Twenty years ago, in a far-away land of Slovakia, a group of Americans showed up. It was a rare and not necessarily welcomed sight in what recently was a communist country, let alone in my hometown Martin. I felt some sympathy for these lost souls, because I’d had just returned from their part of the world with a positive experience and a peculiar dream. These tourists actually wanted to hear about it, so I did my best to describe how the abandoned car dealership behind my back would, in a few weeks, become the first Bible school in Slovakia. A man in a Chicago Bulls T-shirt raised a question: “There are no classrooms ready here. So where are you going to put those students?” By pointing out one of the obvious weaknesses of my grand plan, he quickly lost my fragile sympathy, and I just murmured back something about the need of a miracle. His friend noticed my disconcertment and, as a form of apology, he introduced that Bull T-shirt guy as a man of business, who tended to ask logical questions. Only later I’ve learned that this man of business was actually a man of God whom God uses to make miracles happen. That day I also learned and will always treasure his name: Gene Ryan. And I still have and will always treasure that Bulls T-shirt of his.
Gene became the Patron of our school, very close friend of my father, and like a father to me. He was involved in the many miracles that our school needed to become what it is now – the Center for Christian Education, where hundreds of Slovaks of all generations learn about, grow in, and experience the love of God on daily basis. His question about the lack of classrooms became stigmatic for every year of our existence, but he also taught us how to respond to it with bold “The LORD will provide”. And the LORD used His man Gene to donate, to fundraise, to encourage, to twist arms, to labor hard in many ways, so we always had just enough room to accommodate our rapidly growing student body. Gene’s last visit to Martin was two years ago. We were opening new classrooms in our most recent building and had a worship service to celebrate another schoolyear in our existence. The first line of his greeting was “I am seeing a miracle!” Make no mistake; he was not looking at the new walls, but at a large crowd of children who now have a place to hear and enjoy the good news of Jesus Christ. I was looking at Gene and recalled the words of our Master “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Gene was not only faithfully responding to God’s calls to missions, but also used his talent to involve others in them. Starting from his family and church, across denominations and nations all the way to a complete stranger on a street, he was getting people excited about God’s work in an unknown corner of the world. It took a lot of effort, time, talks, travels, overcoming frustrations and disappointments, but it was definitely worthwhile: these people are now our dear friends and partners, Gene’s living legacy and God’s living miracles. As a result, our corner of the world is a better place and we are better people. When I asked Gene about the secret of his trade, his simple advice was: “Just keep telling the story.”
Gene’s last present to our school was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of his dear friend “Papa Hrobon” (as he called my father). He purchased a hand-made and almost life-size copy of Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It is the first thing people see when they enter our main school building.
This gift could not have been more symbolic. It beautifully represents what God is about: an unconditionally loving Father who welcomes us home with open arms. It also reminds us what our school should be about: a place to experience the love of God no matter who we are. For those of us who were blessed to know our Papa Hrobon and our dear “Geneko” (as we Slovaks called him), this painting will always remind us of what these men of God were about: earthly fathers representing and changing into the image of their Father in heaven. Now they are in His arms and will be missed here. Now it is up to us to be those fathers and mothers in God’s image to His lost children until we all meet again in His arms. We know we are not alone in this, we know it is worth to live and to die for, and we know that it can be done because of the examples of men and women of God like Gene. Thank God for Gene Ryan!
Bohdan Hrobon and all CCE staff