Poland: Always the Underdog

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Maybe three years in Poland has left me somewhat nostalgic, but I love America; I miss America. As Ginger and I learn the language and observe this culture so foreign to our own, we often find ourselves comparing the two. One culture is home, and the other, well … it’s growing on us. Many similarities can be observed but a few stark differences exist. The longer I’m away from home the more I see “American Individualism” emanating from across the Atlantic. 

We Americans love stories about people who overcome all odds. We root for the underdog. Whether its pilgrims surviving the first winter; or sending the world’s great superpower back across the pond with its “tail between its legs;” or a handful of men holding off Santa Anna’s army, allowing Sam Houston to rally the troops; stories of one person or a handful of people making a difference are ingrained in our folklore. It worked for Knight Rider; it’s why Sylvester Stallone made six Rocky films; and it’s why Jack Bauer has saved America from certain destruction something like seven times (and if he can overcome direct exposure to weapons grade uranium, he’ll save us an eighth time this year). Though we know the outcome we can’t avert our eyes.

American fascination with sports has fed this obsession as well. One need look no further than the Milan Indians. In 1954 Bobby Plump’s last-second shot rocketed his team from a little school of 161 students to victory over the heavy favorites: the enormous Bearcats of Muncie Central. Made famous by the movie “Hoosiers,” this story wrestles with “The Miracle On Ice” for the distinction of being the greatest upset in American sports history.

The Polish perspective

Polish people respect Americans, consider us allies, can’t get enough of Hollywood or our stories, but they don’t buy the underdog stuff. Theirs is a completely different history. Around the time we claimed our independence, Poland was completely dissolved. Polish history is littered with invading armies and neighboring countries that pillaged and claimed what was rightfully Poland’s. One of the great uprisings in modern history ended in tragedy for the Polish people. The book A Question of Honor documents how, for 63 days, 40,000 soldiers (including 4,000 women) held off the Germans, though the Polish had only 2,500 guns at their disposal. They hoped for rescue by the Allies, but the opposite in fact occurred. The Russian Army camped outside Warsaw counting on the Germans to eventually annihilate most officers and resisters. The purpose, of course, was so that Stalin could have a much easier path toward establishing his puppet government. In that uprising 22,000 soldiers and 200,000 civilians sacrificed their lives. The survivors saw the country fall into Soviet control for another fifty years in spite of that incredible effort. Underdogs don’t win in Poland. Individuals are crushed. Strength is found in family, protection is found in community.

Ginger and I celebrated our anniversary by exploring a city in western Poland called Wroclaw (pronounced “vrot-swav”). It’s called the “Venice of Poland” for the way the river winds through the city, and it’s famous for having many beautiful bridges. At one time the German border consumed Wroclaw—and only recently in Poland’s history has the city returned to Polish control. There is a monument near the Old Town square titled “Transition” where the statues appear to be slowly walking into the ground. The monument was created in December 2005 on the 24th anniversary of the introduction of martial law. From December 13, 1981 to July 22, 1983 the communist government enforced martial law to crush the Polish people’s growing opposition. Overnight literally hundreds of people disappeared, some went underground to fight the communist government and it’s believed many more were stolen away by the government, never to be heard from again. Underdogs don’t win in Poland, individuals are crushed.

We have seen this played out time and time again in our neighborhood. For our first two years we lived in a block, which can be described as several high-rise apartment buildings in close proximity. For many, these apartments have been passed down from Grandfather, to father, to son. In the apartment below ours, three generations, totaling ten people, live in roughly 800 sq. feet (yeah—I have no idea how they do that). Living like this creates a tight community. In other words, if your neighbor has a problem it becomes your problem, not out of pressure but because it’s the right thing to do. Four teenagers had planned on attending our teen camp but they all backed out because of the wedding of a former unrelated resident. Late one night a drunk driver clipped our neighbor’s car and we watched in amazement from our window as the entire building sprang to life—not to gawk, but to chase down the car, phone the police, and check for injuries.

