As we were following behind our tour guide outside the gates of Camp Bondsteel, I was deeply excited to finally be taking this journey. It is the one venture that I have wanted to do since we found out we were deploying to Kosovo over two years ago, and today is the day. As we were driving towards the Kosovo-Macedonia border, he was in the front vehicle with his interpreter and every time we passed something of interest he would describe it over the radio.
“On your right is the parcel of land that the Albanians come to and prepare their sheep for market. Down that little road is where the building burned down that was owned by Kosovo criminals. This small village is all Serbians and that village is all Albanians.” On and on he went, giving us the tidbits that one only learns by being out with the population on a daily basis.
My mission today was to spend time with friends and touch history with my own hands. The best part of this deployment has been to see and learn about how some of the simplest differences in individual cultures can create a separation amongst people
that can last a lifetime. It makes me treasure my own way of life and how it’s so good to be from the United States.
As we continue to drive through the townships and small villages, it’s impossible not to gaze out the vehicle window and see the simplicity of the lives. Men minding their two cows as they walk down the street. Women hanging out laundry to dry on the lines that stretch between the house and a tree. The kids are playing soccer with a partially deflated ball and kicking the ball through the goal posts that have no nets behind them. It is a family event to be working in the small gardens that are created by hand and tended to on a daily basis. The roads become narrower the farther away from the main roads we travel. Most of the pedestrians walk in the middle of the road until you get right up on them and then they casually move aside so you can carefully pass. Mostly I would assess that they have a lack of fear when it comes to being hit by a passing vehicle. Much different than what we are used to
The last road we turned on to wound itself along a stream that came down out of the mountain range that forms the Kosovo-Macedonia border. As we passed through one of the small villages we spied a group of four old men sitting on wood boxes paying us no attention. The green foliage of the trees was to be admired as we passed by slowly. We had to barely inch along because we were focused on avoiding all the pot holes and trying to navigate around the broke up patches of pavement along our route. As we came around one of the corners we could see the twin spires of a simple white church. The radio chirped, “There is our destination, right up ahead.” For a moment I thought it would be much more glorious in its appearance, but then I took in the beauty of the scenery that surrounded this historical landmark.
The road finally came to an end and in front of us was the small Kosovar village of Letnica. Beyond the small mud brick houses and stone dwellings was a large Roman Catholic Church sitting dauntingly atop a small hill. After passing through
the town of dirt roads, it almost carried a feeling of being abandoned because of the lack of people and activity. I expected the area, based on historical importance to be filled with more activity. But the silence and the simplicity of the stone houses spoke volumes to the serenity of the moment.
We parked the vehicles on a small dirt patch next to the hallowed dwelling and a solemn feeling came over me and silenced my anxiousness. I could hear the twittering of the songbirds floating through the air as we climbed the small incline that led to the church. Finally, my one destination of choice for this entire deployment was only steps away. As I reached the top of the path, there it was, the Church of the Black Madonna. I have now fulfilled another personal dream.
The white church goes by many names, the "Church of the Black Madonna", the "Church of the Assumption," and the Church of "Our Lady of Cernagore". The natives of Macedonia and Kosovo know it as the Church where Agnes Corixha Bojaxhiu received her call to religious life. The world now knows Agnes by another name, "Mother Teresa of Calcutta."
Amazingly, the Church of the Black Madonna was spared destruction during the recent conflict here in Kosovo. Literally, thousands of Mosques and Orthodox churches were desecrated and destroyed by both the Serbians and Albanians over the years. Our interpreter told us that the saving grace of this particular church was not only because of the significant meaning and ties to Mother Teresa, but also because the Catholic priests and sisters did not take sides in the conflicts and helped to shelter all in need regardless of their religious or cultural background.
As we climbed the stairs to the church we were greeted by three very jovial women who were just as excited to try to talk to me as I was to them. The greeting of the day went fine, a simple help by both sides, I took their picture and as I flipped the camera around to show them the photo, they were thrilled in an innocent way to see the instant image. It was welcoming to stand in their presence and I sensed that this might be a daily ritual for them. To come and pray at the sacred church and to share with each other
laughter and the trivial activities of each day.
Just outside the church, with the beautiful landscape in the background stood the statue of the Virgin Mary. It drew you in with immaculate beauty and a contentness to just be still inside. I wanted to touch the statue but yet at the same time, wanted to just stand back in awe. The sights were simple yet so thought provoking. As I walked towards the entrance to the church, I wondered about what Mother Teresa would be thinking when she had entered the church. Was she tired from the long hard journey from the valley of Skopje, Macedonia back in 1928, when she travelled to the Feast of the Assumption Retreat? The very retreat that she actually felt the Lord calling her to religious life at the tender age of seventeen. When she stood at the back of the church did she take in the most awesome sight of one of the few original statues of the Black Madonna, which is over 300 years old, many years older than the church that was built in 1866?
The sight of the statue of the Black Madonna set upon a beautiful alter
intrigued my imagination and I could understand why thousands of religious pilgrims have previously found this place of worship to not only be a sanctuary of miracles, but also represent a place of mystery. Not being a catholic myself, I was fascinated by a history and wondered how a statue made from blackened wood could be held in such esteem by so many. The solitude of the sacred surroundings is testament to all the visitors who come here to pray or attend mass, which is held in multiple languages providing opportunities for believers from around the world to understand the holy words.
Our tour guide and interpreter showed us the pew that is said to be where Mother Teresa sat when she received her calling and we were able to see the many letters of prayer that people would leave in a small hollowed out area behind the alter. I found myself curious, there seemed to be thousands of pictures and letters written in different languages, I couldn’t help to wonder, had they been answered? Also, what happens to the pictures and letters left in prayer when there is no longer room for them behind the alter?
outside we could smell the sweet aroma of fresh bread. It was as though somebody's mother was cooking a nice lunch for us and I was being lured to to the back side of the church. It was in that back alley that one could witness the absolute beauty that the view offered as the church stood tall overlooking the small village and the vast meadow that stood below. I didn't loose focus on the bread and finally tracked it down to a simple small kitchen. There was three women working in the kitchen area and I tried to talk to them but no english was to be spoken between us. The interpreter was gracious enough to help me communicate and send a simple message of "Thanks". The women with there slightly mussed hair, as if they had been baking all morning, were so sincere and genuine that I felt a comfort about them that was inviting and I wished I could have stayed to talk because I am sure they could have told many stories about their lives that would be so intriguing.
We left the church area and spent some time in the small gift shop where
rosaries and special gifts that had been blessed were sold to support the church and the community that takes care of it. After the many pictures and quiet prayers we departed for our next destination.
Today’s journey was well worth the wait and will be a lifetime treasured memory. Blessed are those who welcomed the Peacekeepers...
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