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Text: Stine Frimann NORSK
In 2015, Colonel Jostein Nielsen had an unusual dream. In the dream, he saw a vivid celebration even including a Brass Band together with other ways of witness, because the Salvation Army had started mission in Bulgaria. Could it be that the Salvation Army was meant to open there?
- I have experienced many times that God has spoken to and through me, but never in a dream, says Jostein Nielsen.
However, that was before a night in April 2015. Earlier the same day, it had been announced that he and his wife, Colonel Magna Våje Nielsen, had received a new appointment. They were soon to travel to Moldova as part of the leadership-team in the Eastern Europe territory, which consists of Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and the breakaway region Transnistria. That night the dream about Bulgaria came completely ‘out of the blue’ and was repeated several times. Was this something more than a regular dream? He told Magna about the dream, and both interpreted that the dream had to be from God. Some months later they found themselves in Moldova, where they the first months lived among boxes in a small apartment, and the demanding job captured all attention.
- It took a long time before we started thinking about Bulgaria again, says Magna.
But strange things began to happen, which brought back Bulgaria on the horizon. For example, by chance they got in touch with a man who had taken a quick trip to Moldova simply because he got hold of a cheap ticket and could tick off one more country on his list. It turned out that he had properties and contacts in Bulgaria and wanted to help. He ended up introducing Jostein and Magna to his lawyer in the country, who became the one who gave the assistance with completion of the registration The Salvation Army needed to be able to operate legally in Bulgaria.
They also received many confirmations that the Salvation Army was welcome and necessary in the country.
- Together with the TCs, Colonels Wendy and Rodney Walters, we were invited to a conference for leaders in Europe in Athens. We decided to go by car, so that we could have a stop-over in Sofia in Bulgaria, says Magna.
- In advance we manage to contact some leaders of the Evangelical Alliance in Bulgaria and arranged a meeting with them. When we met them, they were very excited and said: "For 20 years we have been waiting for The Salvation Army to come to Bulgaria!". They were so happy that we had finally started thinking about it, she smiles.
The pieces fall into placeThe meeting took place in the first evangelical church established in Bulgaria. The church leaders they met there asked if there was anything they could do to help, and Jostein said that they would probably need a legal address to get a registration in Bulgaria, because they did not intend to open work in the country before proper legal statutes were in place.
- They responded by giving us permission to use the address of the first evangelical church, says Jostein.
The next time Jostein was in Bulgaria, he checked into a hotel he had been recommended. He had agreed to meet someone there and sat in the lobby waiting in full uniform.
- A middle-aged man worked as a piccolo there. He came over and commented : "Your uniform is nicer than mine!" and wondered what kind of uniform it was.
Jostein explained a little bit about The Salvation Army in English, and asked if the man had heard about The Salvation Army before, but he hadn’t.
- I tried to explain a little more, but he struggled to understand. Therefore, I asked if he knew Russian, and it turned out that he spoke it fluently. I also know Russian, so then I managed to explain more about the Salvation Army and what our mission is. The man responded: "When you come to Bulgaria, I will show up as your first volunteer!", says Jostein.
Jostein left for the meeting he had scheduled, and when he returned, the piccolo was still there.
- He came over to me, gave me a note and said “I meant what I said this morning. To show that I mean it, I have written down my name and phone number here". These are just some of the experiences we have had that made us sure that things were going to work out. You do not always foresee how it will work out, and you wonder how it will happen. But it happens. That's what's so exciting! says Jostein with a smile.
Local ownershipThe ministry of The Salvation Army in Bulgaria is in its very beginning. The first step is to establish an office in Sofia, the capital. When the work is up running there and people get involved, it can expand further to other cities. The hope is to have three viable corps (local churches) and three outposts within five years. But where these corps and outposts will be, what profile they will have and how they will be run, Jostein and Magna have no strong opinions about.
- It does not necessarily bring fruit if you come from the outside and create something that may not fit the culture in that country. We must see what the needs are and what people are interested participating in, everything must be locally based, Magna explains.
Most Salvation Army corps carry out various types of humanitarian and social work, and Bulgaria is unlikely to be an exception. But Jostein and Magna want the corps – the body of disciples to be established first, then the humanitarian work is built on the right foundation.
