LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–In the heart of Sarajevo, Bosnia, a little boy climbs onto a swing, grasping both chains in his hands and pushing himself backward with all the force his little legs can muster. Throwing his body into the motion of the swing, arcing back and forth, higher and higher, his eyes lift above the war-scarred city around him to the wide, blue expanse of the heavens above.
He wonders about his friends from America, the “Bapteests” with big smiles and hearty hugs who built this playground not long ago.
One of the “Bapteests,” Parley Davis “P.D.” Roller is back home in Stanford, Ky., trying to round up more playground equipment to ship to Bosnia.
The 57-year-old landscaper and retired maintenance manager was among 22 men and women who spent two weeks rebuilding houses destroyed during the country’s war between different religious and ethnic groups. Originally, a group of Kentucky Baptist college students was scheduled to go to Bosnia, but that group was diverted when fighting in neighboring Kosovo shut down commercial flights into Bosnia. After travel restrictions were lifted, another group — many of them Kentucky Baptist Builders — was recruited by the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Brotherhood department and, once in Bosnia, worked in several teams to help rebuild and repair homes.
In addition to Roller, David Hahn, a 58-year-old builder, and Claude Owen, a 53-year-old Kentucky State Police detective, both from Taylorsville, although assigned to separate teams, noticed children playing in the street as they traveled between construction sites.
“To see those children with nothing to do but walk up and down the street, I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something,'” Roller recounted. “Adults needed homes, and the children needed a playground.”
A week and a half into the May 23-June 9 trip, Roller, Owen and Hahn began to build a playground during their spare time in the evenings on a site International Mission Board workers helped secure.
No manufactured playground equipment was available; all of the equipment had to be improvised from whatever the Kentuckians could beg, borrow or buy.
The IMB provided three-inch steel tubing to make a frame for a swing set. The entire Kentucky group pooled money to buy swings, chain and lumber. Roller estimates they wound up spending around $400.
Owen, who builds trailers in his spare time, mulled over different ideas for a merry-go-round and decided the most logical thing to use would be the axle housing, bearing and rim off a truck. They would sink the housing in the ground, leaving the bearing and rim free to spin.
Angie Britton of Frankfort and Jeff Davidson of Stanford stumbled across a truck in a ditch in a man’s back yard. Through an interpreter, they were able to buy the back end of the truck for $150.
Working by flashlight late into the evening, they set the axle in concrete. Using a grinder, they cut slots in the rim and fastened down two four-inch by four-inch crossbeams in the shape of and “X”. Because they had no bolts, they welded the crossbeams in place using reinforcing bars. They then fastened boards to the crossbeams for seats.
As a final touch, Owen traced an ichthus, the Christian fish symbol, in each swing seat and on the merry-go-round seats. The men used a grinder to carve the shape into the seats. The symbol will be a lasting reminder of why the men built the playground, Owen said.
“The children somehow figured out what we were doing and sat and waited on a ledge” for the playground to be completed, Owen said, as did a mother, carrying a small child.
“Once we got the playground finished, it was literally ‘Get out of my way,’” Roller said with a laugh, describing how the children swarmed the playground.
“Someone counted 46 children on that merry-go-round,” Hahn added.
The playground planted a seed that will be there forever, Roller said. They can look at their playground and say “the Baptists! They built this for us!”
Just a few hundred miles away, another group of Kentucky Baptists, led by Muhlenberg County Baptist Association director of missions Ken Abbott, was busy planting similar seeds in a vacant lot in Poland.
The group was building a playground near a low-income apartment complex in Warsaw. Ryszard Gutkowski, a Polish Baptist pastor working to establish a children’s club in the community, requested help building the playground.
As they began to dig in a grassy area that was being used as a parking lot, residents approached them with tongues and fingers wagging in anger. The residents were upset not only because they did not understand what the Kentuckians were doing, but because they were Baptist. Baptists are viewed as a cult in Poland, which is predominantly Roman Catholic.
The Kentuckians were unable to understand a word of the tirades, but with the help of interpreters communicated that they were building a playground for the children, Abbott said. While older residents remained somewhat reserved, younger residents soon pitched in to help.
“Once we put up swings, a slide and a glider, they were very, very pleased,” Abbot said. “We helped establish a relationship so [Ryszard] can work in the community.”
Indeed, Ryszard has since reported that many of the people in the apartment block have since approached him and thanked him for building the playground.
“One of his comments was, ‘This team did far more evangelism in five days of work on the playground than could have ever been done in five nights of evangelistic preaching,'” say Joy and Larry Lindsay, Baptist missionaries serving in Poland. “He says the team’s example of love and giving with nothing expected in return has really touched the Polish people living in that small part of Warsaw.”
The goal of the playground builders in both Bosnia and Poland was not simply to build a playground; it was to build the kingdom.
“Ultimately, I hope that many will come to know Christ eventually,” said Hahn of the Bosnian children. “They know we did it, and they know we did it in the name of Christ.”
Smith is a news specialist with the Kentucky Baptist Convention.