The following is a series of blog posts of an evangelistic short term missions trip to the Republic of Croatia. For two weeks in June 2021, I traveled with and played in a blues band called “Mercy Street,” in support of local churches and Christian agencies in Čakovec, Đurđevac, Požega, Slavonski Brod, Bjelovar, Daruvar, Dugo Selo, and other cities. This trip was sponsored by Proclaim International and the generosity of some of you as well.
About The Trip
The Republic of Croatia, located in southeast Europe on the Adriatic sea, is a country of 4.5 million people with only 0.4% Evangelical Christians. The country has a rich religious history, but the people of Croatia don’t need religion, they need life. This life comes from a living, vibrant and dynamic relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Even those professing to be Christians in Croatia are mostly nominal or are bogged down with religious traditions and sacraments. Hope is in short supply with high unemployment, little confidence in the future, and rampant drug use among young people.
In order to help local churches in Croatia reach their communities with the Good News, Proclaim International conducts evangelistic outreach events in the public forum, outside the walls of the church. The goal is to help the local church with visibility, to gain credibility in the community, to help our church partners build and develop new relationships, and of course to share the Gospel straight and clear. The church partners will have effective strategies in place so that our ministry events will have a high level of sustainability so as to be able to “make disciples” and help the church grow and multiply.
Proclaim’s main strategic partner in Croatia is an organization called Ima Nade which translates in English to “There is Hope.” Ima Nade is a partner organization working under the umbrella of Proclaim International.
June 6-8: Arrival
Sacramento to Atlanta. Atlanta to Amsterdam. Amsterdam to Zagreb. As many of you know, traveling in the age of Covid is not the least bit interesting nor easy. The main obstacle for us is that we (I am traveling with friend and fellow musical cohort, Matt Sawhill) must have Covid PCR tests within 72 hours of landing in Amsterdam. Never mind that a PCR test can take 24 to 48 hours to receive results. So we had to get tested Friday afternoon, and hope that we receive the results prior to our first Sunday morning flight. The other major challenge is that we were limited to crackers on the plane and closed restaurants in the terminals. Good thing I brought energy bars.
After arriving in Čakovec, we had a light dinner and went to bed. The next morning, we were pleasantly surprised to find green hills, blue skies, and a quaint peaceful town with relatively few cars or traffic. We walked around the block and ordered Americanos at this lovely corner cafe. After ordering, we realized they didn’t take credit cards, and we hadn’t yet exchanged for any kuna (their currency, about 1/6 of a dollar). So the barista just smiled and said, “I’m the boss here. I give you for free.”
The rest of the day was spent in some pretty intense rehearsals. We are learning 18 songs for this concert tour, and some of the songs require quite a bit of technical understanding. But I’m getting to know the band, talented and humble folk who really know how to play in the pocket and make good music. I’m praying for God’s good favor on our tour, but I feel like he’s already blessed me a lot.
• As I had mentioned above, we had a light dinner our first day in. That’s because the main meal in Croatia is lunch. Breakfast is often cold cuts and bread, and dinner is lighter fare.
• Europe just seems to make better coffee than America. Darker, richer, and less bitter.
• Croatia is a very small country, just 4 million people, in a relatively small area in southeastern Europe. But there is a vast and rich history here, one that I am looking forward to learning about.
June 9-11: Bonding and Banding
The word band has a number of dictionary meanings. One meaning is “a group of people who have a common interest or purpose.” Another is “a small group of musicians who play music.” and still another, “a range of frequencies or wavelengths.”
I think that—in the case of this trip—all of these meanings apply. As we played our first two concerts, first in our “hometown” of Čakovec, and then in the small village of Đurđevac, we are discovering what it is to be a band. We’re traveling together, eating together, setting up and taking down a large commercial van full of music and lighting equipment daily, and learning to play music together. Beyond the simple notes of the song, or beyond the simple itinerary of this tour, we are learning how to unite under the leading of the Holy Spirit to something greater than ourselves.