Communicating the gospel

This aspect of their culture has ramifications on how the gospel is shared in Poland. Don’t miss the point—the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is for all cultures—but the presentation is not “one size fits all.” Though this pattern is changing some now, for years American Christians have presented the gospel to their neighbors as “a personal relationship with Christ” or emphasized to their unsaved colleagues that “Jesus died specifically for you.” Without overstating, the individual aspect of the gospel has little appeal for a Polish man or woman. Why would they want something that singles them out from their family and neighborhood? Why would they want to forge ahead alone? Underdogs don’t win. Individuals are crushed.

In our first few weeks, Ginger and I noticed a word that kept coming up in the church service. Kościół (kosh-chewl) is the word for church in Polish, yet over and over we heard the pastor and various Christians refer to the church as a zbór (zboor). During one of our Polish lessons I asked our teacher the difference. Her reply was quite negative. She told us that zbór described the church in a very informal way. It turns out that many in Poland would agree with her. The problem is that zbór is the Polish translators’ word of choice in many places throughout the NT. The word denotes Christian family or Christian community and it’s precisely the message that must be emphasized while sharing the gospel in Poland.

For converts who risk alienation from their families and their neighborhoods, the idea of being part of a Christian Family; or of members who know each other by name, who pray for each other and open their homes for Christian fellowship; the idea of being part of the Body of Christ—that resonates. During our first summer here we had the privilege of witnessing a public baptism for three Christians in our church. We went to the lake in town and watched as they were baptized in front of hundreds who were swimming 200 yards away. What a test for those young believers, publicly distancing themselves from their former lives. It was the hugs and prayers of support coming from their zbór as they came out of the water that left the greatest impact on us. For those new believers, the message of reconciliation out of alienation (in Colossians 1) changed their lives forever.

On Saturday a plane carrying a Polish delegation of eighty-eight people, including Poland’s President, the army chief of staff, the head of the central bank, and the deputy foreign minister, crashed, killing everyone on board. This is a catastrophic turn of events for a country fighting to emerge as a Western European nation, a giant punch in the gut for the underdog. Why does this sort of thing have to happen? Why can’t the Polish people get a break? I don’t have the answers, but my hope is in the Sovereign One, who has given Jesus as the Substitute for my wicked, sinful soul. Through Him I am justified and through Him one day justice will be served to all. As you think of it, pray for our zbór in Siedlce, Poland as we seek to show the love of Christ and proclaim the message of justification by grace alone through faith alone to a country of people who, as badly as they need a break, need a Savior infinitely more.


Jason Stover and his family are part of a church planting team in Siedlce, Poland. He graduated from Northland International University (Dunbar, WI) with a bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s degree from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (Ankeny, IA). His sending church is Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, Illinois, where he served as both youth pastor and senior pastor. God has blessed him and his wife with three children. Check out his family blog.

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Thu, 6/4/09
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catholic translations too?

in case you didn't notice, this is a slight expansion from the 2008 version: " http://sharperiron.org/underdogs-don-t-win-individuals-are-crushed ]Underdogs Don’t Win. Individuals Are Crushed " ( http://20.sharperiron.org/showthread.php?t=7963 ]Comments from the Archive ).

Jason Stover wrote:
zbór is the Polish translators' word of choice in many places throughout the NT.
do the catholic translations also use this word?

i've only been to two places in poland. auschwitz and krakow. auschwitz is a very religiously neutral place, but i was surprised when i went to krakow last month to see pope john paul everywhere. he really is their national celebrity.

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Tue, 6/2/09
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Thanks for the article,

Thanks for the article, Jason.

The idea you presented about close family ties (both physically and emotionally) is THE main reason, IMO, that it is hard to get a "normal Catholic" to come to church. When they are living in Mom's house, or MIL's house, they don't want to "rock the boat" and visit a "nonCatholic church" and risk either causing a lot of stress at home or actually getting kicked out. Very few have an attitude of "I'm willing to disrupt my life for religion--". If they don't live with mom and dad, or MIL and FIL, then it is a bit easier. What is easier yet is if parents have a "do what you want to do" attitude. But that doesn't seem very prevalent although it does exist for some.

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