rented the bear costume in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, located an hour’s drive to the south, and brought it to Novi Sad for the weekend. The idea of giving free hugs to strangers originated with Adventist young people in Brazil and has been replicated in several West European countries as well as in Africa during the church’s annual Global Youth Day every March.
Havran emphasized the health benefits of hugging at a health club meeting and vegan potluck lunch held shortly before the Sabbath walk. He said a hug that lasts at least seven seconds triggers “happy hormones” that make a person feel good.
The student in the bear suit, Dario Bratic, told me after the walk that he was overflowing with happy hormones.
“I am going to explode from happiness,” he said with a laugh.
Bratic estimated that he had given about 200 hugs during the hourlong walk.
“I would do this very day if I had the chance,” he said. “It is something so special. There is nothing to compare it. I’m ready to be a full-time bear.”
Seeing Bratic’s unabashed joy, I am ready to be a full-time bear, too.
Follow the bear on the walk along the pedestrian zone in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Stories from East European Trip: