"So it is with faith: if it is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead."
James 2:17

WORK CAMP 2007: Stolac and Medjugorje

by Nathan Demuth

I first heard of Medjugorje two years ago from a family friend of mine; he had made this trip during the month of June. When he returned, he had many good things to say about the journey. I was most interested in listening to his stories of the country, its people, and their great faith. What struck my curiosity the most, however, was his talk of the six visionaries: Ivanka Ivankoviæ; Mirjana Dragiæeviæ; Vicka Ivankoviæ; Ivan Dragiæeviæ; Ivan Ivankoviæ; and Milka Pavloviæ. To this day, they are still young and living, and have continued to experience direct apparitions of Our Blessed Mother for the last 25 years. To me this was surely a surprise. I had never heard nor seen any story on this matter. But time passed and, as the year went on, I returned to school; eventually I forgot all about account.

That was until May 2007. My friend, Tyler Person, came to me and began talking again about Medjugorje. He announced that he had received a sponsorship through the La Promesa Foundation to make a trip to Bosnia – spending a week in Stolac and then a week in Medjugorje. He was to spend his time in Stolac providing relief work for the Catholic community, and his time in Medjugorje was set aside as a pilgrimage. I was again reminded of all that I had heard about this country, and the six visionaries. I felt that I, too, must also make this journey. With many prayers, and the help of the Person family, I was fortunate enough to be given the sponsorship for the trip. Even then I did not realize just how much of a blessing I had really been given.

As I stood in the airport awaiting my flight, I could not stop thinking of how a friend of mine reacted to the news that I was leaving the country for Bosnia. He had made a few remarks about it being no more than a large 'hole in the ground'. He did not understand why I would make such a trip; I, myself, knew only a little about the country's history. Not too long ago the entire area was involved in a serious war, that was still fresh in the people's memories, and that even today the tension of that area continues to rise between the Christian and Muslim people. Soon I began feeling a little nervous about making such a trip, especially considering this would be my first time traveling outside of the U.S. The furthest I had ever traveled from home was Lincoln, Nebraska. Amidst my thoughts, however, I felt a sudden peacefulness and calmness. Something told me that I had nothing to worry about, nothing to fear for, I was doing God's work, and in that I would find strength and protection. From then on I did not feel any more troubles or doubts. Later, I would come to realize that this was only the first of many times that Our Mother Mary would speak to me during my journey.

It was in Vienna that Tyler and I were finally able to join up with the rest of our group; members from St. David's Relief Foundation. We were later informed that our friends from Texas had met some delays, and would be joining us in a couple of days. Our bus ride along the beautiful Croatian coastline seemed too short, and as we reached the top of the cliffs that boarded the sea we began to make our way inland. By this time, Tyler and I had been able to get to know a few of the people that were traveling within our group. We were also able to befriend two of the girls, Monica and Lydia, who lived there in Croatia, and were very fluent in their English. Before long we were both learning short phrases in Croatian, such as 'hello', 'thank you', and, most importantly, 'I do not speak Croatian'!

We arrived in Stolac just at sundown, and as we pulled up to the church we saw something that none of us had expected – a large crowd of people gathered before the church steps cheering at our arrival. They were people from the Catholic community of Stolac, and had been awaiting our arrival for hours to give us a warm welcome to their home. I cannot describe the great feeling I was given as I walked up to the church with the large crowd of people, all of them still cheering, whistling, and clapping; they had not stopped ever since they watched our bus pull up. They held a mass for us in Croatian, and we were then assigned to our host families. As Tyler and I were shown to our guest bedroom, I could not think of anything better to do but sleep after what seemed an eternity of plane flights and layovers; believe me, we slept well.

The next day we got right to work. Our projects for the week were normally given out on a day-to-day basis. Most of our work consisted of doing excavation in the churchyard in preparation for grass to be laid. They had a few trees surrounding the rectory that had to be rooted, debris around the church grounds that needed to be hauled off, and a few projects that had to be done on the youth center behind the church – roofing, cementing, and some general cleaning. Every mealtime we either ate with our host families, who provided some of the best cooking I have ever tasted, or we had reserved a local restaurant/hotel where St. David's members were served three meals daily. During the week, when we were given free time, Tyler and I were able to get to know many of the locals, and take in much of the beautiful landscape that surrounded the small town of Stolac. We were both able to do much hiking around the area, and one day a group of us borrowed some bikes from the local kids and went on a bike ride through some of the surrounding country. On the Fourth of July we had a special dinner consisting of hamburgers and hot dogs, for those of us from the U.S., and we had received permission from the local police department to shoot off fireworks at sundown. A number of the locals took part in the fun as well.

