Albania

Before the Throne - A Missionary's Journey

When Jordan flew to the Balkan Peninsula two years ago to plant churches among the Roma people group, he had no idea he would one day be sitting here, in a crowded café, sipping espresso and telling his story against the backdrop of bad American pop music. He also had no idea he would be saying things like, “I really did block out a lot of the difficulty that was waiting for me when I got here,” or “I feel like I got here and just was embarrassingly humbled. Embarrassingly.” But he is saying these things, because that is exactly what happened.

“I romanticized it entirely,” he confesses, imagining that working with the poor meant “getting dirty, and just meeting all their needs, and being this hero and, um, doing it all in the name of Jesus.”

Jordan’s journey overseas began with a simple statement uttered by one of his trusted mentors: “You know, I see you as more of a missions guy.” A month and a half later, he found himself walking on Pioneers’ campus in Florida, feeling more and more confident that these were “his people” and that God was calling him to spread the Gospel among the unreached – he just didn’t know where yet. After meeting with several potential teams, he heard of the opportunity to work with the poor and marginalized in Eastern Europe, and it caught his attention. “I romanticized it entirely,” he confesses, imagining that working with the poor meant “getting dirty, and just meeting all their needs, and being this hero and, um, doing it all in the name of Jesus.” To Jordan, nothing could’ve sounded more appealing.

To be fair, he is good at those things. Poverty doesn’t scare him, and neither do the sacrifices that keep most of us from moving to the other side of the world to tell people about Jesus. And while it can take missionary recruits years to raise enough funds to get to the field, his natural boldness and singular focus got him there in six months. Everything happened so quickly and easily, what reason did he have to doubt?

He didn’t, not for a long time. Because at first, the flavors were exciting, the language seemed easy to pick up, and the people were kind and receptive; it was every bit the adventure he imagined it would be. However, unlike the short-term mission trips he’d gone on in his twenties, he didn’t have a ticket home when the honeymoon ended. When the food became bland, he woke up in the Balkans. When the language became complex, he woke up in the Balkans. And when he saw the flaws and weaknesses in himself, his teammates, and those he was trying to reach, he woke up in the Balkans. “You feel, or at least I felt,” he says, “lonely and insignificant, and helpless like a little child.”  

Even the ministry became a source of discouragement as, with each passing day, he realized how far they were from their goal of reaching the Roma with the Gospel – much less helping them escape the clutches of poverty. Worse, his team went through an intense time of conflict, resulting in half of them going back to the States and half of them starting over. Months turned into a year, and eventually his disillusionment brought him to a place of bitterness, frustration, and anger. “And then in my case,” he pauses, “loneliness and even bits of depression.” Not quite the wave of self-edifying momentum he rode to the Roma’s front doorstep.

Like many of us do, Jordan responded with heavy doses of self-medication and escapism; food, drink, too much sleep, not enough sleep, too many Skype calls home, not enough Skype calls home, movies, school – he turned to anything and everything but the One who could truly help. Of course, nothing did. “I would look out my window or sit on my balcony and just see this lively neighborhood that just didn't care that I was there,” he says, his voice equal parts amusement and regret, “I had come to save all of them, but they didn't care.” At the end of his first year, “The Lord felt extremely far away, and I felt extremely small.”

And that’s when Jordan saw it. “You've been relying on yourself,” he realized, “and not the God who is big.” On his own, he was never supposed to be significant; it was always supposed to be God.

As it turns out, he was right. He was small – but that wasn’t the problem. When he finally turned to God for help, God didn’t build him up or feed him nice-sounding platitudes about all his hard work and effort. On the contrary, “He affirmed that I was small, but that He was big.” And that’s when Jordan saw it. “You've been relying on yourself,” he realized, “and not the God who is big.” On his own, he was never supposed to be significant; it was always supposed to be God.

Not much changed in his circumstances after that realization, but a lot changed in his mind and heart. “You start understanding,” he explains, “that as you've walked away from situations that you thought impossible or that you didn't have enough energy for or didn't have enough language for...God did.” He still went about his daily tasks, still labored to learn the language (a process that never really got easier), and still worked hard to begin new and impactful ministries. But now, he knew by whose strength he did these things – and it wasn’t his own. The odd thing was, being aware of his weaknesses only made him feel more capable. “The difficulty didn't go away,” he admits, “but the ability to deal with it greatly increased as I sought the Lord through it.” 

He laughs as he thinks back to the moment he begged God to send him somewhere challenging, somewhere he could do great and significant things for the kingdom. While parts of that prayer were well-intentioned, “basically, it was like a bravado thing.” A bravado thing that God answered by putting him in a new place, using difficult situations to reveal the pride and arrogance in his heart, and then disciplining him until those things were gone – or at least, Jordan would tell you, smaller. It wasn’t how he thought God would answer his prayer (and it certainly wasn’t how he wanted him to), but it was how he needed him to answer it.

