FLORAL, Ark. — When Snezana Lepki sings in church, she focuses her gaze on the heavens — if the song praises God, that is.
If the song is about her fellow Christians — “Love One Another” or “We’re Marching to Zion,” for example — she will “turn and face you — and sing to you,” said Mavis Baldwin, who worships alongside Lepki at the College Church of Christ in Searcy, Ark.
Sure, it can be a bit disconcerting, Baldwin said. But “the idea is worship, and that’s what she’s busy doing.”
Facing her brothers and sisters as she sings is a practice she picked up in Canada, said Lepki, a native of the small European nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the way she worships also reflects the way she lives, her friends said.
“She is one of the most other-centered people I know,” said Baldwin’s wife, Rosalind. “Her love of Christ comes through.”
Lepki, whose first name “Snezana” is Serbian for “Snow White,” is completing a master’s in education at Harding University in Searcy. She and about 700 other students traveled to Harding’s Camp Tahkodah for the 50th World Mission Workshop.
In a simulated Third World market, Lepki posed as a vegetable vendor. She called to befuddled students in Serbo-Croatian as they wandered the market, attempting to buy food.
“Dobro jutro! Svježe paprike! Pogledajte kako su lijepe!” she yelled. (“Good morning! Fresh peppers! Look at them, how beautiful they are!”)
Camp Tahkodah, Harding’s missions-training site in the Ozark Mountains near Floral, is a personal refuge for Lepki.
Here, she reads her Bible and prays, remembering the angels God placed in her life — even before she knew who God was. WAR, DEATH AND A NEW LIFE
Lepki grew up in Banjaluka, a city in the former Yugoslavia. When Lepki was a baby, her grandmother, a Polish Catholic, “stole me away and … baptized me in a creek — kind of devoted me to God,” Lepki said.
Privileged and smart, she studied engineering and physical therapy. She wanted for nothing but felt a spiritual void in her life. She tried yoga — and even karate — to fill the void, but nothing helped.
Then her world collapsed.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the death of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia dissolved into rival factions of ethnic Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
Lepki was studying in Sarajevo when the shooting started in 1992. She fled to Banjaluka and eventually to Belgrade, where she continued her studies. She watched on TV as her homeland self-destructed.
“What is happening?” she thought. “My friends — who are 22, 23 years old — are dying. Is this the end? We barely started living.”
On summer break, Lepki traveled to her grandmother’s home in Poland. A cousin invited her to a Christian camp.
She was shocked by the love shown by the campers. She prayed for the first time, asking God to protect her boyfriend — still stuck in Bosnia — from whom she had not heard in two months. Days later, she made contact with him.
She asked to become a Christian. The campers told her how to pray Jesus into her heart. Then, to show them she was a believer, she was immersed in a lake. FROM AUSTRIA TO CANADA
Lepki’s boyfriend, an ethnic Ukrainian, asked her to move to Canada with him.
The couple spent five months in Vienna, Austria, with nearly 800 other refugees from the war in the Balkans. Lepki helped Ukrainian refugees from Bosnia translate their stories into English for their applications for relocation.
She also prayed for them.
Seeking a place to worship, she visited International University in Vienna, associated with to Churches of Christ. There she met April Boring, an American who had worked for a year in Belgrade with Adventures in Missions — a program of Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas. Boring promised to find a congregation for her in Canada.
Lepki’s boyfriend had an aunt in Edmonton, Alberta, about 400 miles north of Montana, who agreed to sponsor his relocation there. Lepki could come too — only if they were married. Though he wasn’t a Christian, she agreed. Perhaps, someday, she could change him.
“Big mistake,” she said, reflecting on the decision.
In Edmonton, Lepki was invited to a Baptist church. Then a letter from Boring arrived with the name of a Church of Christ in the area. Lepki attended both and was involved in Bible studies almost every night of the week. In the summer, the Baptist church stopped its Bible studies, but the Church of Christ continued.
“Oh, these are more zealous,” Lepki thought. “I will go there.”
The Church of Christ members asked Lepki about her conversion. She couldn’t find anything in Scripture about praying Jesus into her heart.
But she did find verses about baptism for the remission of sins.
“I just want to please the Lord,” she said. “If he told me to do it this way, I’ll just do it.”
On Sept. 26, 1993, she was baptized at the Edmonton Church of Christ.
“Isn’t that funny?” she said. “I had three baptisms. Finally, one counts!” DIVORCE, RECOVERY AND A MISSION
Lepki shared her newfound faith with all who would listen. An Asian-born church member and hairdresser, Jenny Law, became her partner. Law introduced her clients and friends to the Gospel through Lepki.
“She recruited, and I taught them,” Lepki said. “Many people became a Christian because of her.”
While Lepki drew closer and closer to God, she felt farther and farther from her husband. He worked late hours as a musician. Lepki got a job at a nursing home and continued her studies in physical therapy.
After 10 years of marriage, Lepki’s husband told her he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. For the next two weeks, she went to work every day and cried the entire night.
She moved into an apartment with Law’s daughter and threw herself into evangelism. She hosted dinners for neighbors and talked about Jesus. She learned to eat with chopsticks. She slept four to six hours per day.
She took a three-month vacation and traveled to the former Soviet nation of Lithuania to work with Churches of Christ there. She participated in Camp Ruta, sponsored by churches in Lithuania and Mississippi.
Ilja Amosov, a minister for the Church of Christ in Vilnius, Lithuania, remembered her strong faith and determination to spread the Gospel.
“There are people you remember for the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they look,” Amosov said. “But everyone remembers Snezana for the way she loves the Lord and her neighbors.”
She also visited Bosnia and studied the Bible with her mother, who then was baptized by Croatian minister Ivan Tesic.
Back in Edmonton, Lepki took classes through an extension program of Sunset International Bible Institute. She decided to pursue ministry full time.
In 2005, veteran missionaries Howard Norton and Tex Williams visited Edmonton for a lectureship. Lepki had dinner with them and asked for advice. Norton recommended Harding, where he served on the faculty. Lepki applied and was admitted.
Days before she left for Arkansas, Lepki’s frantic pace caught up with her. She suffered from severe exhaustion and spent much of the next six months recuperating. She prayed constantly for healing — and for the souls of those treating her.
She learned to moderate her schedule — somewhat — and enrolled at Harding in 2006. As she completed her bachelor’s in ministry, she worked with an outreach to Asian students. She traveled to China for a year to teach English. She also shared her faith.
In China, “so many people want to know about God,” she said. They also showed her kindness. When she got bronchitis, her students took care of her. IN SEARCH OF A PLACE TO SERVE
As she completes her master’s at Harding, Lepki is “looking for a calling,” she said.
She would like to teach the Gospel in Asia — and eventually in her native Bosnia. She would like to reach out to the large immigrant population — including some 70,000 Bosnians — in the St. Louis area.
She has tried to form mission teams but to no avail. Finding sponsors is difficult, especially for a single woman, she said.
Mavis Baldwin, her friend at the College church, said Lepki will be “the biggest asset to any mission” she chooses.
Lepki said she is confident that God has plans for her. She is amazed how he has taken “somebody who is nobody, a refugee” and used her to serve him across three continents.
“I was the one that was fighting God,” she said. “I feel like Paul … when God told him, ‘You will be suffering for me a lot.’ Now I’m here to suffer for him and bring glory to his name.”