By Greg Warner
Which is more important? Funding a kindergarten for persecuted children in Macedonia or feeding your family?
It’s the kind of choice sometimes faced by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel who raise their own support to live and minister in a foreign country — while surrounded by overwhelming needs that can’t be met without additional money.
Alicia and Jeff Lee, who were commissioned as CBF field personnel in 2011, are partner-funded and rely on churches and individuals to fund their ministry and projects.
“We would have had to raise another $50,000,” Alicia said, in order to maintain funding for Future of the Family, the Christian-backed kindergarten that trained and cared for children of ethnic Albanians living in Skopje.
The Lees spent their first six months in Macedonia learning the Albanian language in hopes of ministering to the families of kindergarteners, who received medical and food assistance in addition to education. Within a few months of their arrival, however, the kindergarten closed due to lack of funding. Supporters would like to reopen it, but recent changes in government regulations will make that much more difficult.
“The requirements for space, food service, facilities, teacher-student ratio, etc., would continue to increase, in turn increasing the cost to run the program,” Alicia said. “Raising the additional funding required to run the kindergarten on top of our budget would become increasingly difficult.”
“Because of the kindergarten closing, we switched to learning Macedonian,” Alicia said, a quite different but equally difficult language. They also have turned their ministry focus largely to victims of human trafficking, a huge problem in Eastern Europe, and to medical relief, a food bank and an orphanage.
The transition and uncertainty with the kindergarten, which has been the centerpiece of CBF’s Macedonia ministry, have made it all the harder for the Lees to raise their own support, say their supporters.
“Our church is learning first-hand the difficult task they have in raising funds,” said Butch Pesch, longtime pastor of Priddy Baptist Church in Central Texas. The tiny church has had a huge impact on ministry in Macedonia by funding the kindergarten, beginning in 2006, and now the Lees directly.
Early on, the 30-member Priddy Church provided more than half the cost of the Future of the Family kindergarten for an entire year, and a total of $87,000 in the first six years. When church members met the Lees as they prepared to go to Macedonia in 2012, “our folks fell in love with them,” Pesch said, and promised to fund them as well. The extra commitment proved difficult.
Now, after the closure of the kindergarten, Priddy Baptist is unsure what its relationship with Macedonia will be, but the congregation continues to support the Lees.
“Priddy Baptist has learned one church cannot fund both field personnel and their projects — at least not alone,” Pesch said. The church will continue to support the Lees, he promised. But Pesch added, “It has taken us some time to come to this conclusion — a church our size cannot completely support a missionary.”
Working together is the only way to do it, he said.
Like the Priddy church, the four other Texas congregations that currently support the Lees have remained supportive through the transition.
“That’s a real heartbreak for a lot of people who were really connected to the kindergarten,” said John Moore, pastor for missions at First Baptist Church of Abilene, Texas, which has supported the school, the Lees and their predecessors in Macedonia — Kathy and Darrell Smith and Arville and Shelia Earl.
Both Alicia and Jeff are from Abilene and were members of the church before being commissioned. In fact, Alicia went on a mission trip with the church to Macedonia when the couple was considering appointment as field personnel.
Skopje [pronounced SKOPE-ya], is Macedonia’s capital, a city of more than half a million people 300 miles north of Athens. Ethnic Albanians have been a permanent part of Macedonia for decades, comprising one-fourth of all residents. Yet, like the Roma, they remain largely outcasts, have fewer rights and suffer persecution.
Ethnic strife is ingrained in the region’s Slavic culture, spawning a decade of war after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc beginning in 1989. Little-known Macedonia was the southern tip of what was Yugoslavia, the former Soviet-influenced country that after the Cold War returned to traditional ethnic boundaries and became six separate, independent republics.
Albania, a remnant of the Ottoman Empire, is predominantly Muslim; Macedonians are a Slavic people and predominantly Orthodox Christian. Macedonia is land-locked, bordered by Albania to the east, Greece to the south, Bulgaria to the west and the Balkan republics of Kosovo and Serbia to the north.
In the context of so much ethnic tension, the Lees focus their ministry on reconciliation by building relationships of trust with Macedonians as well as Albanians, Roma and other marginalized people. Because of poverty and persecution, such minorities are vulnerable to human trafficking. Macedonia is both a destination for trafficked people and a way-station for their transport elsewhere.
The purpose of the kindergarten was to help Albanian children learn the language of their adopted homeland so they could succeed in first grade, giving them a better chance of avoiding poverty and exploitation. Learning Macedonian would be impossible without basic training — like how to write the alphabet and even how to hold a pencil. Although the kindergarten is not functioning now, the Lees remain in contact with many of the families, providing them food and other assistance.