So far, the response has been mixed. We are unapologetically Gospel-focused in our music and message during our shows. So there is a tendency for people in the audience to float away as our message becomes clearer and more intense. During the set, John Bowers, our musical director for the tour, tells short anecdotes to set up the songs. Then Steve Liberti, our tour director, shares his powerful testimony. Near the end of the set, John comes back and shares a short Gospel message with an invitation at the end to talk to us after the concert. This is all, of course, translated to Croatian.
Some people leave before the message. Some stay but are stand-offish. In the two concerts we’ve had so far, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a few folk after the concert, who typically come up to us to compliment or thank us for the music. During the course of the interaction, we’ve been able to gently turn the conversation into a spiritual one—asking them about their story, and hopefully sharing a little of mine.
We did get a chance to meet the extremely grateful pastor at the host church in Đurđevac, who shared his story with me. He spent a year in the Bay area (San Leandro) preparing for church planting before coming back to Croatia, and finally landing in this small town with his family. I was impressed again by God’s good grace, as Pastor Igor passionately shared his story of faith with me. It is humbling to be reminded, again and again, that God is moving in places—and in hearts—all over the world. I will be praying for him and his congregation.
• While Croatia is a member of the EU, they still have their own currency. The kuna is about 1/6 of a dollar, but looks a lot more prettier.
• It’s no secret that the European palate is different than the American palate. Less processed food, fresher ingredients, and much less sugar is a good thing.
• A little local history: According to legend, the Turkish army had set a siege on the Đurđevac fortress, with the aim of starving the army and the sheltered population. Slowly, the food dwindled, until all that was left in Đurđevac was a single rooster. In desperation, an old woman suggested to the captain of the town that a rooster be shot by cannon at the Turkish camp. After being fired upon by a rooster, the Turkish army surmised that the city had plentiful food, and they gave up the siege. So the hotel we stayed at is called the “Picok,” which refers to the rooster.
June 12: Disappointment
The next day, we drove to Požega to play an outreach concert in the city in support of a small church community there. Soon after we arrived however, the local pastor was told that the police there would not allow the concert. The disappointment on the young man’s face was quite evident, as he was clearly looking forward to this opportunity. He had taken over this small pastorate four years ago, and was struggling to reach out to his community.
Croatia, like many European countries, is a culturally Catholic nation. Many people would say that they are Catholic, having been baptized as an infant in the church, and perhaps they might go to mass on Christmas and Easter. But they are practically agnostic in their lifestyles and beliefs. At the same time, they are wary of other religions, particularly of any that may run contrary to Catholicism. Such is the case in this instance. We suspect that the approval of a protestant church-backed concert would have been politically risky for city officials.
Our hearts went out to this deflated man and his young family, and after praying for him and for his congregation, we drove to the next city, Slavonski Brod. We are there at the invitation of a church who just built a new building, and wants us to do an outreach concert in the town square, which is bustling with people and energy. We will also be participating in their Sunday morning worship service.
• While having lunch in Požega, we were approached by two pre-teen boys who sheepishly asked if they could practice their English with us. They told us they loved the Terminator movie and were learning karate, and they shared their pastries with us (they were with family celebrating their Catholic confirmation). They were excited when we informed them that we were a touring band from America, and were beyond giddy when we gave them a CD.
• Worship music here is different. Of the few churches we’ve been to so far, the music tends to be older contemporary music and hymns. As in some countries, there’s no standard for translations, so each local church may have their own translation of a particular song, some better than others. So newer songs have a tendency to lag. And as one young Croatian worship leader explained, many newer songs lack content in her opinion.
• They eat a lot of meat here. Fried breaded pork or chicken, stews, sausages, kebabs, even cold cuts for breakfast. I’ve think I’ve eaten more meat in the last four days than in any four day period since I married Deb.
• I think I’ve had a sufficiently large sample size to say this: Toilets here are weird. It’s hard to explain, but they seem to flush up, not down.
June 13-14: On The Road Again
Six days. Six cities. Six hotels. Six evening concerts. We’re entering a string of concerts on the itinerary now, beginning with Slavonski Brod. Slavonski Brod is on the south edge of Croatia. In fact, from the stage at the town square we played at, you can turn and see beyond the Sava River into the country of Bosnia. I can just imagine what that was like to be there during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s. In fact, if you look close enough, you could still see where the bullets ricocheted off the buildings.
