"He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted."
Isiah 61:1



by Brother John Anthony

As I write this, realize that it is the Feast of John the Baptist, and the day Our Lady first appeared in Medjugorje. I hadn't planned to write today. It seems appropriate, though, because this story is about Our Lady's handiwork, and it is about witnessing for the Lamb of God through charity. Our Lady has always had her hand in the running of St. David's. It was she, after all, who inspired its beginning. It is she who keeps it running. We know this so well that sometimes we take it for granted.

Once in a while, an idea or a project will come along and grab you, making you see yet again just how directly she influences things. The Roofs Across Bosnia project and the working pilgrimage are the most recent examples of this. In Roofs Across Bosnia, St. David's has been shipping shingles and roofing supplies to cover burnt out homes. It is a beautifully simple and effective project that has been made possible by some heavenly deals with building suppliers. The notion behind the working pilgrimage was to get a bunch of Americans to fly half way around the world to re-roof a few of these destroyed homes before going on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. It sounded so crazy at first that I knew it must be inspired. In response to all the practical objections to the project, Our Lady put it strongly in Jeff's heart that this trip was about more than just roofs. It was about the priceless gift of hope; hope for a small village of people engendered by the hands on work of total strangers; the hope of drawing friends and relatives displaced by war, home, by the practical gift of roofs. We knew she would take care of the details. Thus, at Our Lady's behest, St. David's hosted forty-two Americans of amazingly diverse backgrounds on this working pilgrimage in order to fan the embers of hope into a flame in the little Bosnian town of Boderiste.

I'll not list the myriad connections of people and materials that had to take place for such a trip to happen. Suffice to say that Our Lady brought together all the resources and people in a miraculous amount of time. By the time I was in the airport in New York looking around at the people going on the trip, I still wondered just how God was going to make this whole thing work; though, I also wondered what drew people to go. We had everyone from high school students to a couple who, instead of going to Hawaii, decided to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary by serving in Bosnia. Among others, there were electricians, accountants, nurses, bankers, farmers, three Friars of the Renewal (including myself), five young men discerning the priesthood, two Catholic priests and an Anglican Sister. We had only a handful of people who had actually put shingles on a roof before, though. We also had a broad array of faith experiences. There was an Evangelical, a few Episcopalians, a Methodist, a member of the Church of Christ, Catholics; some were daily Communicants, and some attended Mass much less frequently, if at all. Some had never heard of Medjugorje. For reasons known to her alone, this was the group Our Lady invited to demonstrate the love of Christ to a deeply wounded village. One reason that becomes plain when you talk to these fine people is that each of them has a generous heart.

The little village of Boderiste, where the project took place, is a nine-hour drive north of Medjugorje, and sits above Sarajevo and Tuzla, near the Serbian and Croatian borders. It is a perfect picture, in miniature, of the entire Bosnian conflict. For four years this village was the frontline between the Serbian forces and the Bosnian forces. On either side of the main road in Boderiste, which is still little more than a dirt track (though it is getting grated and paved these days), are the homes of the villagers. They are in various states of disrepair. Some are livable now; some are little more than blackened shells; some are piles of rubble; all are scarred by war. The houses are sprinkled along the road beside rolling green fields that are surrounded by all sorts of trees, including beautiful plum orchards. The setting is deceptively bucolic. Eighty yards from the tiny church, entitled Mary the Mother of God, is a minefield that held the opposing Serb forces at bay. There is a minefield in the area that stretches for 14 miles. Many of the pastures lie fallow now, and will for many years, until some way of ridding them of mines can be discovered. The danger posed by mines strikes home deeply when you see warning posters at the local elementary school. The church was razed early on in the war to try and break morale. It has recently been rebuilt. Through the fields, and roughly paralleling the road, serpentines a trench system where for four long years the men of the village kept continual vigil in order to protect their inherited farms.

Today, three years after the war, men like 27-year-old Franjo, whose family of Friars and I stayed with, have all too vivid memories of the days and nights during the fighting. Fifty-seven members of Franjo's kinsman and neighbors were killed in this town of 1,200 people. With sad eyes focused on a memory as tangible to him as we were, he said simply, but deeply, "War is evil". When he has children he vows to take them anywhere else in the world before they have to witness what he did in the war. He is one of the few young men of his age that are left in Boderiste. Those who survived have mostly left to other countries in order to find work. The factories in Brcko, which once employed so many before the war, are now controlled by the Serbs, so Croats and Muslims cannot find work there. Yet he and others stay to hold on to the land of their ancestors. They stay looking with guarded optimism for signs of hope. Yearning to know that their endurance and long suffering wasn't for naught. They look for anything that will encourage those of their village who became refugees to come back home.

