A few months ago, I finally decided that I wanted to join the team going to Serbia for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know what I would be able to help with in such a short amount of time, but I knew that I wanted to see Orthodox missions in action and to experience a taste of what life was like in an Orthodox country.
The first few days after arriving in Belgrade were spent getting everyone settled in. We got our bus passes and cell phones up and running. We went on a scavenger hunt. We spent time as a team and broke bread together. These days were spent getting to know the city and getting to know one another.
It was so beautiful for me to talk to the three Russian friends who also came along on the trip. I was able to gain more perspective about what Orthodoxy means when it is stripped down without its cultural ramifications. Together, we have so much in common! I also learned of our differences. I was amazed at the piety of these new friends and their dedication to God.
The first Saturday that we were in Belgrade, we went to Ada which is a manmade island that has swimming, parks, trails, and restaurants. We met up with a few of our new Serbian friends and contacts. I immediately was drawn to this beautiful girl. I had some deep conversations with her as we took a walk and sat under a shade tree while people-watching. We spoke of Tesla, abortion, and the Church on our first meeting. It was wonderful for me as an introvert to bypass the small talk.
As I met a few more young people, I started realizing how jaded they were from corruption in the church, the state of their government, the brokenness of the aftermath of war… and I knew why I had come. It was to pray.
One evening, I was out with two of my friends walking at night and we saw some Roma children smoking cigarettes and running out into the streets. We saw people staggering home. I caught a glimpse of something on the ground among the litter. It was a damaged diptych which used to be the Theotokos and Christ, but only the left side remained. The screws which attached the other side were mangled and torn. The face of Christ was scratched.
This is Serbia. A nation that doesn’t know what to think of the church anymore. A nation that sees beauty in the icons and the Saints, but doesn’t want to attend liturgy when bishops are driving BMWs and parishioners do not donate to charity.
I met up with my friend that I met at Ada one last time two days before I left. We talked about boys and our favorite books. After a while, the conversation deepened and we started talking about God. I learned about how she goes to pray in Saint Mark’s every week. She is fortunate to sit in front of some of the most beautiful icons in the world. She knows her Bible, and yet she doesn’t want to attend Liturgy anymore. She has grown tired of the struggle of watching people pray their perfect prayers and yet not give money to the homeless. She has watched priests demand $1000 to baptize the children of poor peasants. It is just too much for her.
She then asked me, “How do I get what you have?” I explained that I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. All I know is that we must cling to Christ and we must keep Him at the forefront. We must focus on the icon of Christ and not the distractions of this world, be it corruptions of the church, or of worldly passions. We must struggle to find Christ even in the most difficult of circumstances.
The last day of my trip, I went to a monastery. It was quiet. I had a moment of reflection in the church there. It is so easy to take my parish for granted. We have a priest who lives with and loves his people. There is a deep sense of community. There are opportunities to help the poor. The parishioners are open and welcoming and the prayers are sincere and heartfelt. I forget that when I step outside of this bubble, that there are hurting people.
Serbia, you and your people will forever be in my heart. I will try to pray for you and I ask of you to pray for me, a sinner.