I had the pleasure of traveling with my daughter Rachel to several countries that were formed from the former Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia (where we spent most of our time).
For much of its history, Croatia has been a highly prized and highly contested territory. In times past, Italians, Greeks, Romans, the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and Tito’s Communist Yugoslavia maintained a presence or exerted authority over Croatian lands.
With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe beginning in 1989 and after proclamations of independence by Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, Yugoslavia devolved into warfare. The 1992-'95 Bosnian War finally brought international involvement and a November 1995 peace agreement, though not until after ethno-religious genocide and the use of mass rape as a weapon of war.
While the horrors of war inevitably leave a lasting mark and simmering tensions, opportunities and good also rose from its ashes.
In our travels last summer, we met many genuinely humble, kind people, eager to eschew the vestiges of war and teach us of their diverse, vibrant and rich history. Others took us on tours of their communities and introduced us to their lovely cultures and ways of life. I cannot count how many times people patiently gave directions or walked us to the various sites and restaurants we sought. Others eagerly talked to us, asked us questions and listened, and shared their love for the place they call home.
Another great blessing has been the opening of these countries for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally recognized in Yugoslavia in 1975, according to the country's page on lds.org. Through the 1980s, the church began holding services and engaging in limited missionary activity in Yugoslavia. However, not until the collapse of communism and the end of the Bosnian War did greater opportunities arise.
In September 2010, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles blessed four countries in that area (see "Elder Nelson pronounces blessings on six Balkan nations," Sept. 23, 2010, ldschurchnewsarchive.com).
In the summer of 2013, 17 prospective missionaries from the Adriatic North Mission gathered for training in Zagreb, Croatia, including several who had recently received their assignments to serve (see "Ushering in a new era: Adriatic North Mission prepares young adults to serve," LDS Church News, Sept. 7, 2013).
My son, who was serving a mission in Tonga at the time, upon learning of our travel plans, put me in touch with his former university roommate who was serving in Croatia. He wrote to tell of the wonderful people and their challenges, yet the slow, steady growth of the church.
A student in one of my classes served in Slovenia. He was “green with envy” that we were going, expressing his love for the people and providing us a list of “great foods,” good restaurants, church information and the promise of the trip of a lifetime.
A dear friend, Ann, graciously gave me the written story of a young Croatian woman’s conversion as part of a compilation in "A Global Testimony: Sixty Different Countries, One Powerful Message," reflecting the reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ across the earth today.
Katarina Jambreŝić, who compiled "A Global Testimony," was born and raised in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. She described in the book growing up and always living “by faith and (having) a personal relationship with God.” In that large urban center in 1991, at age 11, she and about 30 other children loved to go outside and play dodgeball.
Every day, they noticed two young men in suits and ties walk by, and soon 30 youths were talking to two to four missionaries. Eventually, Katarina accepted an invitation and attended church services, and she felt “a special feeling there” as she was introduced to gospel principles that “left a lasting impression in my young mind,” she wrote.
One week later, the missionaries disappeared. After two months, she learned they had been pulled out of the country due to the Bosnian War. Katarina did not forget them over eight long months. When they returned, they gave her a copy of the Gospel Principles manual, which, for her, put life and eternity in perspective.
At age 14, Katarina read the Book of Mormon and later wrote in her story, “I never doubted Joseph’s account of how the Book of Mormon came to be, so I didn’t read it to know if it was true. I read it to learn, and the process was empowering.”
Fasting and sincere prayer helped her gain a testimony. Her parents still required her to attend Sunday morning Mass, and she came to understand there would be no baptism until parental permission was no longer needed. She attended LDS Church services when is was able, though there was no Primary, no Young Women activities, only a couple of youths her age and few manuals. She could regularly attend Friday family home evening and there loved discussing gospel doctrines.
Katarina determined to attend Brigham Young University but had to earn a scholarship to do so. When she learned her chances improved if she attended a U.S. high school her senior year, she went to work. Faith, fasting and prayer produced miracles. She found a family to live with in Utah, left her beloved family behind and not only graduated high school but also earned a Gordon B. Hinckley Scholarship to BYU. She explained, “I no longer just believed but knew that, with God, anything was possible. … When I finally turned 18, six years in the making, and now in Utah, I was baptized.”
Katarina returned home during summers, seeing church growth in her beloved homeland and actively sharing her testimony with others. After graduation from BYU, she took a job in New York City. Though her life, like others, has been filled with ups and downs, she shared her “unshakeable testimony, solidified in my youth … (that) miracles … require obedience and faith. … God’s will and timing are always paramount, and our patience may be tried … (but) faith is an actual power. … I love this gospel and its divine principles.”
She also wrote in "A Global Testimony," “Thank you for letting me indulge you in my two great loves — the gospel of Jesus Christ and all things international.”
But this is the key, isn’t it? As I have traveled and met so many faithful members of the LDS Church in so many nations around the world, I have come to know that we are, indeed, an international church and that God loves all his children and designs to bless each one of them. He is blessing the wonderful people of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
Missionaries are finding faithful converts around the world and will continue to do so. We have the privilege of welcoming them into LDS congregations, of embracing the richness and beauty of their lives and cultures, of learning and sharing together as brothers and sisters in the Savior’s church.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part time at BYU. Her views are her own.