A Talk with Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes
Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes has been a great friend of both Dečani Monastery and the people of Kosovo and Metohija for many years, since he began coming here in 1998, when, heeding the evangelical call to love our neighbor as ourselves, he heard that people here were suffering and in great danger and went out of his way (across the world, in fact!) to see what he could do to help. At the time, due to the war, Kosovo’s entire population of both Serbs and Albanians were in grave danger and in urgent need of humanitarian aid. Ever since, moved by the deep pain, injustice and need that he witnessed firsthand in Kosovo and Metohija, Fr. Nektarios has worked tirelessly, gathering money and raising awareness about the plight of Orthodox Christians in Kosovo and Metohija (most of the Orthodox Christians in Kosovo are in fact of Serbian ethnicity). Given that he began his work twenty-two years ago, we thought it would be interesting to ask him about why he began this journey together with us, the monks of Dečani Monastery, and the Serbian people, why he was moved to take on such a seemingly-distant and complex problem in such a deep and personal way for so many years. We also wanted to hear what his own parish community in Boise, Idaho is like.
For those who have not met him, Fr. Nektarios is a very joyful, simple soul who exudes kindness and love, and we all love him dearly. In his interview, he humbly describes his work in Kosovo as “handing out scarves and frisbees,” but it’s so much more than that. We thus wanted to remind our readers of all he and the Dečani Relief Fund have done for the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija, because he’s labored so much more than that for us. Through DMRF’s numerous activities, he provided financial support for rebuilding homes for those who lost them, bought food and appliances for poor families, supplied families and schools with firewood to get them through the winter, helped rebuild destroyed monasteries, churches, and the seminary, paid for medical care for children, the elderly, and the gravely ill, financed education for children, and helped supply and build up food pantries and soup kitchens which help many families hang on. In many of the small enclaves of Serbs who remain in Metohija, the DMRF provides a significant amount of the aid residents receive, which helps them to keep living on in their ancestral lands. In his twenty two years of operating the DMRF, Fr. Nektarios has distributed close to one million dollars in aid directly to the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija.
Here for the first time then, Fr. Nektarios explains to us his reasons for beginning his journey with the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija.
Monastery: “How did it even occur to you to help the people of Kosovo and Metohija? How did that idea come into your head?”
Fr. Nektarios: “I saw pictures on the internet of huge columns of refugees streaming past Dečani Monastery on the road during the war, and I learned some of these people were Serbian and Orthodox, and that Dečani Monastery was accepting refugees to take shelter at the Monastery, both Albanians and Serbs. Dečani offered aid to so many people in such a desperate time, but I wondered how are they able to do that? Aren’t they in the same crisis themselves? They must need help too, I thought. I read about how Serbs and Albanians suffered as the country was bombed, and later many Serbs were expelled from their homes and were left with nothing. I heard the reports about monasteries and churches being destroyed, of refugee camps packed to the brim, of people losing their homes and not even having enough to eat. Many of the Serbs are still living in camps like that even many years after the war ended, there was just so little help and recovery so slow. All of this broke my heart.
I heard about how 150 Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed, and the free world paid no attention at all, how hundreds of cemeteries were destroyed, all this during the period of NATO administration, when the West was supposed to be ensuring peace in Kosovo. As a priest, I asked myself, how are these poor people going to survive if we don’t help them, they can’t do it on their own. I felt so deeply how the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija were going through great misery and hardship, that they were in deep distress and suffered so much. I was really inspired by Fr. Sava’s dedicated work in posting regular updates on the situation in Kosovo as it unfolded, he was so dedicated to getting the truth out there, making sure everyone knew what was really going on. Also, then-Archimandrite (now Bishop) Teodosije was doing so much outreach work with the Serbs, helping them in all their needs, and I was just so impressed. I was really amazed at this Good Pastor, and we eventually became great friends. I simply couldn't believe the sufferings and struggles of the Serbs and the persecution of the Serbian Orthodox Church during the war, and many cases of violation of human rights taking place even currently!
So, with all this very saddening news, and seeing how much people were in need, I got the idea to set up a humanitarian organization and contacted Father Sava, and he was greatly pleased to hear of my humanitarian concern, and suggested that we set up the Dečani Monastery Relief Fund. In addition, we set up a board of directors to help administer it. So, I made my first trip to the region in 1998, and my first morning there, during the services, I just wept. I could feel the great pain of the people, all I could do was cry. I did calm down a bit once the Divine Liturgy began, but it was then that I knew I must do everything I could to keep the Dečani Monastery Fund alive.
I was inspired by a saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov "…misery cannot exist where there is love.” To defeat this misery, I would turn to our brothers and sisters with love, and decided that it is with love that we can help our suffering Serbian brothers and sisters, who are in such great need for help. I was overwhelmed that it worked, with the blessings of our God, of St. Stefan of Dečani, and of St. Nektarios of Aegina, who were my constant intercessors.
I was inspired also by the example from early 20th century when Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Olga of Russia would send donations to poor children and orphans in Serbia; so she, by her good works of kindness, gave me the idea to help the children in Kosovo. I thought a lot about the difficulties of children in Kosovo-Metohija, what the war was doing to them, what it must be like losing your home and not having enough food, how do they survive and how will they grow up. All this deeply affected me. Another person who inspired me to tell the free world about the truth of what the Serbs were subjected to, to be courageous in telling a truth many people didn’t necessarily want to hear, was the inspiration of St. Tikhon of Moscow and Russia, the Confessor. I was also deeply touched by St. Stefan of Dečani himself, he is a constant source of strength for me, as he is for the monks too, of course.
