| April 5, 2013
Dear Family and Friends,
I often get asked by people – “Would you say people are more open to the Gospel over in Serbia than in the U.S?” I’m convinced that the four types of soil Jesus describes in the parable of the sower are all over the world in every country. For some, it just bounces off their ears. Others get excited about it after first hearing it, but then the reaction fizzles out when troubles and persecution come their way. Still others seem to receive it well, but then it gets choked out by worries and desires for wealth and other things. And then there are those chosen few that God completely transforms into new creations.
Several weeks ago I had the tremendous opportunity to sow God’s Word on the streets of New Orleans right in the middle of the decadent Mardi Gras celebration. A friend from church invited me to join him along with hundreds of other Christians from all over the country. Over the years, this event has become one of the worst public displays of evil that you could ever imagine. Drunkenness, homosexuality, drug use, violence, sexual perversion, witchcraft, adultery… all run rampant like wildfire throughout the city during the days of this annual festival.
|Witnessing to a drunk man who brought his three little kids (on the right)!|
We spent several hours a day for a total of four days conversing with people right in the heart of the city on the notorious Bourbon St. We held signs with verses and thought provoking questions on them and gave out thousands of tracts, New Testaments and other evangelical literature. Most people would mock and ridicule us.
I even had to back away a few times from some people that I thought were going to hit me! My heart broke as I watched the sad parade of lonely, empty people that were walking down the street back and forth, looking for something to fill the void in their hearts. “Oh God, please save them,” I would pray. One time a young man came up and started yelling at me. All of the sudden a girl came up and reprimanded him – “No, you need to listen to this man. We all do. He speaks the truth.” I turned and asked, “Who are you?” “When I saw your sign,” she said, “I quickly ran away, trying to avoid you. I’m a Christian, but I haven’t been walking with the Lord the past few months. I came out here to party with my friends, get drunk and try to have fun. When I saw your sign, I started feeling guilty. I know I shouldn’t be out here.” She started to cry. “When I saw my boyfriend come up and harass you, I felt so bad and I decided to come over to defend you. I’m so sorry!” She continued to sob with her head down. I said, “Do you mind if I pray for you?” “Sure,” she answered. “You know, God still loves you, even though you’re out here sinning against Him. He wants you to come back to Him. He wants to satisfy your soul. He’s so gracious! It only takes a minute to return. He’s waiting for you with open arms.” We prayed together and she walked away with a smile on her face. “Thanks!” she said as she disappeared into the crowd.
A few people came up and sincerely wanted to know why in the world we would come to Mardi Gras to do what we’re doing. I would tell them – “You know, this is a festival that people come to from all over the world to publicly make fools out of themselves to try to fill a void that’s in their hearts. But look around you; do they look satisfied? We know the answer! He’s the Bread of Life! Jesus! He and only He can satisfy man’s hunger. He is the Living Water – the One who quenches the thirst you have in your soul! Just think if we were all beggars and I happen to find a place that serves free steak dinners. I would run to all my beggar friends to tell them the good news – ‘Hey, listen! I found a place where you can eat like a king for free! We don’t have to starve anymore!!’ That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Every morning, back at the Christian school we were staying at, the outreach team would have a Bible study and worship time before going out on the streets again. Several of us shared testimonies of what God had been doing through us on the streets of New Orleans. It was amazing to hear story after story of lives being touched and changed. Some of the seed fell on good soil during our time there and we had the most passionate, joyful times of worship, praising God for it! Even in the midst of such darkness, his light broke through!
In a little less than 2 months we’ll be heading back to throw some seed around in Serbia. We look forward to seeing God use us to bring more people to Himself in that area of the world; particularly those affected by disabilities.
Thank you for your prayers and financial support. We’re so thankful to have you on our team!
Love in Christ,
P.S. I’m going to be in California the first weekend of next month (May 3-7th). I’ll be having a get-together at “North Coast Church” in Vista at 4pm on Sun. May 5th. Hope to get a chance to see many of you there! Here is the address:
North Coast Church (Main Campus)
2405 N Santa Fe Ave, Vista, CA 92084
Serbian Friends in Dallas
In our last newsletter I mentioned a couple that we’ve been hanging out with a couple that are originally from Serbia (Dragan and Brankica). Well, since then Brankica has started coming to church regularly and even went to a women’s retreat with Jelena! Although they haven’t come to Christ yet, it really looks like they’re close. We continue to have great conversations with them about the Lord almost every time we get together! We’re so happy that they have gotten to know our Christian friends that they’ll be able to stay in contact with after we leave.
“Joni & Friends” Family Retreat
At the end of June we are planning on having our 4th annual J&F Family Retreat for families affected by disabilities. We have over 25 families that are planning on attending, many of whom are non-Christians. This year we have a larger-than-usual team of volunteers coming over from Dallas, California and other areas of America to help facilitate the event.
So many great things have happened at these retreats in the past:
• Families that struggle with extremely stressful circumstances heard about how they can find hope and contentment through having a relationship with Jesus; many of them for the first time!
• Parents got a much needed break and rest, being able to leave their kids for a few hours each day to the care of volunteers. Some of them even told us that they have never had anyone babysit their kids before and couldn’t find anyone that would want to.
