of hard work and years of war had not robbed the old woman’s eyes
of their sparkle. She nodded her scarf-covered head and spoke—through
her granddaughter’s translation—in the throaty language of Bosnia:
“Thank you to the Americans for coming.”
Sipping coffee under
a sweet-smelling grape arbor that warm day last June, I found it hard
to imagine that five years ago this farming village had been a battleground.
Our hostess, “Baba,” spoke excitedly as she pointed at the ground
where a mine had exploded and the stucco farmhouse wall that had been
hit by debris.
Despite the green cornfields
and golden haystacks, we had seen enough destruction to believe her.
It was first evident on the Sarajevo runway where a gutted plane turned
a hollow eye toward us.
Photo by Pat Pope
a bombed-out house remain in Bosnia. It is one of many that
are prominent throughout the southeastern European country.
Our bus ride through
the city was a tour of ruin. The Olympic stadium had become a graveyard.
The press building was a shambles of rubble. Apartments displaying
laundry lines stood adjacent to others with broken, blown-out windows.
Northward in the beautiful mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bi-H),
homes were disfigured by bullet holes, caved-in roofs, dangling electrical
wires. It was because of the war’s devastation that we had come.
Our group met for the
first time at John F. Kennedy Airport, gathered from New Hampshire
to California, from Minnesota to Texas. The next two weeks we would
work, eat and pray together, as we joined forces with Boderiste (Boh-dah-REESE-tah)
villagers to rebuild their homes. Of the 35 of us, a few were skilled
in carpentry, but some, like myself, found it challenging just to
hang a picture. Diverse in background and skill, our group included
contractors, farmers, students, teachers, engineers, nurses, accountants
and friars, whose commonalities were a desire to help and a gray “Roofs
Across Bosnia” baseball cap.
We came together under
St. David’s Relief Organization, which has delivered
everything from goats to Gerber’s to Bosnia. Run by Jeff Reed, St.
David’s is dedicated to assisting the Bosnian people. While the nonprofit
enterprise is nondenominational, it works with Franciscans in Bosnia
to distribute needed goods. Its association with the Franciscans and
Medjugorje gave the venture a distinctly Catholic flavor.
Though we shared a common
faith, our backgrounds defied categorization. There was the charismatic
contractor, who seemed able to sing shingles into place. There was
the embattled Southerner, who on the sly, hung pictures of Our Lady
in her office. There were Franciscan University of Steubenville graduates
and Young Serrans, and a guitarist from Santa Cruz, California. An
Ohio pair who met on the previous year’s expedition had returned as
a married couple. There were two parish priests and five Franciscan
friars, all of whom seemed equally at home on the roof as in a church.
Throughout our stay, they led us in morning and evening prayer, offered
Mass, belted out hymns and hammered nails.
Each of us felt called,
and each had responded to St. David’s brochure that showed people
roofing a ravaged home. The photograph was captioned, “How are you
going to spend your summer vacation?”
Until I received it,
I was going to spend my vacation taking art classes and working on
my house. But the photos of fleeing Kosovars tugged at my heart, particularly
one that showed thirsty children reaching through a train window for
water. Their plight spurred me to help in some concrete way. Bosnia,
which borders Kosovo, had suffered a similar violent cycle of aggression
and recrimination in the early 90’s. Thus, the flier from St. David’s
seemed like a personal invitation.
Land of the People
Boderiste lies in northeastern
Bosnia, close to the Croatian and Serbian borders. We boarded the
bus in Sarajevo where we began a six-hour drive on increasingly potholed
roads. The village’s mayor, Slavko Blazevic, had met us at the airport.
It was the task of this tense, energetic and practical man to feed,
house and transport all who had come to roof houses for the next nine
On the first and ensuing
days, Slavko told us about his village. On May 1, 1992, villagers
heard tanks coming up the hill. People scrambled to defend themselves
but, at the end of a three-day battle, eight were dead. During the
next four years, 57 villagers—almost five percent of Boderiste’s population—died
defending their homes. Many families fled to safer havens in Croatia
and Austria, and the population of 1,200 dwindled to 37 families.
Slavko looked thoughtful
when asked why the people didn’t all leave or surrender. “This is
the land of these people. The land and the Church is their life.”
The families have lived on their farms for hundreds of years.
Someone asks Slavko
how long his family has been here. He tries to oblige with a precise
number, but instead shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “A very, very
long time,” he responds.
Why did he stay? “It
is hard to say,” Slavko replies through the translator. “I could see
that if everyone left, the village would be taken over by Serbian
forces. Someone needed to stay here and stop them.” He later showed
us the hand-dug trench where village men had faced Serbian tanks.
The trench, five by eight feet, is nearly hidden by vines and wildflowers.
Purple vetch, white daisies and yellow fiddleneck blanket the scar
and reminder of war.
Alongside the wildflowers,
the people of Boderiste are slowly healing. With the signing of the
Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995, villagers began to restore
crumbled houses, bring in electricity and erect telephone lines. A
current project is to have running water; right now, people draw or
pump water from wells. About 700 villagers have returned, 60 percent
of the original population. But Slavko wants young people to return,
so the life of the village can continue. For the latter task, he linked
up with St. David’s.
After greeting the villagers,
we trudged down the road for Mass. The church was decked with flowers
rising in tiers around a statue of Our Lady. Prior to the Mass, village
boys vied to be altar servers.
When we arrived, many
of us had been traveling for over 30 hours. But the hospitable people
of Boderiste wouldn’t allow us to go to bed without supper. So, after
Mass, Stefen, the restaurateur, served us a delicious meal of soup,
fish and potato salad. (Later in the week he roasted a pig that produced
the thickest, tastiest bacon I’ve ever had.) Travelers were then divided
among host families.
On our first day, after
we awoke to the crowing of roosters, Slavko directed us to the village
of Dubravice (Doo-brah-VEETZ-a) since Boderiste had been the site
of previous roofing efforts. As we traveled through lush meadows during
our 10-minute drive, we observed that Dubravice seemed miles away
in spirit from Boderiste. In Boderiste many homes were sound, while
in Dubravice every other house was crumbling. All were pocked by bullets
and shrapnel. In Boderiste we saw expansive fields of corn and potatoes;
in this village gardens hugged the houses. Boderiste had young families
and many children. Here, most people we saw were middle-aged or elderly.
Before we left the bus, we were warned to stay only on the roads and
paths because of mines.
Jeff had shipped supplies,
including three aluminum extension ladders, to Boderiste before our
arrival. That increase was appreciated by those who had shared one
communal ladder during the last working pilgrimage. Also in the pile
were nail bags, and I chuckled when I saw, in this remote corner of
the world, a dark Croatian man sporting the bright orange Home Depot
The weather was another
improvement. It had rained during the preceding “Roofs Across Bosnia”
endeavor, making for precarious footing for the roofers. This time
the weather was clear and hot. Our good fortune was unlucky, however,
for the villagers who needed rain to irrigate their fields.
fell quickly into a rhythm. One
group rose early to beat the heat. The more knowledgeable roofers
started the homes, attaching the flashing and lining up the first
row of shingles.
This done, the neophytes started in, following the line already set.
At 7:30 a.m., a second wave rolled into Dubravice carrying baskets
of bread, cheese, eggs, bacon and a big kettle of tea or coffee. After
breakfast, roofing recommenced.
Photo by Pat Pope
Koch bestows a blessing upon a home that received a new roof.
Our work was supported
by prayer that began with adoration after breakfast and continued
throughout the day. Now and again, a team member would lay aside his
hammer, climb down the ladder and hurry to the chapel for his half-hour
The first day I considered
working on a steep two-story house and narrow planks that acted as
crew platforms. While our families back home were offering prayers
for protection from violence, the more probable and immediate threat
was falling off a roof. As a result, I decided to wait to learn about
roofing until we worked on a lower house.
