A New Life in an Old Land by Thomas Smith
Our guest blogger this week is Pastor Thomas Smith who works with his family as a missionary to the reformed churches in Croatia, a part of the former communist country of Yugoslavia.
A New Life in an Old Land
Sparkling crystal clean water along pristine beaches on hundreds of islands and inlets loom large on the tourist promotions for Croatia. Rightly so, Croatia’s Dalmatian and Istrian regions really are spectacular. If you have not yet visited Croatia, you should. Visiting a country like Croatia for vacation is one thing, living and working here year round is a different experience.
Over much of the past two years, I have lived in Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia where I have been a theology lecturer and helper to a Protestant church. This is the first time I have lived outside the United States. I am still adjusting to the culture and rhythm of life here.
Croatian culture puts more value on family, traditions, and relationships than does American culture. While Croatians value convenience, pragmatism, efficiency, and quality, they do not rate these quite as highly as Americans. So as an American living here, I find myself feeling frustrated at times with products, services and rules because they are different than in America. So, I am learning to change my expectations and my ways of thinking and doing.
I remind myself that I want to be here, I am called to be here to help the evangelical community in general and the Protestant Reformed Christian Church (http://www.prkc.hr/index.php/home) in particular. The Protestant community is small, less than one percent. Roman Catholicism is woven into the fabric of society.
Here church membership is about identity. Church membership is not about being a disciple of Christ. If you are Orthodox, then you must be Serbian. Or if you are Muslim, then you must be a Bosnian. Croats are Catholic. But, Protestants are just odd and don’t fit any hole–it would better if you were an atheist.
The Croatian people are wonderful friends. They are kind, helpful, generous and hardworking. Most work at their jobs and are paid very little. The transition from communism to capitalism has been rough and inhumane. My friends tell me life under Tito’s communism was better than conditions today.
While there is plenty of despair to go around, the people are great and love life. They love children, dogs, a good cup of coffee, conversation, and a good story. They appreciate home-made food, fine wine, music, and dance. Enjoying the same things, I feel at home here. Like death and taxes, frustration and bureaucracy are unavoidable no matter where you live.
Croatians are primarily a Slavic people, but through the centuries they have absorbed the Illyrians, Romans, Celts, Germans, and other ethnicities. The Slavic tribes came to this part of Europe in the early 600’s. The first united kingdom arrived in 925 AD, but the royal line died out by 1100 AD. They later merged their kingdom with Hungary until the 1500’s when they joined the Austro-Hungarian Empire to avoid being overrun by the Turks.
During the 1500’s Luther’s ideas about reforming the Roman Catholic church across Europe because of Gutenberg’s printing press. The Protestant Reformation came to the edges of the country. In this time period, Croatia was a battleground between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Due to the military and political situation, the Protestant Reformation was unable to penetrate Croatia. During the 16th and 17th centuries diffe
rent Popes assembled Catholic nations to battle the Ottoman Turks and, as a consequence, the Croatians saw the Vatican as their best defender and friend. Catholicism became an important part of their identity and Croatians remained loyal to the Roman church. The Counter-Reformation led by the Jesuits effectively reduced and eliminated the Protestant presence.
Reformation in Croatia
Nevertheless, during the Reformation in eastern Croatia a priest named Michael Starin embraced Luther’s ideas. He introduced people to Christ; spread the idea that the Bible alone is the highest authority in the church; and proclaimed “Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” in the region. A total of 130 parishes converted. For example, in the village of Tordinci, a Protestant church was created in 1551 and remains active today–despite the Counter Reformation and persecution–463 years later! In 2001, it voted to leave the Reformed Calvinist Church (which is mostly Hungarian), along with some other parishes.
Friends in Christ
The pastor at Tordinci, Dr. Jasmin Milic, is a close friend and he invited me to join him as a church planter in Zagreb. Much like Paul’s vision of the Macedonian begging him to “come over … and help us” (Acts 16:9), I prayed and felt God’s call to join this church. In 2011 and 2012, I transitioned from being a Pennsylvania pastor to working as an evangelist inside the church in Croatia.
My task here is to preach, teach and do outreach, but I also mentor young church leaders and teach seminary classes. Friends, family and churches in America feel called to support my family and work through contributions to the International Theological Education Ministry (ITEM). As our expenses grow and our savings shrink, new partners in Christ step forward to support my wife and I in this work. The crystal clear waters of the Adriatic remind me of the waters flowing from the throne of God (Revelation 22:1). Here is the crystal sea and before it are every tongue, tribe, and nation worshiping the Lord! The Lord beckons: come to Croatia; see the crystal sea; make disciples; join the new life in Christ!
Rev. Thomas J. Smith grew up in York, PA. A graduate of Penn State University and Covenant Theological Seminary, he has been an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America since 2004. He is married to Ana with whom he has three daughters, Katherine, Kristina, and Evelyn. Tom and his family have been living and working in Croatia since 2012.
Financial contributions (designated for Tom Smith) may be sent to ITEM, Inc., P.O. Box 31456, St. Louis, MO 63131-0456 or through PayPal at www.item.org .