By Grayson Hester
North Macedonia (commonly referred to as simply “Macedonia”) doesn’t loom large on the radars of many Americans. In the shadow of much larger and more influential European countries, this small nation near Albania tends to get overlooked.
Whereas France and Germany, for example, contain internationally renowned metropolises, Macedonia by and large, features green mountains and gently rolling hills. Think of it as, say, Vermont—minus Ben & Jerry’s.
This predominantly agricultural, generally rural setting lends itself to a way of life Americans might think of as lethargic. Coffee dates can last for hours; bicycling and walking are the preferred methods of travel; and simply being present with people is held in high cultural esteem.
So, the COVID-19 pandemic hit this little country of nearly two million people especially hard. And even though Jeff Lee grew up in the United States—Texas, to be exact—his nine-and-one-half years of living in North Macedonia led him to feel this cultural sting acutely.
“I live in the center of Skopje, North Macedonia’s capital, on a busy street with thousands of people walking up and down every day,” Lee said. “To go on lockdown and to see that street empty with no cars, no people walking or riding their bikes was eerie. It was weird. Not being able to see my friends for such a long time was really hard for me, and really hard for them. That was ingrained in their culture.”
Lee and his family—wife, Alicia, and son, Ethan—have been commissioned as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel in Skopje for almost a decade, helping locals establish, grow, and manage Aya Farm on the outskirts of the city. (For more on the farm and its unique “cow bank” model, read “More Than a Cow” at http://www.cbf.net/cowbank.)
Aya—which means “miracle”—is a community farm that is, within itself, a thriving community. The Lees have made friends there that they consider family, a sentiment wholeheartedly reciprocated.
One such friend is Gazmend Muharemi, who initially conceived of the farm years ago and is now in charge of many of its operations. Since CBF’s 2018 feature article, the farm has expanded to retail, selling its dairy products in local stores to lucrative returns. This expansion has allowed the farm to grow, even in the midst of a pandemic. This growth, along with COVID-19, has also shifted the nature of Lee’s ministry.
“Before COVID, I was there, maybe two or three times a week, working at the farm,” Lee said. “I loved it. It was great.”
But with lockdowns came isolation, and with isolation came increased demand for food bank services. So, Lee had to attend to the Food Bank of Macedonia, with whom he partners, to meet the abrupt uptick.
And, with any business expansion comes bundles of red tape and bureaucratic headaches. It is these which now occupy most of Lee’s attention.
Ironically, in order for Lee to be present with the people alongside whom he was commissioned to minister, he often must stay away.
“The most difficult obstacle is just the legal and the financial things that I have to do,” he said. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t have to go to my lawyer, just because they say, ‘Jeff, you need to come and do this; there’s a new legal requirement that you have to fill.’”
It’s not unusual for a trip to the lawyer to turn into an all-day affair. Going to the lawyer inevitably means going next to the accountant, which then means going to the bank, and on and on. It’s necessary work, and it’s work for which Lee is grateful, all the same. But it’s not where his heart is. His heart is with Gazmend and his family, on the farm, getting his hands dirty and having his face wrinkle with laughter.
“Being on the farm is what I love to do. Being part of that makes me feel great, like I’m actually doing something and am part of something bigger,” he said. “But I’m just a part of Aya Farm. It could keep going if I’m not there, which it has. I don’t show up some days. But I enjoy being a part of it, being available, just to be out there.”
Therein lies a hard truth about the kind of asset-based community development CBF field personnel like Lee practice. At some point, that which they work so hard to grow must be released. For a program or a business or a building to truly benefit the community, it has to belong to the community.
The softer side of this is that, when done well—as it has been by Lee’s family—that community becomes their community. Differences delineated by border or, in the specific case of North Macedonia, religion, perforate and connections solidify.
“Gazmend and I have grown in deep relationship together. We’re very open, and our families do a lot of things together,” Lee said. “His wife and kids hang out with Alicia and Ethan a lot. We have celebrated holidays together—both Christian and Muslim holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s with all our friends.”
There’s a grief in being separated because there’s joy in being present. It’s a paradox of living and loving together: Sometimes one leads to, or necessitates, the other.
And even though the pandemic still rages and the lawyer never stops calling, the community of the Aya family and others continues to make itself evident in the unlikeliest of places. The farm’s annual pumpkin patch, for example, became a healing ground for two families in Lee’s orbit who had been feuding for years.
“It was so emotional for me to see when these two families, that were part of this group and had a conflict, had come back together,” he said. “I felt that emotion: We wanted this to work. These were important relationships here.”
And although Lee’s presence, at this moment, might require him to stay away, it will hopefully never require him to leave.
“We love being in Macedonia,” he said. “It’s a wonderful place; the people are amazing. We just love it.”
Find this video about Gazmend and the Aya Farm at http://www.cbf.net/ogm#videos