Gospel sets a Croatian prisoner free
VARAZDIN, Croatia —“I kneel only to God. I don’t see…
A mission trip? To Europe? Now?
James and Becki Nored could think of only one reason not to go.
But it was a big one.
The COVID-19 pandemic had sequestered the couple in their suburban Virginia home, just west of Washington, D.C., for nearly six months. As the case numbers rose, dipped and rose again, they used text chats and video calls to stay in touch with their coworkers — a worldwide network of Christians who serve in a mission and discipleship ministry called Next Generation for Christ.
They stayed connected to their congregation, the Fairfax Church of Christ, via livestream and email. They used Zoom videoconferencing to participate in ministry meetings and small-group Bible studies.
Their three daughters — Gina, 19; Emily, 16; and Kaylee, 8 — finished one school year and had just begun another, entirely online.
The pandemic had canceled their summer trip to Europe. It would have included a family mission to Croatia.
Now Croatia was one of the few European countries allowing visitors from the U.S. The nation of just over 4 million souls had reported only a few cases of the virus. The church they had worked with in the city of Varazdin had invited them to return and help with outreach efforts and the Croatia for Christ ministry.
“I took time to think about it and pray about it, but the answer was always, ‘Why not?’”
If they had to work remotely anyway, why did it matter where they worked? And if their kids had to do distance learning, why not add a little distance? Say, 4,490 miles?
“I took time to think about it and pray about it, but the answer was always, ‘Why not?’” Becki Nored said.
This was, after all, Croatia, a place they had traveled to twice before — a place that sparked their love of family mission trips. They knew the churches and the logistics of getting around. They would take precautions and quarantine after they arrived.
The circumstances, especially the kids’ online schooling, “created a unique opportunity for us to be mobile and have an extended time to do mission work,” James Nored said. “The early church grew during pandemics. They served. This door of opportunity opened up for us to go.”
So, on Sept. 18, 2020, the family of five strapped on facemasks and boarded a nearly empty flight from Dulles International to Amsterdam.
Some 15 hours and a plane change later, they arrived in Croatia.
They waited until the night before to pack. And it wasn’t like packing for a typical mission trip. They had done a six-week trip before. This one would last three months.
They’d be cooking for themselves, especially during quarantine, so they took measuring cups with U.S. Standard units. (Europeans measure food by weight instead of volume.) They packed chili powder and spices that can’t be found in Croatia.
The girls had to bring what they’d need for school — computers, books, pencils and paper.
They also needed a cello.
Gina, a sophomore at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., would be taking courses in primary education, Hebrew, New Testament interpretation and orchestra. Thankfully, the managing director of Croatia for Christ, Jura Lazar, is a professional musician. He contacted a friend who had a cello they could rent. No need to lug one across multiple airports.
When they arrived in Varazdin, about an hour north of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, they didn’t get to take in the city’s Baroque architecture or even make a quick stop at Fontana, a local ice cream shop where their youngest, Kaylee, particularly enjoys the green apple flavor.
Instead, they went straight to their rented apartment, where they could finally take off their masks. Members of the Varazdin Church of Christ waved to them from outside and left bags of groceries.
Two weeks of quarantine began. The apartment complex’s stairwell became their exercise room. “I’ve gotta just go run the stairs!” was an oft-heard phrase. The complex had a tiny grass courtyard where they walked, played chase and made up games to pass the time.
The girls went back to school, virtually. The apartment’s Wi-Fi proved to be more than ample for them to attend classes via Zoom videoconferences. Thanks to the time difference, Kaylee’s third-grade class didn’t start until 2 p.m. “Good morning,” her teacher would say. “Oh, except Kaylee. Good afternoon!”
For Emily, a high school junior, class started at 3 p.m. and ran until 10.
“I’m definitely not a morning person,” she said, “so it was kind of nice. I had time to sleep in and do my homework before school.”
For Gina, classes began at 3 or 6 p.m., depending on the day. Some ran late into the night, but her professors recorded the Zoom meetings and let her watch them later.
“We went to night school,” Gina joked. “One thing that all of us realized, especially me and Emily, is that we don’t need that much stuff. We each brought a suitcase and a backpack with our school things, and we really didn’t miss anything for those three months.”
For her orchestra class, Gina recorded herself playing the cello and sent the files to her professor. During quarantine, finding a quiet space to record was a challenge.
So was Kaylee’s physical education class, which required jumping jacks.
They didn’t want to disturb their neighbors below, her mother said, “so we jumped very quietly.”
When they emerged from quarantine, “it was like going back in time,” James Nored said. “You could hug!”
Croatia had, so far, avoided the worst of the pandemic. Restrictions were light. Churches still met in person.