So, during my trips to the region I often visited schools, and discovered they where freezing and didn't have school supplies, so we provided firewood and I brought scarves and gloves. I also brought things like basketballs and frisbees, since it’s important for children to play.
As we all know, the Seminary in Prizren was completely destroyed in the anti-Serbian pogrom of 2004. Some buildings were totally burned to the ground, while others were ruined beyond repair. Along with everyone else, I was so in shock after my visit right after that, seeing the destruction of the school, so I got involved to help them. Once it was rebuilt and classes started again some years later, I started visiting them and encouraging them, offered all the love I could give to bring the seminary comfort and began giving lectures, and praying with them. I was astonished at the great sacrifices the students, professors, and priests made to keep the seminary moving forward. I was so inspired by Bishop Teodosije and Fr. Andrej, who worked so hard to bring the school back to life. Some of the students are not from Kosovo and I admired them coming to the Seminary to study from outside the borders of Kosovo-Metohija. Brave students of our Lord!
Also the love and dedication of Mother Anastasia and her nuns at Devič really inspired me, as I kept returning to her monastery to get strength from the tomb of St. Joanikije. Their tears of love and gratitude moved me to continue working for our fund.”
Monastery: “How did your relief work for Kosovo begin?”
Fr. Nektarios: “The first thing I did was write press releases on the internet about the situation and the suffering of our Serbian Orthodox brothers and sisters and what they were going through. So I spread the message that peace begins with love. My press releases reached many people, who then sent donations to the DMRF from America, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain.
In the first years of the Fund, we didn’t have any official status in America as a tax-exempt organization, but so many good people donated nonetheless. I worked hard for us to get non-profit status from the IRS though, and finally we were approved in 2007. We started to get a lot more donations after that.
I also asked our board of directors to assist me in my pursuit of raising money for our Dečani fund, and soon we set up a blog and a Facebook page to attract more attention. I sent press releases to Orthodox Churches throughout America and to several monasteries to bring further awareness of what was truly going on with Serbs in Kosovo-Metohija. Our fund began to get more benefactors. I also made visits to the region and brought donations, going throughout the region with the monks taking photos to show the benefactors where the donations went and who received them. As of October 2019, I have made fourteen trips to the region as President of the Fund.
Question: What kinds of people come to your parish, what nationalities?
Fr. Nektarios: “In our parish church in Boise, Idaho, Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, we have Americans, Greeks, Romanians, Albanians, Russians, and Serbs, as well as refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and Syria.
In the last ten years, more Serbians started to come from Belgrade and Bosnia to Boise, Idaho. I helped organize a Serbian Orthodox Mission at my parish church, so that a Serbian Orthodox priest could visit once a month from Salt Lake City, Utah. Services for the Serbian Orthodox are held at our Greek Orthodox Church on a Saturday, they have liturgical services once a month. We now have a little over 65 Serbians attending our church. It’s also interesting that in our parish in Boise, we have two young men from a small village in Kosovo, whose family I had been helping for a long time. This Serbian Orthodox Mission is under the jurisdiction of Bishop Maxim of the Serbian Western Diocese of America. The Serbian Orthodox Mission in Boise helps me on my missionary trips to Kosovo-Metohija. Currently I am the parish priest for the Serbian Orthodox Mission, as we are waiting for a new priest to arrive for this Mission from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Monastery: “What is your current function in the Dečani Fund?”
Fr. Nektarios: We are constantly seeking further donations to keep the Dečani Monastery Relief Fund alive, and staying in regular contact with the monks at the Monastery. I continue to post updates on the internet about the struggles and sufferings of the Serbian Orthodox people, promoting further developments on our Dečani Blog, and on Facebook, and recently we have an Instagram account for our Dečani Fund as well.
In addition, of course I am praying that we can continue to offer humanitarian assistance to soup kitchens, churches, monasteries, for the local schools, individual families, hospitals, and for medical needs. I am also working with the IOCC to help develop a bakery in Kosovo. IOCC stands for International Orthodox Christian Charities, and is based in America. I also work with local Serbian Orthodox Churches in America when they have their festivals, sending them information about our Dečani Fund.
I am in constant prayer that our Lord God will hear our prayers that our Dečani Fund will continue to offer help for those who are constantly struggling and suffering. All of what is happening to the Serbs breaks my heart, and I will not give up in the pursuit of the Dečani Fund and my prayers will not end!
And truly, our Lord has heard our prayers. I shall never be silent and will constantly cry out for the Serbs, I will always be the Greek Orthodox priest in Boise, Idaho, who weeps for the Serbs of Kosovo-Metohija. I believe it is God who inspired so many good people to come forward and offer their assistance to the Serbs of Kosovo through our Fund. Finally, I am constantly in humble thanks for those who assist me at the Dečani Monastery, and for our board of directors, as well as His Grace, Bishop Teodosije, Abbot Father Sava, Father Isaiah, Father Andrej, Father Niphont and also Father Sophrony.
Thanks to God one hundred times! Please pray for our Dečani Monastery Relief Fund, and we pray for you with great Christian love! Peace to your soul!”
In recognition of his tireless work during the last two decades which demonstrates his deep and sincere love for the Serbian people and the Church, Fr. Nektarios was awarded the medal of the Order of St. Sava by Patriarch Irinej and the Episcopal Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2015. He also has the profound respect and warm love of the Dečani monks and the people of Kosovo and Metohija, whose joy and even continued existence in the region is one of the truest proofs of his sincere love and devoted hard work on our behalf. May Christ our true God grant him the greatest reward of all for his many labors, and strengthen and keep him in every good work for many years to come.