Learning the ins and outs of a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina

For a total of six years, my wife and I lived and worked in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia may be a small and somewhat remote country, but the capital is fairly cosmopolitan, with a high number of foreign residents, foreign firms, and plenty of options for entertainment and hospitality. As remote locations go, it is fairly accommodating to foreigners.

Sarajevo at night
Sarajevo at night

In 2015, we moved from the center of Sarajevo to the smaller southern city of Mostar. Mostar is many things, but it is much smaller than Sarajevo, and for us it was our first experience not living in a capital city. Thus began our introduction to small-town life, in Herzegovina, almost 2 years ago. This post will explore some of the peculiarities of carrying out our job in a small town, and how it is different from our experiences in past locations.

Some demographic details about Mostar

According to the 2013 census, Mostar has a population of 105.797, with a majority self-identifying as Catholic, a large minority as Bosnian Muslims, and a very small percentage (>5%) identifying as Serb Orthodox. The number of Protestant Christians is very small, possibly around 100 adults, split between 2 evangelical churches in the city.

The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Compared to metro Sarajevo’s half-million-plus residents, Mostar can seem quite small to a foreigner. Knowledge of the local language was a luxury in Sarajevo; here, it is a daily necessity. Neighborhoods are smaller and more exclusive; most¬†people do not often encounter foreigners — especially ones living in the city permanently.

Small towns offer a completely new environment for charity work

One of the most obvious differences we have encountered, compared to our experiences in the capital, is the interconnectedness of the entire place. The woman working on your application for a work permit may be the wife of the head postman, and the sister-in-law of the owner of the corner bakery. She may also be the college roommate of the dean of students at the university where you spend your time. In other words, while it is true that everyone is connected in some way, these connections are much easier to see in a smaller town like the one where we live.

The importance of a good reputation.

In the midst of such connections, reputation is incredibly important, and it is imperative that new groups spend considerable time building a good reputation immediately upon arrival. While people in the big city will not remember what you did last year, your undertakings in a small town can follow you indefinitely.

Two years and a ton of sweat and tears.

Some things take longer in a small town, and — if you are to be successful — you must accept that fact. In the end, when a good reputation has been built, and a community has been developed, it will hopefully be stronger because of the good will you have built, which would not have been possible in a large city.

What are we doing to build a reputation?

Big events.¬†Our group has taken to organizing one large event each semester that will benefit students academically and professionally. We have organized¬†“EQ Seminar” twice in 2016, and each time it was attended by over 100 students — making it one of the largest extracurricular events of its type in the city.

Small educational programs.¬†We teach English in small groups, focusing on conversational proficiency — a skill that is sought after¬†in a city like ours.¬†We hope that serving in this way will contribute to our reputation as people who add value to the community.


A small town emphasizes the pre-existing connections between its members, making a good reputation more important. We hope to learn and grow in our new environment, and contribute to the progress and enrichment of the community. Doing so, we believe, will be the most effective way to make an lasting impact.

Do you live in a small town? What are the differences that you have noticed between small towns and bit cities? Leave your answers in the comments below.

Labels are killing us, and we’ve got to stop it.

In order to understand this post, you’ve got to understand a little about lost causes.

I struggled with the title of this post, until I remembered my earlier thoughts about the idea of lost causes. The events of the past few days have caused people to say things — on social media, on national television, and on radio, no less — that should not be said.¬†People have¬†stooped to namecalling and labelling in a way that I have not seen in the public discourse in my lifetime. And it needs to stop — on all¬†sides, it needs to stop.

You are addicted to your narrative.

The Lost Cause Narrative is an accepted story, resulting from disputed version of events supported by an individual or by a group, that is not universally accepted by other neighboring individuals or groups, which later comes to define the behavior of that individual or group.

The narrative is an addiction, an obsession, that we usually dismiss as a grudge. The thing about grudges is that they come to define our life, and they enable the discourse — or lack thereof — that we have been privy to in the past several days.

Lost causes don’t do damage — it’s the resulting narrative that destroys people.

In order to catch the idea, you’ve got to catch the distinction between the¬†lost cause¬†and the¬†narrative.¬†The lost cause is not in itself bad. I’ve championed innumerable lost causes in my career. Operational changes, training programs, advertising schemes — you name it. They may have all been perfectly good ideas, but when taken to the¬†discussion table, for whatever reason they weren’t adopted.