After a midday Mass
and siesta, we returned to work, our numbers augmented by village
children who were out of school. At first the children seemed only
to want to keep us company, and during lulls many of the St. David’s
band played Frisbee or basketball with them. In this way everyone
learned new vocabulary, and some could actually say more than dobra
utro (“Good morning”), although just dobra (“Good”) came
in extremely handy. Eventually, a few older children joined the roofing
During a break, some
of us visited the children on their own turf. Returning roofers had
brought colored markers, paper and activity books for the one-room
school that oversees the first four years of education. (Older students
attend school in the nearby city of Brcko.) At the front of the classroom
was a blackboard and a map of Bi-H. The walls were bare except for
the children’s art. Wires sprouted out of the ceiling where lights
awaited completion. A wood stove stood ready for the cold winter months.
Students sat two to
a table, gazing shyly at the Americans. As their teacher handed out
markers, children burst out with delight. They were thrilled when
they were given books and pens, which they quickly showed to each
other. Even index cards were objects of admiration. Americans mingled
with the schoolchildren, showing them how to do mazes and connect-the-dots.
As a teacher, I realized how much I take for granted when my Bosnian
counterpart held up a pad of binder paper and the children applauded.
Photo by Pat Pope
who spent part of their time visiting children who attend the
village school, taught them about mazes and connect-the-dots.
Though short on materials,
the children demonstrated how a culture is passed on through language.
They treated us to a program of poetry, skits and songs. Ingenuity,
too, made up where supplies were lacking. Our primary translator,
a young man named Salik, had taught himself English by watching American
If the teacher had a
lesson plan for that day, she gave it up. The excitement of the morning
led to an early recess, and the students gave us “high fives” as they
ran out the door. The children brought vitality and enthusiasm to
the building project. During one bus ride home, they began to cheer
for their soccer team. Then for their village: “BodeRISte!” (clap
clap clap). Then for us: “USA!” (clap clap clap). Then for God: “JeSUS!”
(clap clap clap).
One hopeful sign for
this half-Muslim, half-Croat (Catholic) community was the evident
cooperation. The Muslims sweated alongside the Catholics, joined us
in our meals and invited us to theirs. Reversing the unhappy trend
elsewhere, the Muslims generously helped shingle the church.
In this part of the
country, tensions exist mainly between Croats and Muslims on the one
hand and Serbs on the other. Suspicion and bitterness still erupt
in local fighting as we learned from the American soldiers of nearby
Our acquaintance with
these soldiers began one night when five of them showed up at the
restaurant door. Clad in helmets, boots and camouflage coveralls,
one of them drawled, “Anyone he-uh from Tay-ux-is?” He was greeted
with cheers and foot-stomping from the predominantly Texan group.
Thus began a warm exchange that was followed by a visit from the second
platoon and its commanding officer. One of my favorite scenes that
day was a Franciscan friar comparing notes with the gunner atop an
armored Humvee. What did the soldiers miss the most? To a man they
replied, “My family.”
The soldiers invited
us to lunch at their base in nearby Brcko. Some of us sat with the
commanding officer, himself a Catholic. While we munched on American
hamburgers, we discussed not the war or problems of racial prejudice
but alternate ways to interpret Scripture and the need for soldiers
to attend Mass.
The mission of these
soldiers, members of Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division, is to ensure
sufficient stability for the Bosnians to get on their feet. They referee
conflicts, remove mines and patrol northern Bi-H to prevent bullying
and recrimination. In a sense, the peacekeeping force acts as a splint
to hasten the healing process.
Chance for New Life
Time and again since
returning, I’ve asked myself, If it had been me, could I forgive?
If I’d lost my home, if one of my family or friends or students had
been maimed or killed, could I forgive? I was startled and even
shocked by an acquaintance whose summary comment to the havoc in Bosnia
was, “Why can’t people just get along?”
The scale and intensity
of this war demand, at the least, a cry of lamentation. It is as close
as I have ever come to anything like the Crucifixion. Humanly, it
seems that forgiveness is impossible, that the secret of peace lies
only in the grace flowing from the heart of the dying God-Man.
