A visit to Serbia

IMG_0227Not that I have a bucket list of countries I want to visit in whatever time remains to me on earth (I’ve been to Hawaii), but I never really thought of the possibility of visiting Serbia.

Until an email from a pastor friend forwarding a call for help from a small Bible school just outside Belgrade. The visiting teacher who had been due to teach Hebrews had had to cancel his visit. Like the Irish rugby team (!) I answered the call.

So it was off via Zurich, with the opportunity for coffee and a catch up with a former member of our church in Nyon, three days in country, and back via Frankfurt.

I managed to get a visit to Belgrade on Friday: it’s an impressively located city, built at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers.

The evangelical community in Serbia is small. To be Serbian is practically the same thing as to be Serbian Orthodox. In a nation of 7 million, it’s reckoned that there are may be 10000 who are part of the evangelical mainstream: for more on the situation of evangelicals in Serbia, the European Evangelical Alliance published this interview with the director of the Serbian Evangelical Alliance a couple of years ago. Interestingly, a friend suggested to me that Serbia may not have had as much attention in terms of Christian mission as other parts of the area, given what he suggested was the Church’s propensity to be drawn to the underdog. It’s actually been suggested that many Western Christians in fact lost interest in Serbia during the 90s.

The school is hosted in a former 3-star motel around 35 minutes’ drive from the airport. It’s part of the work of The Belgrade Christian Trust (HUB for short – in Serbian) and has been running for 21 years (the current school year concludes at the end of this week). It was started, and initially run by an English couple (Andy and Faye Mayo) who’d been visiting Serbia under the auspices of Oak Hall, the Christian Holiday organisation. These visits involved bringing humanitarian aid to the area during the wars of the 90s.

After 10 years, the Mayos left Serbia and handed the leadership of the school over to a young local leader – Sladjan Milenkovic. He has continued to lead the work for the past 11 years.

Students work hard (the photo shows the director on his lunch!):  the first year of study aims to cover every Bible book (I think they told me they had missed one), and students work hard. Most days they have 6 45 minute classes. We had 18 classes on Hebrews: other books have 30 classes. There is a day for practical service and on Sundays they get around various churches to help (the Sunday before my visit they had been in Bosnia). Over the course of the academic year, they have 950 classes (compare that with the number of lectures in an average university year in the UK!!). A second year allows the possibility for increased ministry involvement and the focus is on more practically-oriented subjects. Days are bookended by early morning devotions and evening prayer.

Unlike many Bible colleges in the UK and Ireland, the school has chosen not to seek external accreditation: they are not convinced that would help them to maintain their focus on the mission of training disciple-makers.

Beyond the school, the HUB centre hosts summer camps and has recently opened a coffee shop in the small nearby town of Opovo – a way of facilitating contact with local residents.

There were just 8 students in the class I taught – at times the school has bigger numbers. Students range from having left school to at least one with experience in ministry. Since my Serbian is limited (!), I taught via translation. My translator did a good job. I’ve no way of knowing how accurate she was, but she worked quickly without hesitation (my Northern Irish pronunciation of ‘cow’ stumped her towards the end of the week).

Over the 21 years of its existence, the HUB Bible School has seen around 35 students graduate and some 60% of these are serving in ministry: around this time a year ago they celebrated their 20th anniversary.

For a bit more about HUB, you can click here.

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