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Croatia and Christ

An American woman falls in love during a mission trip

An American woman falls in love during a mission trip

August 17, 2008|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - When 33-year-old Kruno Ljubic was just 25, he was lying in a hospital bed in his native Croatia pleading with God to stop the pain. It was a Sunday.

"I told him if he spared me my life, I would do anything for him," he said, sitting in his Martinsburg, W.Va., home with his wife Betsy, 31, daughter Teyla, 2, and son Jack, 4 months.

Kruno was in a crisis of faith. He had served nine years with the Croatian army, and, because he was raised a Catholic, he said he believed his life as a soldier meant damnation. "I was frightened," he said.

Betsy's journey

Growing up in Martinsburg, Betsy had always been a student of the Bible and an active member of Independent Bible Church in her hometown. By the age of 12, she was already ministering God's word.

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Even at an early age, Betsy knew she wanted to witness beyond her home state.

"I just felt like, in America, we have so many opportunities to learn about God and the Bible," she said.

So at age 15, Betsy went on her first mission trip to South America.

"It just opened my eyes to a world outside the U.S. and a world of need," she said.

After high school, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania, as well as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate from Wheaton College in Illinois. During that time she continued to take the opportunities she could for short-term missionary work. She visited Mongolia, Thailand and Indonesia with Pioneers, a mission board that oversees the trips.

Betsy took her first trip to Croatia in 2000. Croatia is about the size of her home state of West Virginia and is located along the Adriatic Sea, across from Italy. It was part of Yugoslavia until 1991, when Croatia declared its independence.

Betsy's job in Slavonski Brod, Croatia, was to teach English as a Foreign Language, which was difficult because she wasn't fluent in Croatian. The main goal of her mission work was to set up new churches - what is known as "church planting." There, she worked closely with the Baptist Union. Betsy and her colleagues also would host services and various outreach events such as craft classes.

Betsy was only there for six months when she concluded that her trip to Croatia was destiny.

"I realized that it was the Lord's plan for me to go," she said. "I realized that's where I was supposed to be."

She had fallen in love with the people and their laid-back attitude. After her time in Croatia ended, Betsy flew home, but she knew she wanted to return to Croatia. In February 2001, Betsy flew back to Croatia to continue her work.

Spiritual awakening

In June 2001, Betsy and Kruno were introduced by friends. Communication was difficult at first. Betsy knew as much Croatian as Kruno knew English, which was little.

Kruno was at a spiritual crossroads. He was confused by his Catholic teachings, which are different than what most American Catholics are taught. For instance, Kruno said he believed God had spoken to him when he was in the hospital of spring 2001. But Kruno's priest told him that he was crazy.

"He said a common man couldn't hear God's voice," Kruno said. "He only spoke to priests."

Croatians, Betsy said, are suspicious of religions other than Catholicism. They believe other religions to be cults. According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2007, Croatia was about 85 percent Roman Catholic.

When Kruno started to attend the Baptist church established by Betsy and her fellow missionaries, he said the church answered many of his questions and he liked the informality of the services. He said what he especially liked about the church was that he could read the Bible, which hadn't been allowed in his church.

"We were told that only priests could read the Bible and that the common man was too stupid to understand it," he said.

Months passed and Kruno was building his faith. He and Betsy also were becoming closer, especially as the language barrier lessened.

Betsy said she knew that her work in Croatia had been the Lord's plan. She also wanted a partner who shared her belief in doing God's work. She found it in Kruno. For nearly two years, Kruno and Betsy dated before finally tying the knot in June 2003 in Martinsburg.

The future

After they were married, Kruno became a member of the Pioneers mission board before they returned to Croatia. The Ljubics returned to the United States in 2006 to have their daughter. In 2007, they moved from the Croatian city where they met to Nova Gradiska. Earlier this year, they returned to the United States again to have their son.

Today, the two are living temporarily in Martinsburg. Betsy and Kruno (who completed a year of certification in Bible studies at Evangelical Theological College in Osijeck, Croatia, and is continuing his studies as time allows), are on home assignment visiting their supporters and supporting churches. They are trying to raise the funds they need to return to Croatia to continue their work. Betsy said fundraising is hard because of how weak the U.S. dollar is compared with the Euro. She says she and Kruno hope to go to Croatia by Sept. 30.

As for their children being future missionary workers, the Ljubics are hopeful.

"As parents, we would love for them to do the work, but it's selfish to expect them to be missionaries," Kruno said.

Betsy agreed.

"I just want them to fulfill God's plan for them, whatever it may be," she said.

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