With this post, I begin a series of blogs about people I’ve known who’ve taught me over the years the value of throwing oneself into the mix of a team of service. Some of these folks I met in international contexts, others are as close as my home city. All of them had a profound influence on me and contributed to my conviction that intentional support teams are one of the best ways of loving our neighbors. Today, I begin with Tomas Kriska.
In 1996 I went to Slovakia with a bluegrass band. I know that sounds odd. Bluegrass in Slovakia? Well, at that time, I was pastor of a church that affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) and our statewide association had partnered with the Baptist Union of Slovakia to conduct cultural exchanges and share our resources with one another, all for the sake of “mutual edification.” Virginia Baptists of varying stripes and talents went to Slovakia to share their knowledge and Slovakian Baptists came to Virginia to do the same.
That trip in 1996 was my first time in Slovakia, and since none of us spoke the beautiful but complicated Slovak language, we needed a translator. We had a very good bluegrass band (even if I say so myself) and we felt confident that our concerts across Slovakia would draw enthusiastic crowds, but unless we could communicate with them, translate lyrics, and explain the genre to our audiences, the experience would not be as complete.
Enter Tomas Kriska. Tomas was the pastor of the Lucenic Baptist Church in Lucenic, Slovakia. Tomas was married to a woman named Ester, and they had two sons. We all immediately liked Tomas. His eyes twinkled, a smiled always lurked beneath his beard and sprang out frequently, and he spoke with a deep, bass voice that resonated in your very sternum when he spoke. Along with the irrepressible smile, laughter bubbled up constantly as he showed us around and explained things to us in excellent English.
And, he was without a doubt, the most skilled translator I’ve ever had on my many international assignments. Not only would he convey the meaning of my stories to the audiences we entertained, he duplicated the sound effects I’d often use. He mimicked my physical behavior, and even my intonation and inflection. Nothing ever seemed to be lost in translation. Our audiences remained enrapt.
I learned that his congregation responded to him similarly. He preached with passion and compassion. During the era of the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact, a government agent was assigned to monitor his sermons lest Tomas say something anti-socialist. After the “fall of the wall” and the subsequent collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the agent joined Tomas’ church. Eventually, Tomas took over as president of the national Baptist Union of Slovakia and moved from Lucenic to Bratislava and the leading Baptist church in Slovakia.
The success our bluegrass band experienced in Slovakia certainly had something to do with our musicianship. But we could NOT have done so well were not Tomas on our team. He didn’t know anything about bluegrass. He couldn’t play a note on our instruments (although he had a marvelous singing voice). But because of his great communication skills and his powerful personality, we were a success.
This is one of the reasons I believe so strongly in the healing power of Support Teams. When Support Teams assemble, this same kind of synergy that we experienced with Tomas happens repeatedly. When the members of the teams share the same love and concern, coupled with a desire to serve, what might have seemed to be unrelated talents come together to weave a new and powerful fellowship of persons. Success ensues and deeply enriches lives – even heals broken lives.
Last year, Tomas Kriska died after living with an aggressive form of colon cancer for a number of years. All of Slovakian Baptists mourned his passing, and I joined them. I grieve for his wife, Ester, and his sons. I will always be deeply grateful, however, for the way Tomas taught me that when one offers whatever skills and talents one has, life for everyone associated becomes deeper, richer, and more fun. I will bear a deep well of gratitude for Tomas Kriska until the day I die.