• Kids with special needs and their siblings had the time of their lives, doing fun activities like: painting, singing, dancing, sports, swimming, talent shows….
• Families got encouragement through getting to know and hanging out with others that have the same difficulties they do.
• Parents received practical advice on how to improve the quality of life for their children from trained professionals.
• Volunteers and Pastors went away completely changed, with a new positive outlook on serving people with disabilities. (Right in the middle of the retreat, we also host a two-day conference for Pastors from various areas of Serbia on the subject of “Serving people with special needs in a church context.”)
• With each passing year, we’ve seen more and more churches in Serbia get involved: sending and supporting members as volunteers, passing on info about the retreat to families affected by disabilities that they’ve been in contact with, etc.
You can read more about what God’s been doing at these events and see pictures in some of our past newsletters on www.SerbianOutreach.com
Please pray that the Lord would move again in the hearts of those attending. Also,please pray that the Lord would provide the rest of the funds we need to cover all the expenses. The total cost of the event is going to be around 18,000 dollars. “Joni & Friends International Disability Center”, www.joniandfriends.org has provided 9,500 of the funds needed, we received 3,000 from Nick Vujicic’s Organization www.lifewithoutlimbs.org, and 3,000 has been given by individual sponsors. So we still need $5,500 to break even. If you feel God tugging your heart to give, you can send a check to:
Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho
7815 Arapaho Road
Dallas, TX 75248
Place in memo section of check:
J&F Retreat – Sivulka
• (All donations given are tax-deductible).
A Special Encounter at Starbucks (by Jelena)
One Saturday morning, (Don’t ask me why!), I decided to have a quiet time with the Lord in a loud, crowded, noisy Starbucks. While I was enjoying my time with God, I noticed a boy of 13, who had some kind of disability, with a cell phone in his hand. He was so excited about his phone and proudly showed it to all the other kids in the café with a giant smile on his face. His father was so patient with him and treated him with so much love and care as he helped him find a seat. I sat and observed with joy the boy’s warm sincerity, innocent kindness and generosity. Just a few years ago, in these same circumstances, I would have never experienced such joy. I would have just: felt sorry for the father, thanked God I don’t have a child like that and then ran away as fast as I could! Today I am completely different person with a completely different attitude. God has given me the ability to see these kinds of children the way He sees them; with a smile on my face, filled with joy, because I have such a child that I’m with each and every day! I left that café thinking about the Family Retreat that was coming up in June and could hardly wait to see kids that have been before and also new kids that I have yet to meet. Here are a few from the earlier retreats:
This is Lea. Her parents are a part of the team that helps organize the Family Retreats and they’ve invited many new families to attend.
Stefan is 16 and struggles with autism. His mother is a Christian and has been to two retreats so far. Last year Stefan’s father, Nenad, came to the event who is an atheist. Nenad had such a good time last year and was so touched by the love shown by the volunteers toward his child that he has decided to come this year and bring some friends with him!
During one of the discussion times he shared openly how he tried to get help for his son from various sources (government, health institutions, etc.), but the only people that really showed a desire to help were from a local Evangelical church! This got him to wonder if there really might be a God after all!
Suzana is a young girl that must use a wheel chair. She came to the camp for the first time last year and has persuaded her sister to come to the event who is also in a wheel chair.
Erik is a boy with Cerebral Palsy who stole all of our hearts when he came to the camp a few years ago. His positive attitude and joy are contagious! He is going to be at the next camp as well, along with his parents and brother.
Along with them, there are going to be at least 30 other kids that will be at the retreat! We can’t wait to see them all!!!
Women’s Retreat (by Jelena)
Last month I had the privilege of speaking at a women’s conference in California. The topic was “Intimacy with God in the Midst of Suffering” – not something I would expect many women to want to hear while enjoying themselves at a beautiful hotel with a view of the ocean. I was surprised to see 70 women show up to the workshop, interested in what a tired mother with a Serbian accent had to say. I shared with them what I felt God put on my heart, reminding them of things they had probably already heard. At one point I started crying and others joined in, but in the end I was encouraged, especially after one elderly lady came up and said, “I want you to know that I’m leaving this room a changed woman.”
Attitude of the Heart
Quite a few of you reading this may remember 14 years ago when Greg and I were in a similar situation like today. After spending some months in America because of Serbia being bombed by NATO fighter planes, we finally decided to go back in September 1999. Our oldest son, Benny, was only 3 at the time and we were so excited to be getting back to our ministry there. But unlike today, I had a different attitude of the heart. I was so young and thought that God just couldn’t wait to use me in Serbia to bring more people to Himself and that He actually needed me to continue His work there! I felt like running into the country and yelling – “Ok! I’m back! The person you’ve all been waiting for!”
How naïve and idealistic! Yes, I can hardly wait to get back, but now I am so much more aware of how powerful our God is. He doesn’t need me to accomplish His plans. He simply chooses to include me in them for His glory. It’s not because I’m so great; it’s because He is so great! I’m so thankful that my King and Father by his wonderful grace has chosen to use me, including me in such great plans He is carrying out in my country. What an amazing, undeserved privilege!
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
I John 3:1a, 18
Hanging out with my parents in Houston. We're going to miss you, Mom and Dad!