God has been merciful
to me and has not asked of me this kind of self-effacing forgiveness.
What he has asked of me, what I brought back from the Balkans to share
with my colleagues and family, is an increased sense of the importance
of personal presence.
The soldiers conduct
“presence patrols” to prevent outbreaks. Our band of volunteers carried
out a “presence patrol” as well. We were bringing the presence of
Christ, extending his Incarnation. The rebuilding of a few roofs,
though, is statistically insignificant. The import of our effort was
simply “being there,” being aware of the sorrows and labors of the
villagers and offering assistance.
This important truth
is one that I can live in the States as I sing songs with children,
have coffee with a friend or tutor someone in chemistry. The importance
of the action lies less in accomplishment and more in presence and
attention. After all, we do not call Jesus’ continued life on earth
the “Real Product” but the “Real Presence.”
Our presence carried
with it something of the power of Christ’s eucharistic presence, with
its implications of healing and Resurrection. We came, perhaps like
Mary Magdalene, to offer consolation and help in a sorrowful moment.
Like her gift, our poor and sometimes even inept offering resonated
with the first beats of a new rhythm, the prelude to a new melody
that can break the unhappy pattern of crimes and paybacks.
This melody resounded
in the stories we heard of individuals who had transcended age-old
feuds. Stories told of men and women who provided food, transportation
and consolation to anyone afflicted by the war, Serbs and Muslims
who wanted to go into business together and displaced mothers on both
sides who together mourned their dead sons.
With our eyes we saw
encouraging signs. Boderiste had been transformed from a demoralized
community to an optimistic one. The Franciscans in Mostar, whose 130-year-old
church was burnt to the ground in 1992, erected a new structure in
its place. They even preserved two statues that survived the flames,
a Madonna and a charred lump that is barely recognizable as St. Anthony.
One evening I sat on the balcony and listened to violin music wafting
over the cornfields. Haunting but lively, it was music for a wedding,
a sign of unity and a promise of new life.
By the last day, we
were a team of almost-expert roofers. One girl marveled that she was
able to hit in nails with only two swats. Even I felt I could hold
my own on the flimsy supports. We finished up and surveyed our work:
seven houses and one church. Some dark clouds appeared on the horizon,
and the Franciscans hurried to exchange their T-shirts for habits
in preparation for our final task: the blessing of the homes.
A makeshift wooden cross led the way. The cross
was carried by Darko, a blond 13-year-old who had variously translated,
roofed and played Frisbee. Behind him walked Father Mariusz Koch from
the Bronx and Father Art Flores from Texas. Our sweaty band followed
behind them, and we began to sing: “Blessing, glory and honor be to
Photo by Jeff
In song, workers
process throughout the village.
Our journey along the
dusty road of Dubravice became a mysterious journey of the heart.
With each step, I more deeply felt the long history of the villagers,
their bond to the land, their sufferings in war, their resilience
in peace. Many homes were still tumbled down; but these, too, might
one day be re-built. Anything is possible.
Our voices grew stronger
as we passed from house to house. “...Honor be to our God forever....”
At each home, family and friends were gathered. Priests sprinkled
the walls with holy water, praying for renewal, security, hospitality
and peace: “May Christ dwell in this home, and may all who enter it
be welcomed as Christ.” And we all sang “...Forever and ever, Amen.”
We sat down during our
final evening to a meal doled out by Stefen. Between courses, we exchanged
thanks and addresses. Suddenly, our supper was interrupted by a thunderous
blast. In the silence that followed, we heard a more welcome sound.
The village farmers smiled: It was raining.
has been a Montessori teacher for many years, and is a catechist in
the Montessori-based “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” She received
her B.A. in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula,
California, and is presently tutoring chemistry and pursuing graduate
studies in botany at California State University, Sacramento.
Foundation Provides Hope
by Donna Palmatary
St. David’s Relief Foundation, which began as a fund to purchase
medical supplies for the people of Bosnia in 1991, is now a
nonprofit organization that provides construction items, educational
materials and food to those in need in the war-torn country.