The narrative comes later, when resentment is allowed to breed, fester, and create a story — an alternate narrative — that comes to define our behavior in subsequent interactions with opposing¬†parties.

In this¬†narrative, the discussion has never ended, and it becomes¬†part of a larger story — one where the opposing parties are not just in opposition to my idea, but they are in some way a threat to my existence. They opposed my idea, not out of rational disagreement, but out of a deeper plot to damage my reputation¬†or effectiveness, and prevent me from being successful. In this narrative, success becomes a¬†zero sum game, where their¬†success necessitates my failure, and vice versa.

The narrative necessitates a label. And labels kill.

The only way to operate within a lost cause narrative is by virtue of labels. People who don’t see the value of an¬†idea must be labeled “stupid”, “selfish”, or worse.¬†We’ve all heard it in the past few days on the radio, on social media, and on television. Our detractors detract, not because they have conscientious objections, but because they are actually ___.

Labels are good in an actual war. The enemy is labeled “enemy”, and that’s the end of it — we try to kill them. But as our world becomes more and more connected,¬†it behooves us to not think¬†of all our rhetorical, economic, and political disagreements¬†as wars. Our adversaries are real people, with real lives that continue¬†on long after the dispute has ended. When we choose to live within narratives that lend apocalyptic qualities to¬†our disputes, we reduce the chances of real engagement and peaceful existence in the aftermath to near zero.¬†

Labelling¬†cheats you — not them.

Labelling others in the midst of a dispute cuts off our ability to relate to them. It assigns them to a box, inside of which, they are no longer significant as a rational, independent entity. They are now “stupid”, or “awful”, or worse — ignorant¬†and unenlightened.

The problem with that is that it’s not true.¬†People with whom you disagree are, nonetheless, still people. And who is to say that you are more informed? When you place a label, what you’ve actually done is cut yourself off from¬†the possibility of engagement and persuasion. You’ve ensured that person will not come to see things from your point of view — because nobody is convinced of anything if they are not first engaged as a rational actor.¬†

Understanding enables us to have the life we were meant to have.

We were not meant to label our everyday adversaries. Children engage in such activities — and parents do their best to¬†help bring children into the word of adults, where complex situations require people to make hard decisions. People who disagree with us are not bad.¬†They are not bad, and they deserve our time, consideration, and respect.

If we are to ever get time, consideration, and respect from others, we must first be givers, and not takers.


The most important day in my lifetime

In order to understand my world, you need to understand something about culture.

The place where I live is deeply divided. Not 20 years ago, the people here experienced a complex war, between 3 sides, which was stopped by the international community in 1995, and left the city divided. There are literally two halves of the city, each with its own utilities, government offices, and postal service.

I am affected by this divided reality every day.¬†I live inside of it, and it governs¬†my daily routine. But no matter how long I live here, no matter how well I speak the local language, no matter how well I know the city, I will always be a foreigner. I will never be a¬†member of the culture here — not in the same way that locals are.

This aspect of my life here has taught me a great lesson about how I ought to think about my involvement in the country of my birth. This, I believe, is how I was always supposed to look at my own culture and society. Consider these words of Scripture:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:9-17

The point is that, regardless of where I was born, I am now to look at myself as primarily a member of the people of God. This membership is of utmost importance, such that I make it more important, in my own mind, than even my earthly citizenship in the country of my birth.

Just as my present city is divided, the country of my birth is divided, deeply. There are northerners, southerners, liberals, moderates, Democrats, Libertarians, and everything in between. But citizenship in the Kingdom of God enables me — it requires¬†me —¬†to look at those divisions as a member of another culture.

I see the divisions, I am affected by them, and I have my opinions about the sides. But no matter how much I am affected, no matter how well I try to speak the “language” of that debate, I know that I cannot involve my heart in the debate in the same way that most do. For them, this is ultimate — there is nothing transcending this cultural war.


But for me, if the words of 1 Peter are of any significance, then I know that this conflict is surpassed¬†by one much more important, ending in the realization of the longing of the redeemed hearts of God’s people, the redemption of all things. No matter how many times someone says,”this is the most important day in our lifetime,” — I know that a day much more consequential is coming, whose memory will never fade.

God speed the day.

It doesn’t matter whom you vote for: Earthly leaders and the heavenly leader

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. – John 10:11


Scripture refers to people as sheep over 400 times. Why?

Sheep are hopelessly dumb; there is no other way to describe them. Unlike dogs or cats, they will wander and lose their way. Even when they are found, they may not follow their shepherd unless they are scared into doing so by a dog. At times, the shepherd must catch them, tie them up, and carry them back to their pasture. They will wander without direction, oblivious of their circumstances, until they starve and die, or are killed by a predator. 

And yet this is one of scripture’s favorite word pictures for people. There are many implications. People are hopeless without a shepherd. People are oblivious of their surroundings. People are unaware of how they hurt themselves. 

But there is one more implication that is especially valuable in this time: there is but one Good Shepherd. All others will disappoint. No other shepherd has the heart of Jesus, who lays down his life for the edification of stupid, wayward animals. 

Inject that insight into the circumstances of today. The American people will soon choose a new President. This is the choosing of a new earthly shepherd, a new earthly leader. To the top of the heap have risen characters whose pasts are checkered, to put it kindly. 

No one in this field has clearly demonstrated a desire to lead the American people that does not also include an obvious desire for their own profit and gain.  Maybe this is something we all instinctively know, but it is worth noting.

There is no perfect candidate, because there never will be one. The only leader who ever led from a truly selfless motivation already came, 2,000 years ago. And if we think that we can find a similar leader today, then we are sadly mistaken. 

If this is true, then, in fulfilling our civic duty we would all do good to recognize that all leaders are broken in some way. While we must still debate the differences between the candidates and discern the best choice for ourselves, it is helpful to be mindful that we are ultimately still comparing one broken person to another. None is perfect, and there is not one choice that is more “spiritual” than another. We are free to choose. 

However, while we are free to chose, we are not to judge the spirituality of another voter based on their choice for an elected office. It doesn’t make sense to assume that a person’s opinion of one broken candidate is indicative of their standing with God. All are broken, and all are capable of good things only through the grace that God gives. 

Lastly, it is good to step back from this whole process and recognize our own brokenness. We are all sheep, in need of a Good Shepherd. 

A sheep’s problem isn’t that it acts sometimes like a sheep, overeating in its own pasture and wandering off too far — its problem is that it is a sheep, and from that it will never escape without the guidance of a shepherd. And unless we recognize that we are the same, we deceive ourselves. 

Going to the doctor is a waste of time: Thoughts on a post-socialist medical system

Me and the kids having fun in Budapest. I think my daughter had recovered from strep by this time.
Me and the kids having fun in Budapest. I think my daughter had recovered from strep by this time.

To understand my life over the past 3 years, you’ve got to understand a little bit about bacteria.

And not just any bacteria. I’m specifically thinking about the bacteria called Group A beta-hemolytic Streptococcus, the bacteria that causes the dreaded type of pharyngitis that Americans normally refer to as simply Strep throat.¬†

Strep usually comes on quickly, but I’ve had all different flavors. The very first time I had it, I was unable to leave my¬†bed for four consecutive days,¬†and each day I believed¬†that tomorrow would surely be better. Other times, I’ve had it without realizing it (which many¬†would say is not possible). I’ve had it with and without a fever. I’ve recovered with and without antibiotics (again, very strange).

Now, I’m no doctor (let’s get that out of the way). But when it comes to a couple of¬†things in the medical world — strep being one of them — experience has taught me a lot. I believe I know what I am talking abaout. Almost always, strep is one of those things that will necessitate a visit to the doctor and a course of antibiotics — it’s not one of those things you can mistake for a common cold.

My current battle in the war with strep began about a month ago, before my family made the trek to Budapest for the birth of our third child (another story entirely).  I went to a private clinic, where the doctor saw me for about 10 minutes, gave me a prescription for an antibiotic, and a bill for $50. After I bought the medicine, I had spent $65.