- We very often become the first project we release. If we come in solely with a humanitarian approach, we will be perceived as a kind of Red Cross, and people will associate the Salvation Army as something similar. Therefore, the goal is to establish the corps as a local church first. And then social work comes more as a fruit of who we are, based on the needs we see over time, Jostein explains.
Conversations over a cup of coffeeThe recipe for starting a ministry in a new country where many may never have heard about the Salvation Army before, is quite simple: You pray and then you talk with people.
- They who will lead the work in Bulgaria will start by talking to people they meet in various contexts, invite them to a cup of coffee and a chat about the Bible around a table, says Magna.
And fortunately, the work will be led by a couple who are good at just that: Eduard and Inna Lebedev.
- Eduard has an incredible ability to get in touch with people and tell them about faith, Jostein smiles.
He and Magna had enrolled Inna as a soldier and had known her for a couple of years when they met Eduard for the first time in 2007. There was nothing in the first meeting that suggested that Eduard would become an officer and lead a new venture in the Salvation Army.
They were visiting a corps in Dubbosary in Transnistria. The corps leader there asked if they could pray for his son, who had come out of prison the same day. It was Eduard. At that time, he had drifted away from faith and had lived a tough life. There is a sub-culture in Eastern Europe where ending up in prison is seen as a being a ‘real man’. Eduard ended up in juvenile prison when he was 14 years old, and served a sentence for 4.5 years.
It was this sentence Eduard had served to the end when Jostein and Magna stopped by. After a chat, Eduard allowed them to pray for him. Later Inna and Eduard fell in love and got married. They served first as soldiers and later together in ministry after having become officers. And now the relay continues, in that they are to lead Jostein's "dream project" in Bulgaria. It is a mission they will do together with an officer couple from Sweden, Erik and Kathleen Johansson, who will be part of the pioneer team of four.
That is also an remarkable story, Jostein can tell. He and Magna attended the Salvation Army's congress in Oslo in 2019. While there, the news came that the registration of The Salvation Army was finally approved and filed in the Bulgarian state registry, and they could seriously start planning the opening.
The next day they attended a meeting, and Jostein went to greet a couple he had never seen before. He and Erik quickly found out that they both shared a special passion for Eastern Europe.
- Erik had spent much time in several countries in Eastern Europe. We prayed together in the meeting and during the prayer I suddenly broke of the prayer and asked: “Are you going to be involved in the opening the work in Bulgaria? Of course, it's not for me to deside this, but is it you?”. The answer came without hesitation: "Yes, it's probably us", he says.
It took a year before they were approved for service in the country, but last autumn they were in place in Bulgaria to start up work. Currently alone, because Eduard and Inna could not go there at the scheduled time due to coronary restrictions.
Seeking partnersNow that Jostein's dream has come true, he and Magna hope that many will want to join and support it further, and that is why they announce a call to people to become a "Pioneer-partner for Bulgaria".
- We think that potential partners are people who want to support the new mission in Bulgaria, by committing to pray for the work and give a fixed monthly amount. We see the next five years as the pioneer-period. However, that does not mean that everyone has to commit to support the work financially for five years, maybe they can commit for one year at a time. Those who join, decide for themselves how much their monthly contribution will be, says Jostein.
- Those who join in this partnership are likely to be people who have some interest in new openings and what is happening in Bulgaria, they will follow the news and follow up in prayer. In this way it will be something else than just a random monetary gift, you gain more ownership to the mission, Magna adds.
And precisely the personal ownership is the main reason why the two want to gather individuals as supporters for the work in Bulgaria.
- It would probably be possible to get a territory in the Salvation Army to take responsibility for running Bulgaria for five years. But when the five years are gone, there is no personal relationship with anyone. We are convinced that there are some faithful souls who think that this is important to support, and that they are likely to pray for Bulgaria for the rest of their lives, Jostein believes.
The Salvation Army has already made sure that there are funds for the basics we must have in place, such as rent and salaries for those who will lead the work.
- But the more we get in from private donors, the more we will be able to do to extend the mission. We take a step forward with every single person who signs up as a pioneer partner, Jostein and Magna conclude.
Do you want to become a pioneer-partner for Bulgaria?
Get in touch/register on email: firstname.lastname@example.org