It also provides volunteers who have repaired roofs for Bosnian
families each summer since 1996. Headed by Jeff Reed, the nondenominational
organization has made a difference in the lives of those affected
by the war that ravaged the southeastern European country.
Reed’s commitment to the Bosnian people started when he met
Franciscan Father Svetozar Kraljevic, O.F.M., during a 1991
pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Father Svetozar, a friar who works
in Bosnia, “asked for help on one of the churches,” noting that
eventually the country’s people would be in greater need, Reed
A parishioner at St. Michael Catholic Church in Garland, Texas,
Reed considers the influence of the Bosnian people a grace.
So, when Father Svetozar asked for assistance in 1991, the Dallas,
Texas-based organization responded.
Through its “Roofs Across Bosnia” program that began in the
summer of 1996, St. David volunteers have helped reunite neighbors,
communities and families.
Began After Dayton Accord
The focus on reconstruction began after the signing of the
Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. With travel much less-restricted,
organizations like St. David’s were better able to assist people
whose homes had been damaged. Prior to that time, the goal was
shipping supplies to the people who “were basically struggling
for the basic necessities of life,” says Brother Leo Fischer,
C.F.R., a seminarian at St. John Neumann Residence in the Bronx,
Fischer, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who
was a part of the working pilgrimages in 1993 and 1998, said
the country has changed. In 1993, “the war was intense.” Yet,
he adds, “What St. David’s was supplying got to the heart of
During his second trip in 1998, with the war over, people have
hope but they have not lost sight of the previously dominant
interethnic civil strife. “The most important thing,” Brother
Leo says of the St. David’s project, “is helping the people
who are most in need of help...the ones who are affected by
war, and must live with the remnants of war year after year.”
The effect of the war, according to Brother John Anthony Boughton,
C.F.R., a seminarian at the St. John Neumann Residence, is most
evident in drawings done by refugee children who learn in a
makeshift kindergarten classroom. Brother John, vice president
of St. David’s Relief Organization, first visited Bosnia in
1992. While there, he saw paintings that had houses blown apart,
dads unshaven and grimacing, moms crying, trees broken and no
smoke coming from the chimneys of their homes. When the war
was over, he returned to their classroom. He found that the
children’s artwork reflected a glimpse of hope for the future.
The fathers were clean-shaven and not grimacing and the mothers
had nice dresses. Both parents were placed in backgrounds symbolic
of new life, such as new trees with fresh leaves.
The situation, though, remains tentative. “It requires us to
pray, respond, live the life of the sacraments,” Brother John
“Seeing God’s hands” in the lives of the Bosnian people and
“seeing them turning their lives over to him” helped strengthen
Brother John’s affinity for Franciscan spirituality. Formerly
a Protestant, he professed his vows in March 1997 with the Franciscan
Friars of the Renewal in the Bronx, New York. He continues his
coursework in philosophy at the St. John Neumann Residence in
preparation for the priesthood in 2006.
Brother Leo, who also professed his vows in March 1997 in the
Bronx, New York, is continuing his coursework as well in philosophical
studies. A candidate for the priesthood in 2005, Brother Leo
discerned the religious life during his time in Bosnia.
Will They Return?
“If the opportunity presents itself,” he will return. Brother
Anthony welcomes the chance as well. He says the sacrifice of
time and energy is worth the spiritual graces that are received.
Helping the less fortunate in Bosnia reflects just one part
of the friars’ statement on charism, nature and purpose: “engaging
in hands-on work with the materially poor and destitute.” It
also represents their hope to present a “prophetic witness of
Christ’s teaching that life is a pilgrimage of committed faith,
trusting hope and effective love of God and neighbor through
the work of the Holy Spirit.”
For further information on St. David’s Relief Foundation,
or to become a volunteer, contact the organization at 10382
Miller Road, Dallas, TX 75238, telephone (800) 618-9789, fax
(214) 613-4005, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also check out the program on the Web at http://www.stdavids.org.