While in Budapest, I passed the dreaded illness to my daughter. We took her to the doctor, and she got better quickly, but not before giving the dreaded step throat back to me. This time, circumstances did not allow me to go to the doctor immediately. But today, after several days of discomfort, I decided enough was enough. I had to try to go see someone and get the antibiotics I needed. However, this time I decided I would use the public medical system here in Mostar.

I started by looking up the local clinic online and calling them. There were about 50 phone numbers listed on the website. I called the number for the main nurse for Family Medicine. No answer. OK, I thought, I’ll try another number. Front Desk looked like a good alternative. No answer. Doctor’s office #1. No answer. Front Dest #2. No answer. No answer. No answer.

After going through about 6 of the numbers listed under Family Medicine, I decided to just call the Emergency Room dispatcher. Someone answered right away.


“Hi. This is not an emergency; I just don’t know who to call. I am a foreign citizen and I need to see a doctor. Is today a holiday?”


“I just called every number for Family Medicine and nobody answered.”

“Yes, well it’s break time. From 10 to 10:30 they don’t answer their phones.”

“Oh. I have a throat infection and I need to see a doctor. Which office¬†should I go to?”

“Let me ask… I just asked the doctor, and he said you can go wherever you want.”

“Really? But I just have a throat infection.”

“If you just come to the main clinic, whichever office, someone will see you.”

This is how most of my dealings with public offices go. I have learned to call first. It doesn’t really make things better, but it makes me feel like I’ve at least done my homework. So I headed over to the main clinic. I found the office for Family Medicine, explained who I was, and took a seat, and waited. And waited.

After a little while, the nurse asked me if I’d like to just go to the Emergency Room. “But it’s not an emergency,” I replied. “But there you won’t have to wait.” Suspicious, I decided to just stay, rather than explain my case to yet another group of nurses and sit in another waiting area.

Then the doctor saw me. She looked at my throat, listened to my story, felt my lymph nodes, et cetera. Then she gave me a piece of paper.

“Here’s something you can take for your throat. You’ll have to go to the lab for a throat culture before I can prescribe any antibiotics.”

“But doesn’t that take a couple of days?”

“If you go now, you can make it by 12. They work from 8 to 12. If they do it today, it should be done by… Thursday.”


“Your throat isn’t really that swollen. I can’t prescribe anything unless a culture shows you have bacteria.”

So I begrudgingly went out to the laboratory, located by the hospital, across town (it’s a small town). I popped my head in the door and explained my case.

“It would be better if you came back tomorrow in the morning.”


“Have you eaten or drank anything today?”

“But all I need is a throat culture.”

“But you need to not eat anything before you do the culture.”

“What does that have to do with a throat culture? I’ve done this many times, and I’ve never had to fast for the culture.”

“OK, just come in.”

They ended up doing the culture for me. They were fairly nice, but only because I was insistent at the beginning.

“Come back Thursday from 12 to 3 to get your results,” they said.

This is the kind of thing that 5 years ago would have eaten up 2 or even 3 days. I have been through this before, before I was fluent in the local language, when I would go to the wrong clinic, arrive just after closing or break time, misunderstand the doctor, go to the wrong lab, etc. After 5 years, I managed to get that down to 2 hours.

I can say that the process is not actually much different from what it would be in the U.S. The main difference is that the doctor or nurse in the U.S. will do a culture on you at their office, and then send it to a lab themselves. Many doctors in the U.S. (and here) will prescribe something to you immediately, though, forgoing the 2 days it takes to grow bacteria in the lab, based on their opinion of the symptoms you are exhibiting. It is a guess, but a very educated guess.

The main difference I can see between the former-Yugoslavian system and the U.S. system is in the thought given to the comfort and overall experience of the patient. The patient experience in the U.S. is¬†rather nice; in developing countries in Eastern Europe, any other experience would be preferable to go to the doctor. Facilities are old and dingy, and personnel are not overly nice. Rules and¬†customs — such as the habit of an entire office taking a break at 10:00am — do not seem to make sense, and while personnel will even acknowledge that they seem nonsensical, no attempt is made to improve.

However, there are good people in the system, and very few people are mean or intentionally¬†unhelpful. It just so happened that my visit to the doctor today might have been a waste of time. As it stands now, I feel much better — better enough that I can assume the illness will not reappear in the morning. So what¬†incentive is there for me to go back to the lab for the results of my test? None.