In 2018, Ben and Jessi Bock became the first AGWM missionaries to serve the Balkan nation of Montenegro. Always looking for creative ways to connect with people, in October 2019 they began an Instagram account entitled “Faces of Montenegro.”
“The account showcases people around Montenegro, from pictures of people Ben takes while we travel around, and little stories from each person,” Jessi says. “He has taken around 200 photos. After we started the Instagram, we would get messages from people who recognized the people pictured, saying, ‘Hey, I know this person!’ It is a happy thing for them.”
Having endured years of recent conflict, Montenegrins can have a very hard exterior, and hopelessness is rampant, Ben and Jessi explain. But people across the nation are remarkably hospitable and kind.
At least once a week, Ben and Jessi pack their children — Oliver, Nora and baby Lily — into their van and strike out across the small nation to meet, befriend, and minister to as many people as they can. The skies are wide and banded with ethereal colors. Craggy mountains call to mind fantasy worlds. In the famed Kotor Bay area, the ancient walled city of Kotor stares across waters where pirates once battled and ships sank among the fjords. Just outside Podgorica lie ruins of the first-century Roman city of Doclea, while gray remnants of the Soviet empire still haunt some towns.
Ben’s photography allows the Bocks to meet people in these various locations, Jessi explains. “He goes out every day, waiting for the Holy Spirit to reveal who he should approach. When he takes people’s photos, Ben asks them to tell the world something they love about Montenegro. We hope to bring positivity into their lives, since many can’t change their situations.”
Somehow the conversations always turn to spiritual matters, and Ben shares the good news about Jesus. Conversations often lead to opportunities to pray with people. Most Montenegrins, Ben and Jessi have discovered, have never heard that God listens and answers prayer.
“It’s a huge deal!” Jessi says. “Every time we pray with someone, the Spirit moves powerfully and the person excitedly invites us back.”
As the Bocks’ travels widened and “Faces of Montenegro” continued to expand, Montenegro’s national television station, RTCG, took notice and immediately contacted the Bocks.
The resulting interview, which can be viewed on Instagram (overdubbed in Montenegrin) took place the day after station personnel found “Faces of Montenegro.”
RTCG reporter Andrea and cameraman Milisav came to the Bocks’ home.
“We were praying for wisdom, discernment, peace, and well-behaved children. We were nervous — we aren’t often on television,” Ben says, laughing. “Andrea and Milisav were so kind and easy to talk to. We did the interview in English as our Montenegrin is not yet up to par with being on national TV. When they asked us what brought us to Montenegro, we explained as simply as possible that we want to teach people about Jesus, who is the Way to God, and who enables us to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Andrea then steered conversation to the Instagram page, asking Ben if he felt that each person, each face, has a story to share. Ben was able to share his conviction that each person has their own individual story, and life, and that he and Jessi wanted to help lead and guide each life to Jesus.
Amazed at the many stories Ben and Jessi had capture, Andrea shared that sometimes the network had trouble finding stories to share on the news. They were encouraged about the many interesting people right across Montenegro the Bocks’ Instagram had discovered.
The interview was aired both on the nightly and the morning national news.
“We have seen the Lord’s hand at work so much this year,” Ben says. “We were told that longevity matters; it means something. We have seen that in 2020. This month we will welcome our first AGWM teammate, Tamara Henkes, who is transferring to us from Romania, and we were able to talk about Jesus on national TV! Though 2020 has been the weirdest year, it’s been the year with the biggest opportunities.”
These exciting opportunities come at a high price for Ben and Jessi. Their time thus far in Montenegro, though ordained by God, has not always been easy, and has been seasoned with tears.
Located in Europe’s Balkan region, Montenegro shares borders with Bosnia, Albania, and Serbia. Considered part of Serbia until just 10 years ago, Montenegro bears the scars of the 1990s’ Bosnian/Serbian wars. Largely made up of Eastern Orthodox adherents or cultural Muslims, the nation is hard soil for the message of Jesus.
“Spiritual darkness has reigned here for thousands of years,” Ben states. “It is said that the Reformation did not begin in Montenegro until the 1990s. For a few decades the light has been breaking through, but overcoming the darkness is difficult.”
In a blog composed for AGWM Europe’s website, Jessi writes,
“As a child, I remember dreaming of being a missionary and praying, ‘Please use me to change the world.’ Missions was a beautiful picture to me. But then I became a missionary.
If I had known my husband, Ben, and I would both lose our mothers during the first three-year term, would I still have gone? If I had known I would experience months of darkness battling fear and anxiety attacks and that our ventures into the community would result in tears 90 percent of the time, would I still have gone? If I had known God would strip us down to nothing and burn away every ounce of Ben and Jessi so He could recreate and rebuild us, would I have said yes to the pain?
I don’t know.
But I do know Ben and I see a beautiful picture of missions now — the picture of people being reconciled to God and allowing us to be part of their lives. That picture fades at times, but God continues to restore it. No longer a wide-lens snapshot of Montenegro knowing Jesus, we now see the familiar; up-close faces of people we know and care about who need Him.”
The May 2009 Pentecostal Evangel World Missions Edition (WorldView magazine’s predecessor), featured a Serbian man named Jovica. After radically encountering Jesus, Jovica left his home to become a missionary pastor in Montenegro.
When Ben was 20, he read Jovica’s story, never imagining that through years of God’s guidance, he and Jessi would become the first AGWM missionaries to take residence in Montenegro, and would themselves serve alongside Pastor Jovica.
Jovica, who by then had been working in Montenegro for 25 years, was amazed when he met Ben and Jessi and learned the history of God’s calling on their lives. Because of his story, here was a young family ready to put their shoulders to the plow alongside him.
Ben and Jessi continue building friendship and communication inroads into Montenegro’s loneliest communities. They always carry with them copies of gospel comic books called From Death to Life to give as gifts. They report that recipients of the books almost always sit down and begin reading them right away.
Ben also created a YouTube video giving viewers a glimpse into Montenegrin village life.
“We’ve traveled to many villages in northern Montenegro, all of which are unreached with the gospel,” they say. “There are no believers in Jesus in the north, so these villages have been our priorities. Each village has welcomed us with open arms, and we know we’ve made friendships that will last forever.”
Ben concludes, “To every ‘Face of Montenegro,’ thank you for letting us take your photo and share a bit of your life with the world. Your stories are worth being heard.”
Read more about the Bocks and Montenegro in “Take Heart for Those on the Fringes,” in the March 2019 edition of WorldView magazine.