I should have known better. I’ve done enough trips to report on Bible Society work to know that I should always expect the unexpected. Anybody, anywhere and at any time, can have a story to tell. More importantly, I should have known to expect the unexpected from God.
That day, in a desolate, decaying industrial town in southern Serbia, I was caught off guard. The temperature was far below zero, we’d been travelling since 5.30am and I had come to the end of my mental and physical resources. We were in a Romani church. The service had ended and we were waiting for the pastor to lock up before we set off on the long journey back to Belgrade.
“Did you grow up in a Christian family?” I casually asked Bojan*, a man standing next to me, more out of politeness, a desire to fill the rather awkward silence, than out of a real wish to hear his answer. My throw-away question was my first mistake. My second was to underestimate what this question would mean to this particular man.
What happened next shook me to the core, immediately dispelling my complacency and my exhaustion.
It was as if nobody had asked him about his faith journey before. Almost immediately, tears began to roll down his cheeks as he told me how, as a boy, he’d been an atheist and had thought that Christians were ignorant, unaware of scientific facts. He’d even once been given a New Testament and had thrown it into a river.
Slowly, discreetly, not wanting to stop the words flowing, not wanting to break eye contact, I reached into my bag and got out my notebook and pen. I’d put them away, forgetting the golden rule. Anybody, anywhere and at any time….
Brother was murdered
Hardly daring to take notes, I listened carefully as my unscheduled interviewee told me how all his beliefs had been thrown into disarray when his brother was murdered and his marriage – entered into at the age of only 14 – collapsed. Now he suddenly had to deal with grief, anger, the desire to take revenge. Now he realised he didn’t have the strength to cope alone.
The path to faith lay in taking care of his brother’s children. Through his love for them, he found peace and the ability to forgive. And when he re-married, to a Christian woman, he started going to church and discovered the source of these values. Now, thanks to his journey of extremes, his whole family have become Christians.
It was past midnight by the time we arrived back in Belgrade, but I had no thoughts of sleeping. Bojan’s story swirled around me and I knew I had to try to untangle it, make some sense out of what I’d heard and experienced. My sketchy notes were almost illegible, even stained with my own tears in places, but I had a vivid picture in my mind and I could hear his words as clearly as if he were still standing next to me.
How often do we underestimate God’s presence and power? How often do we fail to recognise him in others? I was certainly challenged that day. Expecting little, what I gained was huge and will remain with me forever.
*Name changed to protect his identity