There have been thirteen centuries of Christianity in Bosnia. Most of these years have been fought with struggle and persecution for the faith. Whether under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, the Nazis, or the Communists, the faithful have had to willingly risk their jobs, homes, families, and lives to follow Jesus. As Americans we have had the privilege of great liberty in how we worship (even if in recent years the popular culture seems to be encroaching upon this freedom). Nonetheless, we can hardly begin to understand the emotion a faithful Bosnian feels when he hears the bells from the little stone church in his village. Bells so silenced by foreign invaders strike the deepest of both spiritual and cultural chords in a Bosnian Christian's heart. The bells cry freedom; freedom to worship and freedom from oppression. On one of the last days we were in Boderiste, we saw the significance of the bells when we witnessed the joyful raising of the new bell in the church tower. The villagers and the local pastor processed their cars from the border, where the bell came into Bosnia, honking their horns the twenty or so miles to the church. The truck carrying the bell was laced with garlands of flowers, and the bell itself is emblazoned with the figure of Our Lady. We didn't know it before we arrived but the new roof we put on and the bell were the final touches to the church before Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo came to consecrate the new church just days after we were to leave. The honor of helping prepare for such a big day in the town was another provincial detail, showing us yet again how blessed this trip was. For those of us who are Franciscans, roofing the church held special significance since it was thus that Francis began his vocation. One touching aspect when we worked on the church was that two of the local workers were Muslim. Their working on a Catholic church hearkened back to the days before the war when quite often Christians would help build a new mosque for their Muslim neighbors, and Muslims would help build churches. The new structure built after the war is concrete, with a stucco finish, but it is still the pride of Boderiste, and now it is complete with a sonorous bell to call the faithful to prayer.

The workweek was a true pilgrimage and a test of faith. We worked through the week in a steady rain. Everybody pitched in and worked as hard as they could go for 10 and sometimes 12 hours a day. We began each day with Mass and morning prayer. It had been decided the first day to hold continual Eucharistic adoration as the roofing went on. Every hour, two or three people adored Jesus in the monstrance as hammers banged away at the roof above the church and on the homes throughout the village. We all agreed that the continuous rain, which never got so fierce that we had to quit roofing but rarely ceased, was another sign to let us know that this was the Lord's work and not ours. Without His guidance, I know we could never have done half of what was accomplished. By the end of the week the town that had been somewhat somber when we arrived, was full of mirth. People were seeing what could be done with these roofs and how quickly they could be finished. Before we left for Medjugorje, we finished roofing seven-and-a-half homes and the church. The rest of the work will be continued by locals who were taught to properly lay the American roofing system.

Materially speaking, the trip was a great success. Seven families are able to begin returning home now. Several of our group decided to serve the people of Boderiste even further. Among other things, some volunteers decided to return to Boderiste in order to provide a water pumping system for the town. Also, a few of the people have begun to find ways to help the school obtain supplies and perhaps computers. These are the tangible expressions of Christ's love for the people of Boderiste, but for the pilgrims all the spiritual fruit of this trip will be impossible to tally. One thing that made this project so meaningful to the locals and Americans was that the humanitarian aid was given face-to-face. There was no massive bureaucracy doling out huge amounts of materials. It was a transatlantic barnraising, motivated by the love of Christ. How do you put a value on the vocations that may come from this trip? What price do you put on people returning to the Church? Can you place a value on a Protestant and a Catholic brother and sister learning about the devotion found in each Church for the first time? How much gold could you place on the scales to balance the hope and faith strengthened in families who had suffered so much? Finally, what price equals a family who had to flee their land in fear but can now gain the courage to return home. These are a few things that confirm that this trip and the Roofs Across Bosnia program are, as we say, a "God deal". Hopefully, we will arrange to do another trip next year. Perhaps you will feel the call to go, or to sponsor someone to go. It's in the Lord's hands.


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