“As we minister among Macedonia’s most marginalized people, we’re confronted with poverty and injustice,” Jeff said. “But we also see God’s goodness in the care, love and tireless work of our partners. This serves to challenge and encourage us and reminds us that God will redeem his creation.”
As part of their ministry philosophy, the Lees partner with established ministries — like the kindergarten, the 11-year-old anti-trafficking group Open Gate and the new Food Bank of Macedonia — rather than launching their own. Each month the Lees visit families affected by trafficking. “These are mostly extremely poor families,” Alicia said. “We make sure the kids are in school and doing well.”
“God has revealed and opened doors for ministry we didn’t think were possible,” Jeff said. “We didn’t expect a formal partnership with the anti-trafficking agency or the food bank, largely because of their need to remain ‘non-religious’ due to ethnic-religious tension in Macedonia and the fact that we are a faith-based, Baptist organization. We believe that God is revealing the areas of ministry he is calling us to and the work he has for us to be a part of.”
In a country where volunteering and donating are seldom practiced, ministries like a food bank and orphanage present a powerful image.
Learning the local language is crucial to that process, Alicia said. Macedonians are difficult to get to know, but when you learn their language, she explained, “a wall drops immediately.”
Alicia sees God’s hand in those growing relationships. “With the people we minister among, we are experiencing deeper levels of trust and vulnerability,” she reported. “They have allowed us into their homes, among their families and into the most intimate parts of their lives.”
Mission trips from CBF churches are important for building trust as well, Alicia and Jeff said. Not only does it reinforce the field personnel’s credibility with Macedonians, it undergirds support from back home. The key to that is the face-to-face connections — “to get people to see the work with their eyes and touch it, feel it,” Jeff said.
For partner-funded personnel, the benefits emerge most when the teams return home. “The most important thing is for them to become advocates for us — to say, ‘I’ve seen what Jeff and Alicia are doing and it’s good.’ They become the most powerful advocates for us.”
“The Lees still need funding,” Abilene’s Moore said, noting it takes about $100,000 a year to support a family on the mission field.
“Funding is very much on our minds right now,” Jeff conceded. He recently left Alicia and their 5-year-old son behind to make an unplanned trip to the United States, a year earlier than scheduled, in search of funding to continue their ministry.
“We are asking them to invest in what God is doing here — not in us,” Alicia said.
Moore said the Abilene church’s partnerships with specific CBF field personnel in Macedonia and elsewhere have helped the 135-year-old congregation cultivate a global focus to match its extensive benevolent work in Abilene. That was Moore’s objective when he joined the staff six years ago.
“It’s been a real great connection for First Baptist,” Moore said of the partnership with the Macedonia field personnel. “God has just really been moving us. It’s been exciting to see.”
In May, Moore led a five-member mission team from FBC Abilene — its third — to Skopje “to support and undergird the work of the Lees,” he said, adding the group’s goal was “cultural engagement.”
Despite the occasional discouragements, the Lees keep looking forward with confidence.
“In preparing to come, and in our first couple of years in Macedonia, we have learned to trust God in deeper ways, in the areas of our lives we tend to hold on to [and to] control more tightly,” Alicia said.
One big test of faith came even before they left the United States. After the Lees were commissioned in June 2011, but before they left for the field, Jeff was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation — a snarled, tangled web of blood vessels in the brain that can hemorrhage or cause seizures and other neurological problems.
Brain surgery was necessary in January 2012, which itself can result in a loss of speech and/or movement. Jeff had several of those symptoms, which required months of speech therapy and physical therapy.
“He worked hard, had great medical professionals to help, prayers from many and a faithful, healing, powerful God,” Alicia recalled. “We were able to stay on schedule with our planned departure to the field June 2012.”
Jeff’s surgery and recovery; the move to Macedonia and its effects on their five-year-old, Ethan; and answers to their financial prayers “are just some of the ways God has said, ‘trust me,’” Alicia said. “And he has been faithful.”
“On the difficult days,” Jeff said, “when language learning causes doubt and tears, when cultural misunderstandings cause frustration and often embarrassment, when fundraising woes cause uncertainty and more tears, it would be easier to pack up and go home. But not once, on any of those terribly hard days, have we felt that God is done with us or with the work he called us to in Macedonia.
“On those days we are reminded that he has called us, compelled us, and he will continue to be faithful.”
The Lees are partner-funded field personnel. To support the Lees with a financial gift, click here.
Read a special profile of Priddy Baptist Church and their partnership with the Lee’s at http://www.cbfblog.com/featured