I have recently been to Albania once again. The trip went well, with much to encourage me. This time I was accompanied by a friend, Dewi Tudur, who is a pastor in Talsarnau, and it was great to have someone to share in the experience. We flew on Tuesday from Manchester via Istanbul to Tirana, where we were met by my contact, Zefjan Nicolla.
Zef (pictured) is the General Secretary of BSKSH (the IFES movement in Albania), and is one of those people who seems to have a plethora of contacts. Alongside his work with students he is one of the teaching elders in Imanuel Church in Tirana, but also is involved in many initiatives to spread the Gospel in Albania. He drove us to the Stephen Center – a hotel in Tirana run by Christians, where many missionaries stay when visiting the city.
On Wednesday morning following a leisurely breakfast Zef took us for a walk through the city. It is interesting to note how things have moved on since my previous visits. This is the fourth time for me here, and although the world has been in financial crisis, the infrastructure here seems to be improving. Zef tells us that this is in part due to the previous government spending much, and thus creating an enormous national debt. The new government which came in almost three years ago is trying to be more responsible, so much work seems to have come to a stop with some roads being half built. All this of course is new to Dewi who hasn’t been here before.
Zef then put us on a public minibus to be driven to Elbasan. This is a large industrial city in central Albania. During the time of the Communists it was the industrial hub of the country, but now many of the factories have closed down. The city is in a traditionally Muslim part of the country, and the churches here face a difficult task. I was to speak on two consecutive evenings in a mission to students in the university there. I spoke at a similar mission here three years ago and recognised a number of faces. The meetings were attended by about 40 people on both evenings. Of these about a dozen were Christians, and all the other were from either Atheist or Muslim backgrounds – many of them nominal Muslims. The first evening I spoke (via translator) on the subject: “If God exists, why is he so distant?” and the students listened attentively. The meetings were held in a church, close to the university, and following the talk the students had food outside and played volleyball and other games as they chatted. We also had an opportunity to chat to a number of them, before Zef arrived to take us back to Tirana for the night.
The following day we had been invited for a meal with one of the young families in Elbasan. People here love to be hospitable, and although they do not have much, their gratitude that we went to their home was lovely. My subject for the second talk was “The good, the bad and the ugly – how do we know what’s right and wrong?” Beginning with how can we have a basis for morality and absolute truth, I then moved on to speak of how Christ deals with the evil that is in us. Again those who had come listened intently. One trio who came in response to the flyers were an Atheist, a nominal Muslim, and a practising Muslim. This last one was listening intently, at times nodding in agreement, and at other times shaking his head in response to my message. Those present said that these usually come into the meetings to disrupt and proclaim their own message, but this man listened respectfully and a number were discussing the message afterwards with him. Please pray for Altin, who leads the work in Elbasan. He works for BSKSH, but also leads the church here. He was very encouraged by the meetings, and was grateful for a gift which Dewi brought from a group of Christian ladies which covered much of the cost of the mission.
During the week we also saw some of the other ways in which the church is reaching out with the Gospel. On Thursday morning we went to the offices of the Bible Society in Tirana. Altin Husi, the General Secretary, who is also a fellow elder at Imanuel Church with Zef, welcomed us. The major project which they are working on is providing a new translation of the Bible in Albanian. The old translations were based on Latin texts, and a new reliable translation is a great need there. Zef was one of the three translators of the New Testament which has been out for some years. Now the Old Testament is nearing completion. Part of the problem has been that most of those involved in the work do not live in Albania, so coordinating the work has meant much travel. Hopefully the whole Bible will be published in two years’ time.
On Friday we met Zef for an English class which he runs from the church. We were asked to provide an opportunity for conversation for this group of eight or nine young people. English is a passport to opportunity for them, and this is one way in which the church makes new contacts. Zef also runs a book club, discussing secular novels and bringing a Christian viewpoint into the conversation. He also has a monthly Bible study with a number of high-ranking police officers in Tirana.
On Saturday Dewi went with Zef to a poor part of the city where a group of Christians were holding football trials. Those who were successfully selected would be enrolled in a “football academy” where they would learn football skills, but also life skills, where the gospel would be presented to them. The criterion was that they came from a poor background, and that they showed promise in football. Over 70 turned up, many with their parents who were engaged in conversation. Then Dewi and Zef picked me up and we went to Durres, another ancient city not far from Tirana. Here there is an ancient arena, where according to tradition Titus was martyred. Before seeing the ruins we met Lluka, a man who is working with the Children’s Evangelisation Fellowship. His supervisor from Romania was with him, and we saw the resources that they are providing for teaching the Bible to children.
On Sunday the rain came, together with thunder which lasted most of the day. I preached in Imanuel church in the morning, with Zef translating. Although a number of the people were away, it was good to meet up with many I had seen before. I preached a message from Ecclesastes Chapter 3. Then we took Zef, his wife Edita, and their two daughters Greis and Emili, out for a meal.
Then late in the afternoon we were picked up by Zef and Altin and went to Vaqarr, a Muslim village on the outskirts of Tirana. Imanuel church have been coming here for some years to have an afternoon Bible study. They began by visiting the village and playing football with some young people. Then they suggested meeting before the game to look at the Bible. This has developed into a little church which meets in a local sports centre. I preached the same message as in the morning, and during the message I mentioned praying for Albania in the early 1970s. As I was saying this one man (in the centre of the photo) was smiling with his eyes lighting up. He got up at the end and thanked us for praying for Albania those many years ago. He was the first in the village to confess openly that he had become a Christian, and it had obviously cost him much in his reputation among his family and community!
So our time came to an end, and early on Monday morning we left for the airport, returning with more memories of how God confuses the plans of men. The need is great, but the door is open to preach the gospel.