george hancock stefanOne time, I had an opportunity to talk with a lawyer who had to convince hundreds of people to give up their homes and property because the state was building a railroad through their region.  In listening to him, I could see that God shaped him for that particular job for many years – he was gentle, patient, and loved people, but at the same time he could envision the future. He had hundreds of stories - stories of old people who wanted him to wait until they died in their homes and only then could the state take over their home; stories of people who wanted to make as much money as possible because the state was this proverbial cow that could be milked for all its worth; and stories of people who were the great community organizers and loved to have meetings about which they base movies.

I was thinking of this friend when I went back to my birth place with two of my four daughters.  They cannot imagine that their father grew up without electricity in the house and that we still did not have it when we left that house in 1965. They cannot imagine that we did not have an asphalt road. “No asphalt roads, no cement sidewalks! How could you walk on the street?” We had the same questions from time to time when we had rains for a long time, and walking on our streets was difficult. But we survived and we looked forward to the next week when the sun will come out to dry the mud and we will see our footsteps in the mud for a few weeks. In the last 50 years, this place has drastically changed. We have an asphalt road running through the village, and we have all those commodities of the 21st century. The monarchy of the first half of the 20th century was replaced with communism for the second half.  Communism has gone and now there is socialistic capitalism, which has been embraced by so many people in communist lands. They want to have the social services of Sweden, but without their restrictions. 

When I grew up, there was one house in the forest by our home.  We were taught to take care of the forest because it was so beautiful. Now rich people live in the forest.  They lived in Western Europe for years and then came home with capital and built these huge houses.  The three historic houses of the Stefans have all been torn down and new houses built – larger houses for much smaller families.  If you talk with the people on the street, they will tell you that great progress has been made.  This progress has changed the face of the village and no one is willing to talk about what the village may have lost in the process.

This progress has taken thousands of people away. When I was growing up, our village had close to 4,000 people. Today it has less than 2,000.  There are many empty houses because the people are gone to other countries. One can see this impact the best is in our churches. All the churches – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant - have suffered as a result of this progress.  The village churches are almost empty, as some believers that moved to nearby towns have joined churches closer to their new homes. Oddly enough, the same ethnic groups that have migrated to new countries have made their ethnic churches their focus in their new lands. Ethnic churches are flourishing in Western Europe, the United States, and in Australia.  This is not only true of Europe, but also of persecuted Christians from Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon who have formed new churches in Europe or in Boston and Washington, DC or even new places such as Iowa where they have created a new community.

Progress comes in many ways – in asphalted roads, advanced technologies, dispersed communities, and the formation of new communities or integration of dispersed communities. My kids greatly enjoyed their visit with their father to the ancient land, but both of them are New Jerseyite Americans born in Red Bank and Long Branch hospitals and raised in Atlantic Highlands.