Our first week came to an end, and our time Stolac was over. Though it seemed as if we had been there for months, it did not feel long enough. The night before, both the locals and our group held a potluck dinner in the newly refurbished youth center. We held mass before dinner, and took part in singing and music playing during the meal. It was sad the next day as all those who had welcomed us that previous Sunday, all those we had come to meet throughout the course of the week, and then some, gathered outside the church to say goodbye. When we had arrived we had seen nothing but smiles, but now we had to see the tears and sadness as we boarded our bus. They were not just tears of sadness, however, they were more than that. They were tears of joy and gratitude. I remember talking with one of the locals just before I left. I told him that I had felt more than welcomed in the town of Stolac, that the people alone there had taught me so many valuable lessons and done so much for me, and that I felt more than guilty leaving them behind with still so much work to be done. He smiled at me, shook his head, and told me that I could not even imagine just how much I did for the community by simply showing up, and that in doing the work how much more I gave.

Our next destination was Medjugorje, where we would spend the next week of our trip on a pilgrimage. When we arrived at the place we would be staying, we again unloaded from the bus and began unpacking into our new rooms. This time we were to all stay together in a three-story apartment-like building. Here we would be provided with two meals a day – breakfast and dinner – and would spend most of our time touring the holy city.

Each day mass was said at the large cathedral near the center of town. The St. David's group leaders had already planned out certain activities each day for any of those in the group who wished to attend. Anybody who felt more inclined to work out his or her own agenda were welcome to do so. Each day, Tyler and I would spend some time attending the group activities, and other times we would spend doing our own things. When I was not gift shopping for those at home or attending the different activities, I would try to spend most my time in solitary prayer or talking with those around me about the events of this holy site.

By the end of our second week, which seemed to have gone by much quicker than our first, we had managed to see, go, and do many incredible things. We climbed Cross Mountain; climbed Apparition Hill, visiting the actual sight of the first apparitions; and we visited a few of the charity homes in the area for drug and alcohol abusers, and single mothers. One of the days we were even invited as a special audience to pray with the visionary Maria, and be present to witness one of her apparitions with Our Blessed Mother!

The last night of our stay we had a large feast – consisting of pig and lamb meet, breads, cheeses, salads, desserts, and drink. After the meal, Brother David from the Friars of the Franciscan Renewal brought out his guitar and we sat around with all the kids singing and teaching songs. Once the singing had finished, we all took turns standing up and describing our experiences on this trip, what new knowledge or virtues we would return home with. Some of the members gave their accounts with tears running down their faces, and others choked in their speech. Everybody there knew that the true sacrifice of our trip would be to leave this all behind now, until next year, next month, or maybe never again.

As we all stood around the next few hours, we spent most of our time gathering everything together for the journey home. Inside, however, it truly felt like home was what we were leaving. Tyler and I also spent this time giving our goodbyes out to all those we had spent the trip with, for there would be little time for it once on our way. Our bus was set to depart at 2 a.m. for Split, and from there we flew out.

One of the things that I told the people of our group, as I stood before them that last night, was that no gifts, souvenirs, rocks, or dirt that I brought home, could compare to the value of the experiences I gained from this trip. The memories I have of the people I met, places I went, and things I saw and did, could not be traded for any price. For me this journey became the greatest and finest reality check in my life thus far. From its experiences I have been able to grow in many ways – by building greater values, and deepening my spirituality with God. I can look at a world that has so much going wrong in it, but know that I found an example of the good in it still worth fighting for.

Earlier, I had mentioned that Our Mother Mary played a major role in this journey of mine. This I hold to be complete and true. Without the help of Our Blessed Mother, I am sure to this day that I would have never even been on this trip. This all came to me as a great surprise. Before this trip I never had a close or prayerful relationship with Mother Mary. I always felt more content in praying straight to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. But as I continued to feel her strong presence throughout the whole of my trip, I was able to slowly build a new and firm relationship with the person I now call my Mother above. Throughout my trip she did speak with me many times, and with her I was able to learn and grow much stronger in my faith.

With that, I again would like to thank La Promesa Foundation, St. David's Foundation, and all others, who were involved in allowing me to make this journey.
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