The New Jersey Synod began its ministry to Bosnia in 1999 when the Synod’s Commission on Youth Ministry (predecessor body to the Youth Ministry Mission Team) heard newly arrived Youth Ministry Specialist Jason Reed speak of his experience leading servant trips to Croatia and Bosnia. The commission asked; “Can we do that?” The results of that question lie before you.
In 2000 the Synod held it first International Servant Trip (IST) to Croatia and Bosnia. We sent 11 people from five congregations in New Jersey (and two from the Metro Washington, D.C., Synod, and one Roman Catholic from Ramsey, N.J.). This first Travel Team held five Friendship Camps in Bosnia and several Bible Camps in Lutheran Congregations in Croatia. Friendship Camps are day-long camps held in orphanages and schools for children ages 10-13 (though we get younger and older children as well). At the camps, we lead cooperative games, do diversity training, provide art and music therapy, and offer as much fun and love as possible.
In 2001 we returned to Bosnia and Croatia with a Travel Team of 27. In 2002 the New Jersey Synod became a Companion Synod to the Lutheran Church in Croatia and split the trip — one team and trip to Bosnia and one to Croatia.
As a result of our continued positive presence in Bosnia, schools for Friendship Camps in new towns continued to open up for us. In 2004 we were invited into six new communities, four of which were in Republik Srpska, the Serb portion of Bosnia. This was a critical shift, allowing us access to children in communities that have few resources and little interaction with the USA and the West.
To respond to this increased ministry opportunity, in 2005 we began sending a North and South Team to Bosnia, allowing us to offer 16 Friendship Camps each year. As the years go by, we continued to be invited into communities that experienced some of the worst the war had to offer: Srebrenica, where the largest massacre of the war took place; Kozarac, home to the infamous Trnopolje Death Camp; and so on.
Since its first Bosnia IST in 2000, there have been 177 Travel Team members, young and old, from 39 congregations in the New Jersey Synod (along with people from seven other ELCA Synods and several other faith communities) sent to Bosnia to bring healing, hope and peace to the children, communities and country of Bosnia. Fifty-five Travel Team members have served more than one year!
To date we have held 167 Friendship Camps, directly serving over 24,000 children (no telling how many of those children have attended camp more than once)! We continue to be the only ELCA presence and, for all intents and purposes, the only Lutheran presence in this country.
Healing, Hope, and Peace
The best way to describe the ministry’s goals is with stories:
Our ministry brings healing
Mark Schulz (Zion, Long Valley) tells of a camp where he saw a young boy sitting alone at lunch. He went over and tried to talk with him — at one point even bringing over an interpreter. By the end of lunch, he had yet to elicit a single smile or word. However, at the end of camp as Mark was saying goodbye to some other boys, he felt someone hugging his leg. He looked down and, sure enough, it was that little boy from lunch, who looked up at him and started counting…one, two, three, four…until Mark, laughing, stopped him. One of the school teachers who had been observing this, walked over to Mark and told him that that was the first time anyone at the school had ever heard this boy talk.
Our ministry offers hope
A young girl looked sad as our Friendship Camp in Bihac ended. Bobby Houser, one of our partners in this ministry, walked over to her and asked her what was wrong. “No one cares about me. There is no reason for me to be alive,” she responded. Bobby got out her calendar and flipped it to the following summer and pointed to a date. “This is the day we will be back here next June. I love you. I want to see you here next year.” The following summer our bus pulled up to the school, and who was sitting on the steps, waiting for us? That young girl.
Our ministry builds peace
Jason Reed (St. Paul, Hainesport) was in the Serb village of Sipovo waiting in a bank to exchange some of the team money, when a Chetnik (a radical, nationalist Serb) called out to him in Serbian, “Why do Americans hate Serbs?” — but he asked it in a very personal way — “Why do you hate me?” Jason responded that he didn’t hate him and that all Americans didn’t hate Serbs. “But you bomb our towns and kill our people,” the Chetnik responded. They talked for five minutes until the money was ready. As Jason left, Vesna, his interpreter (a Baptist Serb from Croatia, if you can believe it) turned to him and said, “Do you know what they are talking about back there (in the bank)? They are questioning everything they thought they knew about Americans; everything they have been told about Americans.” The next year we returned to this town, Jason was interviewed on their radio station and had the opportunity to share why we came back to Sipovo.
More About the Ministry
We have intentionally provided leadership training for all members of the Travel Team, including extra work with our group leaders. Travel Team members have gone on to serve in many ways. Some examples include:
- Lindsay Bonanno (Hope, Freehold) worked with the Peace Corps in Mali (North West Africa).
- Lori Lepelletier (Redeemer, Succasunna), worked in Mexico on an ELCA Servant-Hunger-Poverty Trip before starting seminary.
- Larissa Kravanja (Nativity, East Brunswick) traveled to South America and Africa with a UN Women’s Organization.
- Dan Nelson (Calvary, Cranford) spent a summer in Africa on a humanitarian aid mission.
- Susie Wilson (Redeemer, Ramsey) has lead International Servant Trips to Mexico and other servant trips within the United States.
Each year members of our congregations spend thousands of hours serving the children of Bosnia through the Home Team projects. They have made thousands of teddy bears, lions, giraffes, monkeys, hug pillows, and more. Their involvement can deepen their understanding of Christian servanthood in the world and increase their awareness of the need for peace and prayer in the world. It can also serve as a springboard for new ministry endeavors.
In Bosnia we serve in a very religiously diverse country. While the children we work with are from all the different ethnic and religious backgrounds, our interpreters are primarily (though not exclusively) Muslim. Over the years our relationships with them have developed into ones of deep respect and love. We have brought some of these young leaders to the United States to help lead programs at ELCA National Youth Gatherings. The inter-religious nature of our ministry, particularly in relation to our Bosnian Muslim coordinator and interpreters, is an emphasis of the ELCA, and one we are exploring new ways to strengthen.
The wider church
This trip is well-known in the ELCA, having been featured in the Lutheran Magazine, in Mosaics, and at the last three ELCA National Youth Gatherings. Consequently, we have become a model for international servant ministry and have provided advice and training for many other groups and synods. Our ministry also continues to call attention to the need to provide ongoing relief in countries suffering from the after-effects of war, especially to the children.