GULYANTSI, Bulgaria (BP)–As a bleak winter chills this once-communist country, many Bulgarians have food on their tables because of Baptists.
A $65,000 grant from Southern Baptists, combined with aid from European Baptists and other Christian groups, helped produce more than 120 tons of potatoes that have been distributed across the country.
A key factor in the effort, though, was hard work by Bulgarian Baptists, who helped plant, care for and harvest more than 40 acres of potato-bearing land near the Danube River outside Gulyantsi, a town in northern Bulgaria.
Southern Baptist missionaries and their Bulgarian Baptist co-workers pray the gesture of sharing food will help weary Bulgarian hearts find hope in Jesus Christ.
Bulgaria threw over its old communist government as other Eastern European nations did in the late 1980s. But successive governments failed to refashion the country’s economy. Old-style farm cooperatives have not been replaced by modern farms. Three-fourths of Bulgaria’s 8.2 million people live in poverty.
Many of Bulgaria’s older people have especially suffered in recent years. The majority receive pensions amounting to less than $30 a month, not enough to live on. Young people have trouble finding jobs, even with university degrees in hand.
So thousands of Bulgarians welcomed the potatoes, which were sold for the equivalent of about five cents a pound. Bulgarian Baptist churches distributed most of the potatoes; others went to hospitals and orphanages.
Southern Baptist missionary Paul Ridgway requested the grant money from the International Mission Board’s hunger relief funds, given by Southern Baptists across the United States to fight hunger and meet human needs around the world. Paul and his wife, Judy, maintain a busy schedule of music teaching and performing.
But Ridgway credits Bulgarian Baptist Stefan Neikov for the potato project. Neikov is a retired Bulgarian army colonel who once taught at the military academy at Pleven.
Neikov secured unused public farm land owned by the town of Gulyantsi and began rallying support for a potato project that would help feed the hungry. German Baptists gave two tractors; other funds came from a Dutch Reformed Church helping agency and United Methodists.
On a recent winter day, Neikov and Gulyantsi’s deputy mayor stood with Paul Ridgway, braving a cutting wind as they watched a tractor preparing fields for use again next year.
The men are dreaming of setting up a Christian cooperative to grow grain and other crops as a way to make area people self-sufficient.
“The idea is to both provide food for people, plus jobs. Much of the land is unused, abandoned,” Neikov said. “We want everyone to benefit. At the moment, agriculture in all Bulgaria is a total loss.”
A trim man, Neikov still has a military bearing. He is planning this attack on hunger and poverty the way he once planned military engineering for military campaigns. “God gives us things do to, but we have to work,” he says with a smile.
Amid his new agricultural projects, Neikov lets a Baptist church meet in his home. The church was organized decades ago but members had dwindled away. Now, with Neikov’s backing and with Alexander “Sasho” Grosev as pastor, the congregation has grown too large for the Neikov house.
Baptists here say the long-term strategy is not just to help people physically, but to use the recognition gained through the food projects as a springboard for evangelism and church planting.
Last fall Texas Baptists sent more than four dozen trained professionals to hold medical, dental and eye clinics in and around Gulyantsi, part of the larger strategy.
Bulgarians say hope is in short supply in their country these days. Baptists want to gain their attention long enough to share the hope they have found in Jesus Christ.