James Nored preached for the Varazdin congregation. He led church members and visitors through the “Story of Redemption,” a series of films shot in Israel and other locales around the globe, produced by Next Generation for Christ. The minister said that some have compared the videos to the Jule Miller filmstrips, originally produced in the 1950s and used by Churches of Christ for evangelism throughout the past half-century.
The family conducted one-on-one lessons at the church building, helping Croatians improve their English using the “Story of Redemption” videos. Growing up, James Nored and his family had done similar work through the Let’s Start Talking ministry.
The church secretary suggested that they host their students at the same time each day. As James, Becki and Gina taught, Emily and Kaylee prepared handouts and games for a Saturday kids’ class. They stamped the church’s name and info into Bibles for members to give to friends.
Instead of the sometimes-hectic pace of a summer mission trip, “this was just much more concentrated time together,” Becki Nored said. “When we were driving home we could talk about all these experiences. We knew what we were praying for, who we were praying for.”
Thirty years after Croatia’s independence from the former communist nation of Yugoslavia, Americans are still a big draw for churches, said Jura Lazar of Croatia for Christ.
“James, Becki and Gina were working on a daily basis with people … creating a conversational atmosphere to ask some serious questions about Jesus and their personal, spiritual lives,” Lazar said. “I don’t see how we Croatians would be able to do that.”
Also assisting in the one-on-one studies was Annette Chamber, another member of the Fairfax Church of Christ. She joined the Noreds for five weeks during their time in Croatia.
Mladen Dominic, minister for the Varazdin Church of Christ, said that that the Americans’ visit was a much-needed boost for the church, which usually hosts multiple groups who help coordinate camps and outreach activities. Because of the virus, none of those groups came.
“They were such a refreshment for me as a minister but were even a greater blessing to my whole family,” Dominic said of the Noreds. “Their kids connected with my kids. To have people who understand mission work and are able to carry the challenges of proclaiming the good news was a great gift to us from our Lord.”
“They’re so happy to be there. I learned a lot about how to be joyful myself.”
Gina helped host a ladies’ tea and organized an event for children as part of her internship for the Next Generation for Christ ministry. The family visited church members and made new contacts for the church.
“The joy of these people really stuck out,” Gina said. “They’re so happy to be there. I learned a lot about how to be joyful myself.”
Despite the pandemic, the Varazdin church experienced five baptisms in the past year, Dominic said. Attendance rose significantly on Sundays and Wednesday nights during the Noreds’ visit.
Becki Nored saw a sense of longing in the Croatians she spoke to during Wednesday night group sessions. They talked about cancer, their concerns for their grandchildren and their family members suffering from COVID-19. Most come from nominally Catholic or unchurched backgrounds and weren’t used to sharing their burdens.
As the sessions ended, some asked, “Can we just keep doing this? Because I don’t have anyone else to talk to about life,” she said.
Her husband added, “In the midst of a global pandemic, people were hungry for God.”
They should’ve packed heavier coats.
That became obvious after the Noreds extended their mission trip by about two weeks.
In the final days, temperatures in Croatia began to plummet.
And the virus began to surge.
Croatia, which had a low number of cases when they arrived, was approaching 4,500 daily infections as they left, one of the highest rates in Europe. That rate has since declined.
Church members lent the family their winter coats, and as Croatia tightened its restrictions on gatherings the family made arrangements to stay in contact with the souls they’d encountered.
“It definitely got more serious,” Gina said, “but we saw that it didn’t stop us from having those relationships. There was something drawing people back. That was encouraging, even though it was a kind of discouraging way to leave.”
The Noreds returned to Virginia Dec. 5. In the weeks that followed, Croatia endured three large earthquakes. The worst was a 6.4-magnitude quake that struck on Dec. 29, about 30 miles south of Zagreb, and devastated the small town of Petrinja. Seven people died.
Days after the quake, James Nored spoke to a Croatian medical doctor who was baptized during their first Sunday with the Varazdin church.
“People are fearful,” the physician said. “Because of COVID and everything else they’re depressed. As for me, I’ve turned my life over to Christ and it’s almost like I’m in another world. I place my hope in Christ.”
The physician now prays with his patients, James Nored said, and knows that he’ll be able to heal them only if it’s God’s will.
Next Generation for Christ is working with Croatia for Christ to provide relief for the earthquake victims.
As their kids’ schools continue to meet online, the family is making plans to return to Croatia. They’ve been invited to conduct “Story of Redemption” outreach and training for the Varazdin church and the Kuslanova Church of Christ in Zagreb.
They know the trip will happen — only if it’s God’s will.
“With everything we do right now, we say, ‘Lord willing,’” James Nored said. “We always should, but it’s very apparent right now that God’s in control of the world; we aren’t. Hopefully, God will give us more opportunities to share the gospel in Croatia and around the world.”
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