OM worker Rafael grew up in a traditional Catholic family in Costa Rica. But even then God was preparing him to minister to society’s forgotten half a world away.
As a boy, Rafael loved geography and learning about other countries, spending hours poring over books and maps, memorising city names and comparing different places. The Balkans in particular interested him, and he read a lot about the history and culture of the region. When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, he followed the news about it intently. Behind the scenes, God continued to draw Rafael to Himself. When Rafael was fifteen, a cousin invited him to a youth camp. Here he was introduced to a different approach to Jesus Christ. “It caught my attention…the idea of a relationship with Jesus Christ, outside the traditional barrier,” Rafael says. It was then that Rafael committed to Jesus on a more personal level. He also became interested in serving Jesus cross-culturally. He studied international affairs at university and was heavily involved in promoting missions in his local church. As he sensed God calling him further abroad, the Balkans immediately came to mind. “It was a place that had always called my attention,” he says. He researched mission organisations and found that OM worked in the Balkans, so he went to the OM office and inquired about ministry opportunities. “I felt somehow prepared when the moment came,” he remembers, and he joined the OM team in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2011.
Rafael spent four and a half years in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He learned the local language, served as a musician in his local church, and formed relationships with nonbelievers in the community. After his first term he returned to Costa Rica to get married, then he and his wife, Priscilla, moved to Germany, while he studied for a Master’s Degree in Intercultural Theology. But he knew he would return to Bosnia- Herzegovina. Before leaving, he hadn’t even said final good-byes. “I told people ‘I will come back,’” he says. And he did in 2018.
Meanwhile in the Middle East, civil war in Syria and political unrest in countries close by resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. Thousands of refugees began flooding into Europe. As the crisis continued, countries in the European Union (EU) began closing their borders to the refugees. Many refugees began traveling through Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach Croatia, an EU country. OM had a team in Bihac a town near the Croatian border that was a hotspot for refugees.
The OM team started an “Open House” ministry. The ministry provides home cooked meals, a hot shower, and a place to rest for weary refugees after being forced from their homes and walking hundreds of miles, often through the cold and harsh weather conditions. “They are often mistreated, some even being hit,” Rafael observes. “They arrive dirty and tired and we say ‘Come in, take a hot shower.’” Though a hot shower may be a small thing, the team hopes to be an encouragement to the refugees, and help provide mental and emotional support. Some refugee families have been stranded for almost two years due to lack of funds, or because they are physically unable to continue moving. Some have also made it to the EU, only to be met with pushback. Many others stay the winter, then continue their journey when better weather comes in the spring. The team have been able to form relationships with these refugees, and remain in contact with them. “Some of them have found asylum,” reports Rafael, “They tell us, ‘When I get my papers I will come back and visit.’”
This ministry has also opened the door for the OM team to share the gospel. “Many of the refugees are new believers, and some even came to know Christ while here,” Rafael says. “They saw us as people with some sort of religious authority, so we were usually asked to pray for them, and pray with the ones who decided to become Jesus followers…some of them even asked for baptism, and this we always coordinated with the local pastors.” Those who made it to Europe have joined faith communities there. It was also difficult for the refugees to understand why the team in Bihac came from other, more prosperous nations to help them. “We have a lot of conversations with refugees who ask ‘Why are you foreigners here doing this?”” Rafael relates. “There is a dilemma for them- they say ‘We are trying to go to better places, why do you come to this broken one?’ We tell them that it is not always about going to a place where everything will be better for me. You can also go to a broken country and find fulfillment in serving others.”
Though the refugees that come to the Open House ministry don’t usually stay long, the team hopes that some long term fruit may come of these “small things” they have shared with the people. “We do not see an end to this [refugee] crisis yet, but it is short term in the people we are in contact with,” says Rafael, “They are always looking forward to moving, to leaving, so we know that our ministry with them is temporary…Our prayer and goal is that the migrants and refugees who don’t know the gospel may come to the knowledge of Christ while here, as we show them the love of Christ even in practical ways.”
Even in simply offering a hot shower.