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Romanian refugee now helping others meet Christ in their ‘heart language’


EDITORS’ NOTE: The 2004 North American Missions Emphasis is underway in churches across the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptist Press during this period will present profiles on the featured missionaries. For more on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

ATLANTA (BP)–Having risked their lives to escape from communist Romania in 1980, Mark Hobafcovich and his friends had just arrived as refugees in Australia when a stranger showed up at their door.

“Good morning boys!” the man said in their native tongue.

It was Sunday morning, and a member of a local Romanian-speaking church invited them to the morning service. Because of the timing of the visit and familiarity of the language, Hobafcovich accepted.

Today, as a missionary and church planter, Hobafcovich is passionate about making it possible for others to have the opportunity to worship in their own “heart language” — the language they use when they relate most intimately with God and others. Even among immigrants reasonably comfortable with English, communication barriers sometimes get in the way of true worship.

“I’m sold out to this ministry because I am a recipient of it,” he said.

Hobafcovich and his wife, Christine, are among nearly 5,200 missionaries in the United States and Canada supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are featured during the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2004 North American Missions Emphasis, which this year focuses on “The World at Our Doorstep.”

As a national missionary with the North American Mission Board (NAMB), Hobafcovich previously worked to help European, Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Haitian churches plant new language congregations. In January he began serving on the mission board’s staff, where he coordinates the work of national missionaries as they help several hundred ethnic and language pastors start churches among all people groups. The foreign-born population of the United States is currently 33.1 million, or 11.5 percent of the overall country.

Conditions were harsh in communist Romania in 1980 when the 20-year-old Hobafcovich and six friends risked imprisonment and even death to slip over the border into neighboring Yugoslavia. Even then, he spent about 20 days in jail before finally being granted refugee status and then settling in Australia.

That’s why he was so receptive when the Romanian pastor showed up at his door.

“We were kind of fearful, thinking, ‘Was this real?'” Hobafcovich said. “We found out that that man had gone to the [refugee resettlement] office and asked if there were any new Romanian refugees.”

Hobafcovich had grown up in a Christian home and knew about God, but had never made a personal commitment to follow him. “I knew this was somehow God reaching out to me,” he said. “And so I went to church.”

With God already working on him through the trauma of the past few weeks and the love expressed by his new Romanian friends, it didn’t take long for Hobafcovich to respond to the Gospel.

“I gave my heart to the Lord,” he said. “That’s when I really became free. I thought freedom comes by changing governments, but the real freedom is in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. And from that day on, my life took a different turn altogether.”

The people of First Romanian Baptist Church of Melbourne discipled Hobafcovich, and he quickly began to accept opportunities for leadership. He met Christine there, and they married in 1985. Shortly thereafter he felt God calling him to Bible college and vocational ministry.

It was while attending seminary in Brisbane, Australia, that he had his first opportunity to start a church.

“We were planting a church without knowing we were planting a church,” he said with a laugh. “We just did what seemed natural. There was a previous attempt to start a church there and some people came together and started Bible study. Slowly we hooked up with a local church to get some space to meet.”

The church grew quickly, including the number of new believers by baptism. Later, he was called to serve on staff of his home church in Melbourne — and after about nine months a call came from Nashville, Tenn., asking him if he had any interest in helping start another new congregation.

“We realized so vividly that this was God’s will for us,” Hobafcovich said. “Our family asked how we were going to do it, with no salary and no church. But both of us knew 100 percent, without a doubt, that this was where God wanted us to be.”

So they relocated to Nashville and started working on growing the Romanian Baptist Church there. It wasn’t long before his skills for church planting were recognized by the local Baptist association, which asked him to work as their language missions director beginning in 1995 and later as church extension director. In 2000, he was asked by the North American Mission Board to take a similar role on a national level.

His work as a national missionary was from a big-picture perspective, but the same principles applied. His goal was to find emerging communities of a particular ethnic group where there might be a few people interested in starting a church. He then worked with other churches to find sponsors and meeting places so the new church could be started.

His work often began with research to see where significant numbers of a particular ethnic group are locating.

“Sometimes we make the local association or state convention aware of the new people that are in their area,” he said last year. “We have research, and relationships with networks of other people groups. And we work together to come up with a specific strategy for reaching that particular people group.”

Hobafcovich learned there was a sizable community of people from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in the Greenfield, Mass., area, for instance, and God had already prepared the way for a church planter there. Soon Providence Romanian Baptist Church was formed. Then it multiplied itself with congregations in Springfield, Worcester and other areas.

“Because of that church and the influence that church had in working with our partners, there are seven Moldovan churches as part of the SBC,” he said.

Hobafcovich also has worked toward seeing a Romanian congregation established in San Diego, home to about 3,000 Romanian immigrants. A Romanian church in the Los Angeles area was found to serve as sponsor, and another local congregation to provide meeting space. A few evangelical families also were located who could help get the church going.

“We have a layperson that was just raised up from the mother church that is responsible for the mission work in San Diego,” he said. “So what I say is, maybe God is leading him to take on the leadership of this church and possibly become the pastor.”

Other churches were started in Pittsburgh; Astoria, N.Y.; and other areas.

Nationally, Hobafcovich also helped lead the Romanian Baptist Fellowship in adopting an ambitious goal for church planting last year — to have 100 Romanian churches and 10,000 baptized members by the year 2013.

“That is exciting, because I see that this God-given vision was caught by the people,” he said, noting that part of his job now is to work with Romanian Baptist Fellowship leaders in developing strategies for implementing their goal.

Ultimately, his role is an encourager and facilitator, giving pastors and churches the resources they need to accomplish the vision God has given them. The result, he believes, will be church planting movements among all people groups.

“That’s how the Lord did it in His lifetime; therefore, it is a good model for us to follow too, to be mentors to others so they will catch the vision and run with it,” Hobafcovich said. “And when somebody has God’s passion and his heart has been changed and he sees the world the way the Lord sees the world — in need of a Savior — every pastor ought to be excited about either sponsoring a new work, praying, giving or physically helping in whatever way they can for another work to be established.

“I see a day when the Lord will revive His people and church planting movements will be a reality in North America as in other parts of the world for the glory of the Lord Jesus.”
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(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ROMANIAN COMMON GROUND, MARK HOBAFCOVICH and ETHNIC ENCOURAGER.

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  • James Dotson