‘The flexibility of a senior mission is wonderful,’ says couple serving in Adriatic North Mission

Credit: Laurie Williams Sowby
Credit: Laurie Williams Sowby

ZAGREB, Croatia — Upbeat. Hard-working. And totally dedicated.

Such adjectives could describe senior missionary couples anywhere in the world, but it’s particularly noticeable in a part of the world where the Church is relatively unknown, with a short history and less visible presence.

Such is the case for the Adriatic North Mission, which consists of five independent nations of the former Yugoslavia. Each has a different language/dialect and currency. Add multiple deep religious and ethnic identities, plus wars as recent as two decades ago, and the challenges for spreading the gospel are multiplied.

Just before he was called to the First Presidency, then-Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated Yugoslavia for missionary work in 1985. The breakup began soon after as communism crumbled throughout Eastern Europe. Then-Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles visited and blessed the individual nations in September 2010.

There are 66 young missionary elders and sisters serving in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, shepherded by President Dave Melonakos and his wife, Sister Becky Melonakos. Although they have a mission home in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, they spend many days and nights weekly on the road (and at the sometimes lengthy border checkpoints) between the five countries.

With a membership totaling somewhere around 1,400, there are no stakes yet in these Balkan countries, so President Melonakos is the ecclesiastical authority over the three districts that make up the mission, in addition to his duties as mission president.

As with many missions throughout the world, its leaders are always seeking senior couples to help administer the branches and further missionary work in cities and widespread rural areas.

“Our most desperate need is to have senior couples serve as member and leader support (MLS) missionaries,” President Melonakos said. “We have 18 small, struggling branches/groups in the Adriatic North Mission, and they are in continual need of leaders who use their diverse talents and experiences to support and nurture our wonderful members and young missionaries.”

Many of the senior elders serve as branch presidents in these units. Other assignments range from office staff (financial, clerical and administrative work) at the mission headquarters in Zagreb to assignments working with young single adults, teaching self-reliance and humanitarian service.

None of them speak the local languages, nor do they need to, with so many locals speaking English and young missionaries available to interpret.

“The same is true wherever we go in public — many, many people speak English, and there is always someone around to translate,” President Melonakos emphasized. He also notes that senior missionaries do not keep the same schedule as young elders and sisters and do no street contacting.

Because they are so far-flung, Sister Melonakos regularly creates opportunities to bring the mission couples together to find connection and let them feel each others’ support.

Office couples in Zagreb work on the second floor of a historic building across from a park in downtown Zagreb. The late Kresimir Cosic, who joined the Church in 1971 while playing basketball for BYU and went on to help the Yugoslavian team win a gold medal at the 1980 Olympics, donated the space where the offices are located.

The space acted as the first meetinghouse in Zagreb. Now members meet in another structure which is one of only two LDS chapels in the Adriatic North Mission. (The other is in Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia.)

Young single adults

Elder Jack Draxler and Sister Marilyn Draxler, from Logan, Utah, work with young single adults throughout Slovenia from their base in Maribor, about 90 minutes northeast of Ljubljana. They happily noted that they added one more member to the tiny Maribor Branch recently when a young woman who’d been introduced to the missionaries at their English conversation group was baptized.

The Draxlers help organize two YSA conferences a year, in April and October, bringing LDS young adults together from the five different countries in the mission. The young adults helped with a Red Cross project to aid Syrian refugees as part of the April YSA conference. Sister Draxler observes that the YSAs are able to find unity as Church members rather than different nationalities.

The Draxlers accompanied 20 young adults from the mission on a bus trip to the Bern Switzerland Temple while the Frankfurt Germany Temple was under renovation. During the week there, seven received their own endowment; some of those are among seven who are currently serving missions.

Sister Draxler said, “If we can get them on a mission, it makes a huge difference in their depth of devotion to the Church.”

Humanitarian needs

Humanitarian needs remain in many parts of the Adriatic North Mission after devastating wars in the 1990s. Humanitarian missionary couples here work with LDS Charities through its Frankfurt area office to identify and fill needs in the countries where they serve as directors.

Elder Dennis Newton and Sister Dionne Newton, from Kansas City, Missouri, were hoping to be called on a proselytizing mission when they filled out the application to serve two years ago. But they have been extremely happy as LDS Charities country directors for Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Elder Newton has also been serving as branch president in Sarajevo.)

They’ve logged thousands of miles on their car each month as they concentrate their efforts on helping people with disabilities.

Most facilities in the region are not handicap accessible, which makes basic things like going to school impossible, so they’ve worked with community leaders and representatives of non-governmental agencies (NGOs) to “improve the quality all across Bosnia,” Sister Newton explained.

With her certification in therapeutic horse riding as well as a teaching degree, she became a riding instructor at the Riders of Hope facility in Sarajevo. Four young missionaries serve as volunteers at the center each Saturday.

She and Elder Newton also arranged to partner with an organization to provide three-day training to help teachers learn how to teach children with disabilities. The teachers are now teaching their staffs at 10 centers around the country.

LDS Charities provided funding for a supplemental project to provide tool kits for implementing the training program. In their quest to spend wisely, the Newtons themselves printed, laminated, cut and sorted 1,300 picture cards rather than having them commercially produced.

Elder Newton told of the unforgettable expression on a boy’s face when he was able to match something and play the card game with other kids. Through their efforts, “Our hope is to change the way children are accepted and taught in Bosnia,” Sister Newton said.

Looking back as they prepare to end their mission in January, Elder Newton recalled one of the many projects LDS Charities partnered on, infant resuscitation training. “This means future generations of Bosnians will be here.”

A ‘can-do attitude’

Life in Serbia has been a new experience for Elder John Swendsen and Sister Cathy Swendsen, who arrived as LDS Charities country directors in July.

Compared to what they’ve been used to at home in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, “everything moves more slowly,” Sister Swendsen said, adding in her upbeat tone, “but we will find ways to get things done.”

Elder Swendsen observed, “It helps if you’re a little adventuresome to begin with.” That can-do attitude and a positive outlook on the many unfamiliar experiences is making their humanitarian mission a delight for the couple. Sister Swendsen keeps a running list of all the wonderful things she discovers, actively looking for things to add to it, such as the color of a cabbage field as they drive through the countryside or the name of a different kind of tree in a park near their street.

Based in a small but comfortable apartment which also serves as their office in Belgrade, the Swendsens are exploring opportunities and visiting places where LDS Charities might be able to help. One is Asylum Center Krnjaca, which began as a temporary refugee camp in 1992 and now has permanent structures to house migrants while they transition.

Marija Tomic, Emergency Relief Project Coordinator at Krnjaca, said LDS Charities provided funding to help replace roofs as well as renovate and update an entire barrack. The center currently houses 600 Muslim asylum seekers from Afghanistan and other nearby countries. Most are families, but there also about 70 unaccompanied boys whose families sent them ahead, hoping to join them later.

LDS Charities has partnered with other NGOs in keeping the asylum center operational under Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees. “This is just one small part of our work and efforts to create more suitable environment for the most vulnerable among us,” Tomic explained. Of the visit from the Swendsens and President and Sister Melonakos, she said, “It is really appreciated when our partners and donors visit us and see in the field what we are doing and how big is the change which we are jointly making.”

The Swendsens are fascinated with the refugee challenge, clean-water projects, and other possible opportunities to magnify their humanitarian calling. “There’s lots to love here!” Sister Swendsen declared. “The flexibility of a senior mission is wonderful.”

Note: Senior missionary applicants who desire to serve in a particular place are welcome to contact the mission president, indicate preferences on the application, and inform their stake president before the application is submitted.

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