In contrast to the previous nights, the outdoor square where we played was quite full, and people were there enjoying the music. As we began setup that afternoon, crowds of soccer fans were huddled around big screen TVs all around the square, rooting for their Croatian national team as they played England in the Euro Cup. (We actually performed between Euro Cup games.) Despite the threat of rain, the weather was pleasant and a refreshing breeze kept our music flapping in our stands.
The band is gelling well, and I am starting to feel the charts enough to take some chances with my solos, so that’s fun. Also, the genre of music we’re playing—with lots of instrumental solos and breaks—lends itself toward lots of interaction with the other band members (musically and otherwise), so that also makes it fun.
After the gig, I had the opportunity to speak to a few people, but no real Gospel-intentioned conversations. I was able to encourage one worship musician at length, and also interact with some kids and their parents.
The next day, we left for the city of Bjelovar, where we have been invited by a pastor without a church. Seriously, there isn’t a biblical church in the entire city (Catholic churches here are as much political entities as houses of faith, and the Catholic leadership is leery—even hostile at times—to the Gospel). So it is extremely difficult to birth a fellowship here, and the local pastor—who leads about twenty people in Bible studies—is hoping to formally birth a church.
We set up in the center of the city square (picture the city square in the movie, “Back to the Future,” complete with bandstand, park benches, and Doc Brown hanging from the clock tower), and played a set to about a hundred curious and attentive onlookers. Afterwards, I had another great conversation, this time with a couple who were spiritual agnostics. Later I learned that the local pastor was greatly encouraged, not only by our presence, but by the attendance and the number of contacts made. This is what it’s about.
• We’ve all been encouraged to dress the part, so that’s why I look a little more “rock’n’roll” in the accompanying photos. No grandpa jokes, please.
• We’re living the life of a touring band, no question. Our two-hour concerts usually begin around 7-8 PM, so dinner is usually around 11 PM or midnight, and we’ve been spending lots of time in the tour bus.
• During our concert in Bjelovar, the interpreter got a little confused, and instead of introducing Matt as our bass player, he introduced him as our baseball player.
• European gelato is awesome. Nuff said.
June 15-16: If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Daruvar
Two days later, two more concerts. Daruvar is a city that has benefitted from a long-term relationship with Proclaim. In contrast to first-time cities like Đurđevac, the people of Proclaim have performed and witnessed in Daruvar for many years, and not only is the local bible church known and well-considered in the town, but the church is friendly with the local government. This is a tremendous benefit to the Gospel, when the local church is able to build trust and a working relationship with the local government. And it is not to be underestimated. The Catholic authorities are typically very closely aligned to the governmental authorities, who are responsible for permitting, purchasing buildings, allowing public events, etc. And on a more personal level, Catholicism is deeply inculturated in the people here. In a way, to be Croatian is to be Catholic (if only in name). One of the benefits of these concerts is to create goodwill between the local biblical churches and their city governmental offices and officials.
In terms of the concert itself, Daruvar was probably the first time I felt at peace with the musical charts. I was able to relax through all my solos and vocals, and it seemed like everyone in the band dropped the groove. This is important, because an audience can feel when the band is having fun, and it helps them to have fun too. The stage was situated in a great location—in the city square between a number of large open-air cafes—so we had a good crowd who stuck with us throughout the entire concert, including the testimony and devotional time. And afterwards, we had young people waiting to talk to us as well. Our team was able to share the Gospel individually to a number of these young people, and we hope that seeds were planted this day.
The next day, we packed up and headed to Vrbovec. Our caravan—a compact car, a big blue commercial van, and a red nine-passenger van—winds through narrow two-lane country roads, gently rocking us through green meadows and small forested hillocks. Napping is optional during these road trips, which can be up to two and a half hours.
Vrbovec was an interesting situation. We were invited by an American pastor who has been living in Croatia for about twenty years. He has one church in another city, but wants to plant another church in this city. Currently, he has a Bible study and a few committed believers in Vrbovec, so he invited the Proclaim team to perform for the first time in the town. Not only were we welcomed by our hosts, but the local media was there to take photos and do a story on us. Outside of a large marble and stone stage that sounded like playing in a cave, the concert was well attended, and our team once again had a few good conversations with interested onlookers. And the Christian community there was beyond excited to have us.
