Are you coming to camp tomorrow?” members of the New Jersey Synod servant team asked three girls at a restaurant near Šipovo, Bosnia. Oh, yes, they nodded enthusiastically.
The teens hanging outside the apartments where the team was staying gave a thumbs-up. Absolutely, said the grandchildren of one of the host families.
Everyone, it seemed, knew about Friendship Camp in this small mountain town.
By 8:30 a.m. the next day, girls and boys were climbing the hill to the schoolyard. An hour later, 300 students were lined up, eager to begin.
“Always [children] are asking, ‘Can we come?’ ” said local camp coordinator Kristina Kova?. “The number of kids is evidence that they enjoy it.”
Every summer the New Jersey Synod sends an intergenerational team to promote postwar reconciliation and foster a mixed faith, multiethnic future for Bosnia. Team members lead songs, cooperative games, and team-building and service projects in English, with translation by Bosnian partners. The 2013 team brought 17 Americans, aged 17 to 64, from six states.
“I believe God is revealed in the relationships and interactions we have with the children, teachers, directors and parents in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said team leader Lauren Finnila, a seminarian at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
Since 2000, 167 travel team members from nearly 50 ELCA congregations and seven other faith communities have served more than 24,000 Bosnian children. Home teams in the U.S. have decorated tote bags and sewn pillows as gifts, donated sports equipment, sponsored camps and offered prayers.
This year the ever-evolving mission explored a partnership with the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod and piloted a three-day leadership retreat for middle school students.
And the visits have been returned. In 2012, six Bosnian team members traveled to the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans to share stories about war and recovery.
The Bosnia ministry was founded by Jason Reed, youth ministry specialist for the New Jersey Synod, immediately after the country’s 1992-95 civil war, which erupted during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Bosnia endured years-long sieges, ethnically motivated massacres and concentration camps. The peace accord, signed outside Dayton, Ohio, created two semiautonomous entities linked by a central government, whose work today is constantly stymied by feuding politicians from the country’s three ethnic groups, each associated with a different religion.
“The children of Bosnia-Herzegovina embody both the deeply broken heart of God and the fragile, strong love of the Prince of Peace,” Reed said. “You can’t hold a Friendship Camp in a school on the grounds of a concentration camp, with its torture chamber in the room next to the gym where you are playing games with the kids, without being staggered by the hurt. And you can’t laugh with the kids as they use their newspaper-puppets to practice peacemaking skills without being filled to overflowing with love.
“Why do we return again and again? Because Jesus is there, drawing us to the further work and relationship-sharing to be done in this broken, beautiful land.”
Immediately after the war, children didn’t have sports, music or arts in the country’s devastated towns. Summer camps were a way to restore a semblance of childhood, said Kova?, who helped bring the Lutherans to Šipovo in 2000 through the Organization of Serbian Sisters, a nongovernmental organization she founded to help the displaced.
Even now, extracurricular activities are few, she said.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers