Photographs by Ted Wilcox

Who Is My Neighbor?

A Croatian family practices hospitality at their apartment and their country's border.

Emilie Vinson

Petra is at her daughters’ elementary school when she hears the news. The refugees will arrive in Croatia within a matter of days—thousands of them—traveling with only what they can carry.

They flee conflict in the Middle East, moving north through Europe. Most enter Croatia three hours east of the capital city, Zagreb, then take buses to the northern border. There they wait to enter Slovenia.

Petra and her husband, Hrvoje, decide to drive to the nearest border with their three daughters, ages 11, 9 and 6. Perhaps they can help. 

They stop at church on the way, loading their trunk with red boxes of food and water, donations for the refugees. There are also raincoats and packs of striped children’s socks. Their daughters, Mia, Dora and Emili, carry some of their own stuffed animals to give to children they meet.

As staff members with Fokus (as Cru is known in Croatia), Petra and Hrvoje’s job is to reach students with God’s love. But beyond that, they’ve developed a lifestyle of loving their neighbors—whether neighbors are refugees at a nearby border, or the woman in the apartment below.

“That’s my life motto,” Petra explains. “I’m available. God will bring me the ones that He needs. I just need to be out there with my eyes open.”

One afternoon, Petra’s phone rang. It was her neighbor Kristina.

“I’m making a cake and I need six eggs,” Kristina said. “Do you have six eggs?”

“I do,” Petra said, inviting her friend to come pick them up.

So Kristina walked from her second-floor apartment up to Petra’s third-floor apartment.

“I’m going to buy you eggs,” Kristina promised when she arrived at the door.

“If you buy me eggs, we are no longer friends,” Petra said, her stern response betrayed by her spunky grin. “I am giving you eggs. And when I need eggs or something else, I will come down, and I will get it.”

Petra prayed over her family’s apartment building for years, asking God to bring her people to whom she could show His love.

“I was walking all around the neighborhood, desperately trying to find people who I could meet,” she says. “I would search different parks. I prayed, ‘Lord, I know there are people here who need You, who are searching for You. Please lead me to them. I cannot find them.’”

She was looking for people to live alongside. But developing close relationships can be difficult. “People go out to movies,” Petra explains. “But they don’t have a community in their home, discussing their values and things like that.”

Petra (holding bag), with two of her daughters, donates clothes for refugees passing through Croatia.

Her love for people began early. As a child she remembers starting conversations with strangers while she waited to be picked up from music school. Now this trait helps her meet new people to share life with.

“I have this desire to meet them,” Petra says about her neighbors. “In my mind, the more doors there are, the more people there are, the more I love it. There is something in me that just loves close communities. In my head, it’s like a picture of heaven, where everybody will be in community, being there for each other.”

Petra’s daughters attend school within walking distance of their home. When her daughter Mia’s first-grade class needed a parent representative, Petra volunteered. Perhaps it will be a good way to meet other families in our neighborhood, she thought.

That Christmas, she invited 10 of Mia’s classmates to her home to make gingerbread houses. Once decorated, they were sold at the school’s annual Christmas fair. The money raised helped children in the school who came from poor families.

The following year, she was asked by the teacher to help the 30 children in Mia’s class make gingerbread houses. A year later, teachers asked if she would assist three classes with the project. So she held three workshops, inviting other parents to her home to teach them how to bake gingerbread houses.

And then she got a call.

The school had a parent council, and its president was leaving. Several parents would be suggested as candidates, and would Petra allow the school to suggest her as one?

“I said sure,” Petra says, “I knew that all these parents in the parent council needed to vote for the person to become president. I thought, There’s no way somebody would pick me.”

After the first round of voting, there were two candidates left—one of them was Petra. As another round of voting took place, she prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what You’re doing. But if You want me in this position, then You put me there.”

When the second round of votes were counted, Petra won by five votes. She called her husband that night and said, “I think I’m in way over my head.”

She began working alongside Marko, the professor of religious education at the school, on a project called Mary’s Meals. Their goal was to raise 60,000 kunas (roughly $10,000) for a school kitchen in Africa.

“During the project, the whole school united,” Marko says. The story made national news. It was the only school in the country to ever raise that amount of money without government help.

And the project opened doors for Petra. It allowed her to work alongside other parents who lived in her neighborhood and build relationships with them.

Now, besides her work in the school, she leads two small groups for women. She uses a curriculum called Soaring, developed by Cru. Soaring is an evangelistic, life-coaching course that helps women identify and celebrate their uniqueness. They develop deep community with each other and consider God as their life foundation.

Two women from the school, along with several neighbors, are part of the groups.

After school, Petra meets with other parent volunteers.

One of the neighbors is Martina, who lives in building number 19, down the street from Petra and Hrvoje. She and Petra met while walking their dogs.

“She was very friendly,” Petra says, remembering how they would often talk as they walked. Martina was eager to talk about life but hesitant to discuss faith, telling Petra she was investigating energy-related spirituality.

“And then sometime in December or January, I did not see her for a very long time,” Petra says. So she called, and learned that Martina had injured her back.

As she recovered, Petra visited and loaned her some books about God. This time, as Petra talked about her work with Fokus, things were different. “She started reading the Bible,” Petra remembers. “I shared the gospel, and about God—how God is there and present.”

Petra and Hrvoje invited Martina to celebrate Easter with them. And then Christmas. She’d come over for lunch and invite Petra's family to her home.

“We became much more than friends,” Petra says. “Now she grows by herself. She’s into God’s Word, praying to Him, and trusting.”

And when Petra’s washing machine broke in the middle of a hectic week, Martina took half of Petra’s laundry home and washed, dried and folded it.

“This is the thing I always dreamed of,” Petra says. “Not to have a broken washing machine, but that I would be part of the community in such a way that we could rely on each other.”

Still, living in a community brings its challenges. For Petra, one of those is walking alongside others who aren’t committed to moving forward. “I love practical helping,” she explains. “I wouldn’t be good at listening for five years about how you are depressed. There’s something in me that wants to move things. Even if you are in the most despair, there are certain things you can do to move forward. It’s like, chop, chop. Let’s make a plan.” But others aren’t always on her timetable.

Yesterday, loving her neighbors looked like inviting women into her home to eat Nutella pie, talk about life and how they see God working. Today it looks like delivering supplies to refugees who landed 15 minutes from her family’s doorstep.

When the family arrives at the border, there is confusion. Long lines of vehicles wait to cross into Slovenia. Police direct cars to move along, while refugees wait in groups on the side of the road.

There are tents for these things, the volunteers say, when Petra and Hrvoje arrive with food and water. This one for food. That one for water. That brown one for clothing.

As a family, they move from tent to tent, handing out the things they’ve brought. Like the families in their building or the parents at school, these are their neighbors. 

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