I recently had the pleasure of traveling on a mission trip sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center. The purpose of this mission trip was to contribute and participate in a new first annual conference for youth group leaders from around Albania. Our team was to prepare a presentation and facilitate a group of college-aged Albanian Christians. It was an absolutely wonderful experience.
The four highlights for me were: 1) Achieving a greater understanding of the impact that Christianity had on restoring and redeveloping a country. In the case of Albania, it was the recovery from the darkness and hopelessness of Communism in 1992. 2) Receiving the great gift of a week of consistent prayer alongside my team and host family. 3) Experiencing firsthand the hospitality, smiles, and dreams of the Albanian people. 4) Gaining a greater understanding of the workings of missions and the value it provides to God’s great plan as well as to our growth towards theosis. It is not so much the work that we do in missions but the work that is done in us while doing mission work that is so impactful.
As we were reminded by our host family, Deacon Stephanos and Alexandria Ritsi, this was not a “roughing it» missions trip. Our team experienced beautiful hospitality in the Ritsi home, along with sharing of great stories, many belly-busting laughs, and delicious Lenten meals, sandwiched in between conversations with God during our morning and evening prayers.
There were three of us on our team. God orchestrated our meeting in Albania so that He could show each of us a glimpse of His great plan for Albania, as well as the next chapter for each of our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed my teammates and thank them for their insights and help in my journey.
Before I arrived in Albania I was unfamiliar with how strong the Orthodox Church is in Albania. Thanks be to God and His work through Archbishop Anastasios, the Church in Albania has a strong infrastructure. There exists a breathtakingly beautiful new Cathedral in Tirana, a seminary in a surrounding community, and a nearby orphanage full of the most wonderful, joyous children that you would ever want to hear a song from, dance with, and share a hug. I remember one young high school girl would take us by the hand and show us how to dance one of their favorite dances. This young lady wants to be a lawyer someday. She is very sharp and a born leader! I was moved by how good God is for His work in saving these young people and giving them a future.
In the heart of the university/college area of Tirana there is a welcoming study center for inquiring students of all faiths. Our team met there one night and shared in the youth group experience with the college students. In addition, the Archbishop had arranged our visit to a very well-equipped and staffed medical center that was bustling with patients from all faiths. This medical center is equipped and staffed much like we would see in the States. I was impressed. A refreshing difference was that this medical center contains a chapel in the waiting room!
The first part of our week was filled with seeing these sites and getting to know two other families that are long-term missionaries with OCMC. During down times, each of us helped each other put the finishing touches on our small presentations that we would present during the youth conference later in the week. This was a great experience of learning from each other.
The title of the Youth Conference we held was «On Fire for God!» Youth group leaders from around Albania came to learn a tool to use with youth at their local parish. Using the theme of the first Hunger Games movie, along with the theme of fasting, we all shared a 24-hour juice fast. Each of the three team members presented on the topics of water, wheat, and fire. Then each of us led a discussion with the Albanian youth group leaders on each topic. I was so moved by the openness and vulnerability of the sharing. I think the group was as interested in my experience as I was in theirs. For me, I was drawn beyond all of the apparent differences between us and into a deep love for God, human frailties, honest soulful questions about God and life, as well as a still-present doubt of their future growing up in a broken country. Their questions were real, and their faith was strong. After spending 2 ½ days praying, attending Lenten services, laughing, and sharing, our goodbyes were filled with hugs along with the exchange of e-mails, much like the last day of school. The memories that were forged through the love of the Holy Spirit were life-impacting and will certainly remain long past our goodbyes.
All of the bishops that we met were very personable and approachable. One morning in particular, the Chancellor to the Archbishop sat with us and shared his experiences as a young boy before becoming a Christian and following the collapse of the Communist government in 1992. I asked him what life was like during that time. His parents weren’t Christian, he said, and life was dark with spiritual depravity and hopelessness. The landscape of the country was shattered. The only TV station that came in was from Italy, so many youth learned considerable Italian during this time. His first exposure to Christ was from a large Protestant stadium gathering. Sometime later, while walking through town, he found buried under the dirt a crucifix with Jesus on the cross. He had seen crosses before but had never connected the fact that Jesus was part of the cross!
Probably during each mission trip there are many God-orchestrated experiences that are not “officially” part of the trip itself. This trip was no exception. We had the pleasure to meet the most amazing of ladies. Tefta is in her mid-70’s, a close family friend of the Ritsi’s, and a magnificent Christian role model full of life, love, and contagious faith in God. Tefta had recently befriended a former Muslim (now a Christian) 22 year-old young man from Iran who was in Albanian jail for not having a passport. He had to flee Iran for being caught worshipping in his uncle’s Christian house-church. He was missing his family terribly, and there was great concern as to what would happen to him. For the previous five months, all this young man had to cling to was an active living Christian faith, along with God’s love through Tefta. To hear this young man contrast the fear and coercion of his former faith to that of the love of our heavenly Father was another impactful faith-building moment for me. This background helped me understand the Albanian faith journey more. It is a profound shift for them to move away from a fear-based faith to the freedom of Christ.
Another highlight was visiting the private school that the Orthodox Church started. I believe it is K-11th grade. We visited Alexandria’s 6th grade English classes, joined in with the kids, and played some wonderful games. We were later “interviewed” by the 11th grade class, as they wanted to learn about us! To hear of the big dreams that these young people have was very impactful for me. Personally, this was a reminder that dreams always give hope and an invitation to dream again. Later, the principal introduced us to a teacher who was a former Muslim and was contemplating becoming a Christian. Her question was… Protestant or Orthodox? She asked us the difference between the two in the middle of her school’s break room over a cup of rich Albanian coffee! It was truly amazing to have shared such a conversation right within her work day. Her seeking the truth was a great example for me.
To be concluded in Part 3…