Tihomir Kukolja wrote this article for the October 2017 Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation Newsletter
The 2017 Renewing Our Minds (ROM) leadership gathering held in Fuzine, Croatia this August brought together, a group of seventy young and seasoned leaders from fifteen countries. Among them were politicians, social activists, founders and directors of various non-governmental organizations, professors, journalists, artists, community and faith leaders, and pastors, students eager to make a positive contribution to their societies, and refugees from distant and conflict ridden countries seeking a new home.
Most of us came from Southeast and East Europe countries like Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Moldova. Some came from more distant places, such as Iran, Afghanistan and South Africa. Some came Norway, UK and USA. We all came to wrestle together with hard issues that are hurting and dividing our countries, communities, and the world.
We talked in our small groups about the rise of nationalism, fascism, hatred, and intolerance. We wrestled with the sins of modern day slavery, ethnic and religious discrimination, and increasing threats to human rights, freedom of conscience and religion, and to the peace in the world. Through it all we focused on Jesus as the source of healing, personal and social, and the answer how to uphold the dignity and integrity of human life. We discussed at length about how to become agents of forgiveness and reconciliation in our communities.
What distinguishes ROM from numerous other leadership development initiatives, is that we believe that the only humanism, social engagement and entrepreneurship that make a lasting difference in the world are those sanctified by the transformative power and example of Jesus Christ. The underlining understanding behind the ROM worldview is that only those leaders whose lives are moved and instructed by the power and example of Jesus, who through the cross embraced the whole world into His forgiving and healing embrace, are able to spread their hands in the loving embrace of our fellow men and women. Consequently, only the people with their minds renewed by Jesus are empowered to become the true ambassadors of genuine renewal in the world (Romans 12:2). Hence the ROM motto “Ambassadors for a Better World”.
If one is to single out the most powerful and transforming moments at the 2017 ROM Gathering it would be hard to do justice to the abundance of powerful moments that made this ROM Gathering stand out. We ought to mention a few, however: Agape Dinner, a welcoming dinner at the beginning of ROM; Refugees Morning and the Persian Night – special moments when refugees shared their stories and cultures; Empathy Night, a powerful evening session that opened our eyes to the hurts of others; and the feet washing moment at the end of ROM 2017 that powerfully and meaningfully demonstrated the power of humility in leadership. The most individually transformative times at ROM 2017 however were the afternoon small group activities.
Asked in the survey what they were taking home from ROM 2017, most of the participants said: “a genuine demonstration of love and service, friendship and transformation, a fresh understanding of leadership, powerful human stories, motivation to be deliberate in serving and loving others, better understanding of the centrality of Jesus, and of how one’s faith in Jesus informs one’s actions in society.”
A special gift to the ROM 2017 generation were the seven refugees who attended the gathering from the beginning to the end. Two refugees joined the ROM 2017 summer team. The other five attended ROM for the first time. One of them, a professional taekwondo sportsman from Iran, recently received the residence status in Croatia. The other six are caught up in a lengthy and tiring process of waiting to receive the final decision about their legal status in Croatia. Three of them, Christians had to leave Iran due to religious persecution. Two of them, Muslims from Afghanistan, left their country due to ongoing tribal discrimination and persecution. All of them are beautiful young people whose life stories, their attitude of service and gentleness have moved and enriched everyone attending the Gathering. All of them were also profoundly moved by the kindness, acceptance and love they received from everyone attending ROM 2017. “To us you are not refugees. You are our friends, brothers and sisters. We are your family, and you are our family,” those were the words of encouragement they often heard at the ROM 2017 Gathering.
One of the two refugees from Afghanistan who attended ROM 2017 for the first time embraced the welcome he experienced at ROM with the following words: “I was a person who was not normally welcome into any community due to the reasons which were not my fault. I am from Afghanistan and this created in me a sense of growing hopelessness in my heart about God, people and everybody around me. But coming to ROM created a very different experience. I was no more a refugee. I was not a foreigner or a Muslim. I was a friend. I was a brother among other brothers and sisters. I understood that I am liked by others, and that God loves these people and me.”
It has to be said that the center of everything we did, taught or practiced at the ROM 2017 leadership and reconciliation gathering was the person of Jesus. The objective of the ROM leadership team was to encourage everyone attending to follow Him and emulate Him. One of the participants said a few days the ROM 2017 was over: “I was worried I would get depressed in the days after the gathering. But I did not because I see myself now as a person on a mission”. Another participant wrote: “A broken hearted and frustrated girl turned into an inspired, happy and full of hope person. The best gift I am taking from ROM 2017 are many friends who share the same values and love for Jesus.”
That ROM is much more than just another event to be quickly forgotten is demonstrated by the intensity of interactions between the new friends who now think alike in the days following the ROM gathering. Debora Salgau from Romania wrote on her Facebook page a few days ago: “There were participants from many countries, of different backgrounds and different age groups. They slowly became my friends, and all my walls came down, and my prejudices were gone. So now, countries like Afghanistan, Iran or Serbia are more than just a point on the map”.
Violeta Altmann blogged recently: “I came to the (ROM) table hungry, dehydrated, discouraged, and then I was served clarity, encouragement and wisdom in the most unexpected ways. What I loved the most about ROM 2017 is that not every attendee was a Christian. If we don’t dine with the nonbelievers, when will we witness to them? I loved the way there was room for respect and conversation, understanding and love at the table.” You must read her entire article.
It is very hard to explain the passion and transforming impact the Renewing Our Minds ministry has on everyone who comes in contact with it unless you’ve seen it and experienced it yourself. Yes, ROM has to be experienced. The main reason I have myself stayed at the helm of the ROM leadership for so many years (since 2001) is that I am continually witnessing the work of the transforming power of God in the lives of the hundreds of young people who have allowed their minds to be renewed through its ministry. Nevertheless, one thing we witness again and again in connection with the Renewing Our Minds ministry: God is using it to direct, shape and change the lives of the young leaders, one at the time.
At the end of the 2017 ROM Gathering, through her own experience, Heather Staff – a young and emerging politician, and a director for the Youth Leadership Board of Christians in Politics in the UK, who serves also as a member of the ROM Core Leadership Group – summarized well the impact ROM ministry has had on the young leaders who attended the ROM Gathering in Fuzine, Croatia this August: “I am inspired. I work in politics in the UK. I am inspired, have become more cross-cultural, working with different groups and different people, but also basing all of it on the principles of Jesus. I am now louder and stronger, and a better voice in my community.”