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Serving Together: Stories from Croatia

It was during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown when, on December 29, 2020, a devastating magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the areas of Petrinja, Sisak, and the rural districts of Banovina in central Croatia, approximately 50-70 km from the capital city of Zagreb. Earlier that year the earthquake had hit Zagreb and several buildings, including the headquarters of the Baptist Union of Croatia (BUC), still bear the scars of that tragic day with visible cracks.

Visiting this area in February 2024, more than three years after the earthquake, alongside Željko Mraz, General Secretary of BUC, and Filip Grujić, pastor of the Zagreb Baptist Church (ZBC), I gained a much clearer understanding of what it means to the people who endured this tragedy – 26 seconds that changed their lives.

Serving Together in the Earthquake Region

The next day after the earthquake, the BUC and the churches pulled together their resources – people, equipment, money, and first of all their faith and hope – and stepped close to those who had lost their homes, the infrastructure of their towns and villages, and their safety. Several EBF member bodies and mission partners also supported their efforts.

Pastor Timothy, who serves the church in Petrinja and its surroundings, reflected on this period and very vividly described all the damaged necessities that are often taken for granted – a kitchen to prepare food, a functioning and warm toilet amidst winter weather, a roof to shelter from rain and snow.

Yet the most challenging aspect for people was grappling with the shattered memories. A staircase, once built together with a father and symbolising working together, vanished in just 26 seconds. A home filled with cherished childhood memories, a sanctuary of joy and security, was no longer there. A school, representing the initial steps toward independence, now lay in ruins. Suddenly, the grand and seemingly impersonal narrative of an earthquake transformed into individual stories: a father struggling to care for his three children and at the same time support his church and people in the neighbourhood, an elderly lady residing alone in a temporary container awaiting repairs to her home, and a couple whose earthquake experience intertwines with the lingering trauma of the 1990s Homeland War, compelling them to seek solace in faith and a supportive Christian community.

The church in Petrinja
The church in Petrinja became a safe place for many people for many months, and pastor Timothy served as their anchor, providing them with peace and stability during these turbulent times.

When I asked about the greatest challenges during this time, pastor Timothy responded,

“Everyone was traumatised. Everyone changed. Some people grew stronger, finding stability in helping others. Others became weaker and needed much support. Yet both groups must be acknowledged for who they are and encouraged to continue together.”

And this is what the church in Petrinja did. Serving together with the volunteers from the Zagreb Baptist Church and other places, the visibility of the Petrinja church during these turbulent times grew enormously, and everyone in the neighbourhood knew where the Baptist Church is and what it does for the community.

In Glina where the heart of the small local Baptist Church is Stojanka, became a centre for the renovation work carried out by Baptist volunteers.

Seeing what the Baptist churches were doing for their community, the local deputy mayor admitted,

“If the government did as much as the Baptist churches do, the earthquake damage would have been repaired in one year.”

Temporary home after earthquake
Mika is very grateful for her temporary accommodation in front of her real home, which was damaged by the earthquake.

Many people, particularly the elderly, still live in the containers provided by BUC and await the restoration of their homes. However, their joy and gratitude upon seeing BUC leaders visiting them regularly after the earthquake speak of the strong relationships and support experienced during all these years. And just as I was writing this story, news arrived that the government-funded construction of Nada’s house has now begun.

Shelter after the earthquake
Nada (in the middle), Željko and Filip in front of Nada’s container and its little extension, both provided by the Baptist Union of Croatia and its volunteers more than 3 years ago after the earthquake.

Serving Together in the House of Hope 

The aftermath of the earthquake is not the only challenge facing Croatian society. Since the increase in immigration across Europe, Croatia has been at the forefront of receiving refugees from various countries. Simultaneously, many people grapple with economic hardships, loneliness, mental health issues, and other challenges characteristic of 21st-century European society.

In this context, pastor Mihal and his church in Zagreb have established the House of Hope – a community centre that serves people in need of support, stability and hope in a rapidly changing society.

Alan and I visited the centre and met some wonderful people who create the homely atmosphere and run the programmes.

Omid and his wife, Elham, Iranian refugees who were re-united in Croatia, share their own story and how they now support others seeking refuge in a foreign land. Petra shares stories about children who come to the centre after school to receive assistance with homework and spend time in a safe environment. Dimitry, who fled Russia after the outbreak of war, found refuge in the House of Hope and later also a job, and now contributes to the community centre’s various programmes. Ema introduces the programme of Korean language and culture, which brings together those community members interested in it and provides a cultural gathering point. There is something for everybody. And in the middle of these diverse programmes, there is an opportunity to share faith, hope, and the good news of Christ the Saviour. 

The centre operates in three main areas: providing educational support for children, implementing programmes aimed at preventing social problems, and offering tutoring and mentoring to community members facing various life challenges. It serves as a place where the surrounding community can come together to support each other, seek together common good and expand the borders of God’s Kingdom.

House of Hope
In the House of Hope: (from left) Željko, Helle, Alan, Mihal, Dimitry, Petra

In addition to all this, pastor Mihal explains,

“We are very happy to receive guests from other parts of the EBF region, share our experiences, and dream together about how to serve our communities and expand the ministries of our churches.”

In the house, there are bedrooms for 15 people ready to welcome guests.

Why not give it a try and discover, together with the Croatians, new ways of spreading the Gospel and embodying God’s love and care in our societies?

Photos: Helle Liht


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