Posted: 6/3/2019 at 12:50pm. Article by Will Cumbia.
Four years ago I was boarding a plane and crossing an ocean for the first time. Four years ago I landed in Romania and was met by Brittany Garton at the airport. I was a part of the Kairos Missions Initiative (KMI) team spending 10 days learning and serving across Romania.
Four years later, I was the on-the-ground leader picking up the Kairos team from the airport in Vienna.
Seven students from across Virginia and two seminary students as leaders made up the KMI 2019 team. Just like my trip to Romania four years ago was in support of BGAV missions partnership with Romania, this year’s team came to support the new BGAV missions partnership, focus:refugees. The team engaged with two of our partners in Europe, spending four days in Austria and six days in Croatia and Bosnia. As with all Kairos trips, it was a blend of serving, learning, and building relationships.
“What would you do if you were out of your home country and could not return? What would you do if you found out that if you returned home you could be killed? Your bank account is blocked. You have no contact with your family. What would you do?”
This was a question posed to the team by Maryam*, an asylum seeker from Iran living in Vienna. The questions were heavy after hearing her own story and her own experience of fleeing her homeland.
We sat in the cellar of projekt:gemeinde, a Baptist church in Vienna, eating brownies and hearing stories from a few refugees who are a part of the church, including Maryam and a man named Ehsan*. Ehsan shared his own harrowing journey to Austria, one that included six months in prison in Greece.
Ehsan was a part of the religious military in Iran, the branch of the Iranian military that was recently classified as a terrorist organization by the USA. He has a boisterous laugh and is an excellent chef.
He was honest about the darkness of his story and about the moments where he had no hope. But he also pointed out that light shines brightest in the darkness. It is easier to recognize light in your life when it is surrounded by darkness. He said that he perhaps would have missed out on the light of the gospel had he not first been in a dark place.
The next day the team packed up a huge bowl of fruit salad and sliced watermelon and made the journey to the Danube River that cuts through Vienna. Our team was able to join in on a church baptism service and witness the baptisms of seven people from Iran, Afghanistan, and Serbia. The service started with short sermons in Farsi, Spanish, German, and English, each of the languages spoken in projekt:gemeinde. Julia Wallace, a seminary student at Truett seminary and one of the leaders of the trip, preached the sermon in English. After briefly hearing the testimonies of those being baptized they slowly, one by one, waded into the cold water.
Our team of nine Americans cheered and clapped along with siblings from Iran, Afghanistan, Serbia, England, Scotland, Mexico, Austria, Germany, and others from the United States celebrating the joyous event.
Caroline Sublett, a junior at William & Mary, drank in this moment. She said, “It was so beautiful to see the international church. To see how different people from of differing countries, languages, and ethnicities can come together in worship. It’s an amazing glimpse of what heaven looks like.”
For those being baptized, this was a huge step on their journeys both as Christians and as refugees, a momentous outward sign of how Christ had forever interrupted their lives.
Three days later we stood outside a refugee camp in Bihać, a small city in Bosnia just across the border of Croatia. We had rewound in time on the journey of many refugees, traveling from Vienna, Austria, to Zagreb, Croatia. There we had met up with Elvis and Toma, our partners working with Croatian Baptist Aid, and then made our way across the border to Bosnia.
The refugee camp is housed inside an old manufacturing warehouse. Thanks to Elvis and Croatian Baptist Aid’s connections, we were able to go inside the camp and have a tour from some of the International Organization for Migration workers working in the camp. We walked around the cavernous space filled with shipping crates and learned about the lives of refugees there. Astoundingly, despite the circumstances of many in the camp, the resiliency of life marched on. Here they ate, played ping pong, prayed, slept, drank tea with friends, and celebrated birthdays.
Outside the camp was far more difficult to experience. Here, strewn across a field roughly the size of a football field was a mix of trash, makeshift tents, feces, and human bodies. These were the men who were denied access to the camp because it is at capacity.
Some stood, some sat in groups, and others lay motionless in the sun. They had no access to food, water, sanitation, or shelter. They had absolutely nothing. There were hundreds of them.
We crossed this field and back to our vans. Never have I felt more exposed. At our vans, we took the 100 Impact Virginia drawstring bags that the team brought from Richmond and put sanitary items into each one. We then broke off into teams of two and went back to the field.
In a blur of 30 seconds it was all over. As soon as the men saw that we were handing out items, they rushed to us and quickly snatched up the bags. Some were disappointed that it wasn’t food or water. There were not nearly enough bags for everyone to have one.
We regrouped and made our way back to the van. The men resumed their listless positions in the open field. It was only a blink of an experience, but one that will stay with the team. They came face to face with the stark reality of refugees on the road.
“There’s never enough supplies,” Elvis said as we got back in our vans. “We never have enough for everyone. We only can hope that God can take what little we have and multiply it for more.”
We left Bosnia with no problems, calmly crossing the border that so many desperately try and traverse. We wound our way through the mountains of Croatia to the retreat center owned by the Baptists on the coast on the Adriatic sea. Here we were able to help the Croatian Baptists prepare the camp for the summer season, decompress, and debrief from our experiences.
One student, Ashley Young, a junior at Bluefield College, made a beautiful connection between our experiences in Vienna and in Bosnia. She said, “Seeing the refugee camps made the baptisms we saw in Vienna even more impactful. The fact that these people had gone through unimaginable neglect and had to fight for their lives every day and were still able to praise God. To see them get baptized knowing they could be forced back into their country and potentially lose their life was something I will never forget.”
For the Christian refugees I have the pleasure of knowing, they say it was all worth it. Their journeys—the pain, the loss, the sacrifice, the humiliation, the fear, the uncertainty, the rejection—are all worth it because they have met Christ. For them that is enough.
After our time on the coast we made our way back to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, for one last day. We were blessed to end our trip participating in another baptism service, this time at the central Baptist church in Zagreb. Indeed, God’s Kingdom continues to expand in ways we don’t expect.
The KMI trip is such a special opportunity for young Virginia Baptists, allowing them to learn more about God’s work around the world, explore their calling, and serve others in new contexts.
For Caroline, “this trip was one of the most unique and eye opening experiences of my life and I am very thankful for the opportunity. I would not have been able to be a part of this without support from the BCM at William & Mary and the BGAV.”
I think it is important to note that three of the five Venturers serving with Virginia Baptists in Vienna, myself included, all participated in a KMI trip. KMI was the catalyst that expanded our view of missions and pushed us to explore our calls towards missions and ministry work.
Early on the last day of the trip, I embraced my new friends and sent them off on the train to the Vienna airport. I waved and smiled. I can’t wait to see the paths these young people will take and the ways in which God will use this trip to impact their lives for years to come.
*names have been changed for the protection of the individuals.
KMI 2019 participants:
Ashley Young- Bluefield College 2021; Hope Church, Halifax
Johnny Quagliano- William & Mary MBA 2019; Walnut Hills Baptist
Bella Craun- VCU 2019; Second Baptist Church of Richmond
Caroline Sublett- William & Mary 2021; Cave Spring Baptist
Hannah Simpson- William & Mary 2022; Dawson Family of Faith, Birmingham, AL
Tyler Bunch, VCU 2019; South Run Baptist
Amanda Thomason- Radford 2019; Cornerstone Baptist
Julia Wallace- Truett Theological Seminary 2020; King’s Grant Baptist
Justin Pierson- Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond 2019; Richmond’s First Baptist Church