The road back from Elbasan winds through the mountains to the east of Tirana. The hills are lush and green, dotted with small mountain villages, and on this day…my last day in Albania…capped with a dreamy mist. The journey took about an hour and a half, but it was good time to reflect on all that I had experienced in these past days.
The Elbasani adventure was a spur-of-the-moment decision. A youth excursion to Berat had been canceled the night before due to poor weather. Still, I didn’t want to lose an opportunity to experience Albania outside of Tirana, so I climbed into the van (furgon in Albanian), and off I went.
The Old City in the heart of Elbasan is surrounded by the walls of a centuries-old Ottoman fortress – a powerful reminder of the radical wave of change that came with the Ottoman Turks beginning in the 15th century. On the outskirts of the city lies an enormous metal refinery erected by the government of Enver Hoxha – another monument to radical change that came with Communism.
Echoes from the past can be seen everywhere in Albania, but can be acutely observed in the religious life of its people. What was once an Orthodox country became predominately Muslim, which in turn became atheist. What remains is a majority that identifies with faith through heritage, but not necessarily in practice. The secularism that proliferates so much of the developed world has taken root in Albania.
The past, however, calls out to Albanians from all directions with hopes for a brighter future. In Elbasan I met two Protestant missionaries handing out leaflets on a street corner. Later in the day, I heard the call to prayer boom through the minarets of the mosques throughout Tirana. That evening, the bells of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Annunciation rang for the beginning of the Vespers service. Most of Albania, however, just rolled right by.
In spite of the glorious resurrection of the Church in Albania, most Albanians still do not live a life of faith at any level. Gendi, a Muslim that I met during my travels, helped me to understand that the greatest challenge to faith of any kind is relevancy. How can, and why should, Orthodox Christianity be relevant to the people of Albania?
OCMC Missionaries, in partnership with the Church in Albania, are trying to answer these questions by bearing a living witness to the Faith through the many programs that they let me observe during my visit.
Many of these efforts are focused on the youth, but they minister to them in a very strategic way. For example, children are exposed to the Faith and catechized through kid’s clubs from ages 6 to 13. They can then participate in an adolescent program where the bonds of a faith community continue to be forged through fellowship. At university, they can then join the college ministry where the seeds of a life in Christ that will carry them in the future are watered. A similar model in education can be seen in the Protagonist School for elementary and middle school-aged children, Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy, and Logos University.
These ministries only touch a small segment of a single section of the Albanian population. With only four American missionaries, a handful from Greece, and dwindling financial support resulting from the economic crisis gripping Europe, resources are being stretched impossibly thin.
Indeed, anything is possible in Albania, but the current window of opportunity that is a product of this unique moment in history is quickly closing. A significant commitment to prayer, missionary service, and financial support will be needed in order to help share the profound relevancy of the Faith with this generation of Albanians.
I would like to thank His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios, all of the new friends that I made, and all of the OCMC missionaries currently serving in Albania for their warm hospitality and patience in sharing the many opportunities and challenges facing this beautiful country. And, thank you, the reader, for your continued prayers for, and support of, the vital work being done there.
Please contact the Orthodox Christian Mission Center by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org"> email@example.com, or by phone at 1-877-463-6784, if you would like to become a missionary in Albania or offer your prayerful support.
Krishti u Ngall (Christ is Risen)! Faleminderit (thank you), and mirupafshim (goodbye) from Albania!