There was a change of plans, as our concert in Dugo Selo was cancelled, so we left immediately after the concert back to our home base of Čakovec. Instead, we will do a concert at the church of our hosts, Baptisticka Crkva Mackovec (check out their website!).
• Tipping in Croatia (as in many European countries) is 10 percent, not the typical 15-20 percent in the US. And the tax is included, so it’s easy to figure out the bill. Just move the decimal place.
• So much of the country in central Croatia is agricultural. But they are more communities of local family-owned farms, not the large corporate farms we find in California. One of the crops here looks like immature corn, but I was told that they are “broom” plants. When mature, they cut off the tops and make brooms with them, then mulch the rest of the plant for fodder for livestock. I had never considered before that you had to grow brooms.
• Some of you know that I always play with a cough drop in my mouth. It’s a habit that I picked up playing in smoky bars in the eighties, and it helps sooth my throat when I sing. I brought one big bag of Halls honey with me (80 drops), and I’m starting to run out already. We’ll see if my stash is enough for the trip.
• At the end of the Daruvar gig, while we were packing the equipment van, we were visited by a drunk homeless man. Or maybe the word accosted might be a more descriptive verb. He kept pinging between gentle mumbling and loud, obnoxious physicality, pestering our group incessantly. He was shouting in a garbled mix of Croatian and Czech, so we couldn’t really tell what he was saying. Thankfully, it didn’t get out of hand, but it was a little dicey there for a bit of time.
• In Croatia, when you enter a town, there’s a yellow sign with the name on it as you drive in. When you leave, they have a similar sign, but with a red slash through the name.
June 17-18: Living In The Blur
For those without a scorecard, I’ve been away since June 6. The events of the last twelve days have become a whirlwind of cappuccinos, concerts, conversations, and catnaps. I’m starting to lose track of the days, and the songs we’ve been performing have now become a permanent soundtrack in my head. Touring is not a normal life, by any means, and the blur will get to you over time.
I had mentioned that the concert in Dugo Selo was cancelled, so our hosts arranged for us to perform at the midweek worship service at Baptisticka Crkva Mackovec in Čakovec. This was a bit of a “home” crowd for us, and our only indoor performance, so we did a short set before going back to our host apartment for pizza. It was well received, and was good to be able to relax through a set of music. In particular, just being able to lift my hands during a Croatian version of “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” was freeing to me.
The next day was our last concert at Mursko Sredisce, a beautiful outdoor venue overlooking the Mura River. There was a small crowd at this concert, and a lively group of children playing at the playground immediately behind us. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were out in full force, and I spent the concert trying to covertly swat mosquitoes and wipe them off my keyboard.
It was a bittersweet moment for me as we performed the last few songs. Not all missions teams bond as well as we have, so while I am glad to be going back home, to see family and sleep in a familiar bed, I will miss these people. The team itself was comprised of young and old, Croatian and American, volunteer and mission staff. I loved the conversations—young people turning us old guys on to new bands and music, listening to the hopes and dreams of our Croatian friends, learning about local history and food, and just being around one another.
From that standpoint, it has been a great tour.
• One of the interesting things to me whenever I am in Europe is the selection of automobiles. Except for the ubiquitous VW Golf, none of the models of cars in the US are the same as here. You will find Japanese makes, but also lots of Peugeot, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Citroen, Range Rover, and national brand, Skoda. What will really turn your head is when you see the cool little BMW or Mercedes subcompact hatchbacks. There are few trucks here, and definitely no big American SUVs.
• Idemo! Pronounced “E-dim-oh!,” this is Croatian for “Let’s go!” It was a bit of a rallying cry for us, and we heard it often.
• I’ve had a lot of pizza while here. Croatian pizza has the essence of Italian pizza (I think it’s in the dough), but with more toppings (mostly meat!).
• Pumpkin seed oil. What a revelation! You pour it in salads, or dip bread or cheese in it. It’s a specialty here. Thankfully, our hosts have gifted us with some.