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Baptist ministry leader from Serbia gives refugees food, shelter, hope

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–When Jasmina Tosic first asserted her Christian faith as a teenager in Serbia in the 1980s, her father burned her Bible. But his action only incited her desire to study the Word of God more, lighting a fire within her that has blazed stronger than the bombs around her homeland. In the midst of ethnic and religious strife in the Yugoslav federation, thousands of refugees from Bosnia, Croatia and surrounding areas now look to the ministry she co-directs for food, shelter and hope.
In Belgrade, Serbia — where evangelical Christians number but 2,000 among the city’s 2 million people — Bread of Life ministries has functioned as a network among evangelical churches since 1992 to serve refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. More than 70 volunteers regularly assist refugees with physical and spiritual needs.
In the process, Bread of Life calls Christians within her war-torn society to find their identity in Christ, Tosic said during an October visit to the United States. Violence and intolerance has disoriented and disconnected her culture, she said, but God was nevertheless at work. “War helped shape our Christian identity. We were forced to grow up in faith in order to survive.”
When Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party established Yugoslavia in 1945, analysts recount, the new government offered structure and unity for a diverse people who had hurt one another deeply during World War II. But after the loosening of communist influence in 1990, the unreconciled hatred among neighboring ethnic groups erupted into bloodshed. “We didn’t want to live with each other anymore,” Tosic said of the nation.
Tosic, rather than getting caught up in the politics of the Balkan Wars, noted all have sinned, regardless of their religious or ethnic convictions.
“We are all children of one Father,” she said. “The only power is in the gospel. We are sinners — all of us — so we don’t have a right to judge one another.” In recent weeks, her country has faced possible NATO air strikes in response to the Serbian repression of ethnic Albanian dissidents in Kosovo. Bread of Life plans to send physical aid to the helpless in Kosovo, ironic as it may seem to Serbian nationals who seek to repress that area. Compassion, Tosic said, transcends politics in the Christian community.
Bread of Life extends aid to anyone in need. Eleven participating churches in Belgrade provide food and housing assistance, training programs, a kindergarten, summer camps and prayer support for more than 20,000 families among the 650,000 refugees currently in Serbia without geographic or spiritual identity. Fortunate refugee families may pay sky-high rent for damp rooms, while many others remain homeless.
Overwhelmed with compassion for the refugees in 1992, Tosic quit her administrative job with a meat packing organization and moved into a small room of First Baptist Church to begin planning Bread of Life ministry strategies with co-leader Beba Varga, a Serb from Croatia — a friendship between two women that foils common Serbian-Croatian political boundaries.
The idea for Bread of Life started when their friendship blossomed in a small prayer group in 1985. Tosic asked God to change the passivity of their churches and help them mature in the faith, despite growing ethnic tensions around them. But at the time, Tosic said, “We didn’t know who we were as Christians.” When the war started, the small group faced the question, “Do we really believe what we say?” No lip-service Christianity would stand against bloodshed, she said, asking, “What can mature one’s faith better than challenge? What can sharpen faith more than conflict on an everyday basis?” When her government started drawing war lines, Tosic said her church finally found its true identity in Christ.
“I thank God that I found Jesus in the early stages of my life, so that I would learn to deal with conflict,” Tosic reflected. As a child, she visited a Baptist neighbor every afternoon who would tell her Bible stories. She never missed a day, and those stories taught her about the love and identity of Christ Jesus. At age 19, she asked her neighbor to take her to his church, First Baptist of Belgrade.
“My parents were shocked,” Tosic said. “They couldn’t understand why I would want to go to church, read the Bible and pray. … But this is actually a usual kind of reaction to the Christian way of life in my country. … There is a very open hatred and hostility toward the Creator, even to the point of fear.” One afternoon, Tosic found her spiritual literature heaped in a burning pile lit by her father. But she always kept a spare Bible hidden and handy.
As a teenager searching for her own personal identity, Tosic asked her father tough questions about the meaning of life. Daily arguing plagued her traditional Serbian Orthodox household. “We never learned how to communicate feelings or our understanding of life. … Even as a child, I could understand that something was wrong, and I wanted a change.”
The need for spiritual development in Serbia, the now-dominant republic in the Yugoslav federation, is evident in the number of people dabbling in witchcraft and the occult, Tosic said. “People are searching for God,” she said, explaining the displacement of Orthodox, evangelical Christian and Muslim Yugoslavs has blurred religious and ethnic boundaries among the refugees.
Connections within evangelical churches is crucial, Tosic said, in order to build up the body of Christ. During the Balkan Wars, Serbian Christians could not communicate with Croatian Christians. “We lost all contact,” Tosic said, “all of us just struggling for survival.”
She told of the anguish of one refugee who lost communication with his wife when the borders closed between Bosnia and Serbia in 1994. Having received physical aid from Bread of Life, both father and son began volunteering with the refugee ministry. Alexander accepted Christ at a Bread of Life-sponsored summer youth camp in 1997, while his father, Gideon, was baptized this year. Recently, the father and son traveled back to Sarajevo to attempt to unite their family again. But even nuclear family unity isn’t easy in this war. Gideon’s wife runs a successful law firm in Sarajevo, while her license to practice would not hold such respect across the Serbian boarder. Gideon also fears unemployment if he returns to Bosnia. It’s a rather common catch-22 situation for refugee families.
Tosic maintains regular contact with her own family, despite their differing religious practices. While her brother accepted Christ three years after she did, both parents still do not understand their children’s religious decisions. Tosic said she worries about how her mother and father will cope with the threat of NATO bombings in their city. Having been protected from the real ravages of war, how will her father’s humanistic point of view stand in the face of bombings and violence on his own doorstep, she wonders.
Tosic said the Yugoslav federation conflict should call believers to rally in prayer. “For Christians around the world,” she said, “this conflict should be a challenge.” She asks American Christians to study the situation closely and respond in prayer. Like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair in Luke 7:36-50, Tosic said her native people must acknowledge sin and repent, no matter what religion or ethnicity.
Bread of Life has distributed more than 7 million pounds of supplies to the needy in Serbia, Bosnia and now Kosovo since 1992. The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board has maintained a presence in the region throughout the entire Balkan War, having sent more than $2 million to local ministries there since 1992 from the SBC’s World Hunger Fund. While hundreds of other humanitarian workers left Kosovo recently in anticipation of bombing raids, an estimated 50,000 Albanian Kosovars are without shelter, while makeshift plastic sheeting protects another estimated 50,000-100,000 from the coming winter. Bread of Life plans to bring supplies across the Serbian boarder to these people.
At an SBC World Hunger Consultation at Ridgecrest (N.C.) Conference Center in October, Tosic reported Bread of Life’s progress and thanked Southern Baptists for their financial and prayer support. She intended her visit to be a voice for Christians from Serbia, and to seek encouragement and vision for the ministry’s future. She hopes the “prayer protection” of Christians who support the ministry will launch Bread of Life to new levels of refugee aid and job training. “What we are doing with Bread of Life,” Tosic said, “may be our last chance for the salvation of many people.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.

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  • Julie Jenkins