An Easter Miracle in Bulgaria

Bill Sundstrom

The question haunted Scott Gill. Larry Thompson, then-director of Cru in Eastern Europe, had looked at a forest of apartment buildings and said, "How are we going to reach these people?

Perhaps 100,000 people lived in those apartments, hidden behind the peeling paint and rusty balconies of Communist-era buildings. And they were just a small part of the 1.2 million people in Sofia, capital of Bulgaria. Scott couldn't shake the question: how on earth could Cru, with its handful of staff members, reach all these people? Yet that was the goal in 1997 -- give every person in Bulgaria a chance to respond to the message of Christ by the end of the year 2000. 

The JESUS film campaign, though in the early stages, was going well. Some 20 volunteers showed the film in villages across the country. One volunteer, Pastor Dicho Todorov, would eventually plant 15 churches near the town of Sliven.

Big cities were a different story. In December 1998, when Scott helped his brother-in-law Brooke Rollins (Bulgarian JESUS film coordinator and Lisa's brother), evangelize the city of Plovdiv, things did not go well. The mayor of this ancient city refused permission to show the film. Religious leaders opposed it, and the media declared Cru a cult. Not surprisingly, few responded.

And the clock was ticking. Scott and Brooke had scheduled a similar campaign for Sofia during Easter of 1999 -- just 3 months later. The knew opposition would be even more severe in the capital city, so they prayed God would raise up partners and sponsors who were respected in Bulgarian society. And that is just what happened.

First Bulgarian Red Cross endorsed the idea, and offered to provide food and clothing to the poor as part of the event.

Then they met Dimitar Korudjiev, a prominent author considered by some as the Bulgarian equivalent of Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia. "This is the last Easter before the millennium," he said. "We should do a citywide celebration of Easter!"

Korudijev called together influential leaders from government, the Roman Catholic Church and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, while Scott invited evangelical leaders.

Tension tinged the air in that first meeting. Never had all these men been together in the same room, and they distrusted each other. "We will do this, by the grace of God," said Korudjiev, who supervised all religious education the country's school system. The rest of the group followed his leadership.

"This was a real miracle," says Rev. Dr. Nikolay Nedelchev, president of the European Evangelical Alliance and the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute. "And it showed the gift of Scott to work with us and persuade different groups to agree and have common goals. Even Korudjiev said that without Scott and Brooke, he couldn't have succeeded."

With so many groups involved, Easter 1999 truly became a time to talk about Jesus. "Instead of us doing it, a small group nobody ever heard of," says Scott, "this became a citywide coalition celebrating Easter." The celebration included an art festival, a film festival, outdoor concerts and aid distribution.

Still, the JESUS film remained at the heart. Every mailbox received a promotional postcard, and surveys later indicated that 300,000 people read the Four Spiritual Laws booklet excerpt printed on the postcard.

During 512 projections in 8 days, 25,000 people saw the film. Another 250,000 watched it on television. One outdoor showing took place in the main square in front of the mausoleum that once held the body of Georgi Dimitrov, father of Bulgarian communism.

"It was encouraging for evangelical churches to be part of something so well accepted in society, " says Scott, "for they had never seen the name of Christ so publicly proclaimed in Bulgaria."

"The campaign changed the image of the evangelical church," says Rev. Nedelchev. "It helped the public understand that this is real Christianity, and that evangelicals are a legitimate branch of the Christian church."

Similar campaigns soon spread to other cities, and by the end of the year 2000, Scott and Brooke felt confident that every person in Bulgaria had indeed gotten an opportunity to see the film and respond to the gospel.

"The other day I was flying over the country," says Scott, "and I was thinking about all the people in the villages and towns below. Then I realized that everyone had received a chance to hear about Jesus.

"I thought back to that day with Larry, and it brought tears to my eyes. Now the question had an answer!"

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