“You have in your mind how God is going to work, or how he does work, and he always surprises you for the better.”

“You have in your mind how God is going to work, or how he does work, and he always surprises you for the better.” That is a truth Jordan holds to tightly as he looks to an uncertain future, one that may or may not include a return flight to the country he’s finally started feeling comfortable in. Regardless of whether or not he does come back, he is glad to draw from the lessons God taught him here, lessons of humility, remaining faithful in times of difficulty, and drawing from the strength of his Maker rather than his own meager reserves. They are, he suspects, lessons he will continue to learn the rest of his life.

“I know who is in control,” he says in a café in the middle of a crowded, lost, vibrant city in Eastern Europe. “I know who is in power, and I –” he pauses, “I know where I stand before the throne. And it's far down.” It isn’t with pride in himself that he says these words; it’s with pride in the King who does sit on the throne. He is, Jordan would tell you, the only one worth taking pride in anyway.   

Daily Bread - Rina's Journey

By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania

She orders tea with ease, her dark features and hard-won command of the language almost convincing enough to make people think she’s Albanian. In fact, just yesterday someone thought she was a local who left the country for a long time and came back with an accent. Here on the truth-telling streets of Tirana where people don't hesitate to tell you what they really think of your language-speaking ability, that’s a win.

But that’s not what Alisa’s here to talk about. Neither is she here to talk about what it’s been like to move to Albania and try to plant a church among the marginalized and impoverished Roma people group, though that is a fascinating story in its own right. She’s here to talk about Rina, a Roma woman with Multiple Sclerosis who, until recently, lived in a tiny cinder-block home just a few steps away from hers.

Though neighbors, the two women didn’t interact much when Alisa and her family first moved in. Alisa would see Rina sitting in a chair outside her front door and wave to her as she turned into her driveway, but that was it. Admittedly, she was comfortable with the distance, since “getting close meant responsibility.” But all that changed when Rina, using a broken stroller as a walker, wheeled up the hill to Alisa’s house, knocked on her door, and told her she and her teenage son had been without food for four days.

“When she said that, it was pretty striking,” says Alisa. “Like, my next-door neighbor doesn't have anything to eat, and I have an entire pantry full of food and no scarcity of when can I get the next...” her voice trails off at this part, as if reliving the horror she felt at the state of her refrigerator. Determined to fix the situation, she immediately drove to the store and bought more than enough food to keep Rina and her son fed for a couple weeks.

“Once God opened my eyes to what was actually right beside us,” she says, “I couldn't drive past her. I couldn't just drive home.”

But that wasn’t the end of it, because it wasn’t the end of Rina’s poverty. “Once God opened my eyes to what was actually right beside us,” she says, “I couldn't drive past her. I couldn't just drive home.” As she wondered what to do, Alisa felt God speaking to her, saying things like: “She's your neighbor, and I've put her inside your sphere of family.” Even more convicting: “I put you here for her.” It was a tall order, but it aligned with what Alisa knew of God’s love and concern for the poor and how he often used the Church to care for their needs. And wasn’t she a representation of God’s Church, here to do just that?

So she began bringing Rina food every week. She stepped inside Rina’s house, sat on her broken couch, and listened as best as she could. In broken Albanian, she discovered Rina had four daughters in addition to her son, but since her daughters were obligated to care for their new families, she didn’t see them much. She learned Rina’s husband left her for another woman but neglected to divorce her, which meant as a technically married woman, she couldn’t receive any of the government support given to people with disabilities. She learned Rina’s landlord didn’t care to fix the broken roof or giant hole in the wall, but he did care an awful lot about receiving the rent money on time. And when they talked about God, she learned Rina didn’t seem to like him much – probably because she didn’t think he liked her.

After a few months of getting to know each other, Alisa invited Rina to church, and surprisingly, she agreed. Though she never participated in the worship or communion, Rina heard the Gospel every week, and that was encouraging. Church also meant more social interactions, which, Alisa was learning, her friend needed just as much as food. Then one day after service, a member of the congregation sat down with Rina and explained the Gospel in ways Alisa didn’t have enough language to do. She seemed truly interested, even asking how she could get to God through Jesus, when she said something they weren’t expecting: “But, I’ve never sinned.”      

Alisa was stunned – how could she think she’s never sinned – until she remembered her friend’s background. Rina had grown up with a religious perspective that said sins were grave, egregious acts of wrongdoing, and the people who did these acts deserved the punishment they got. “In her mind,” Alisa explains, “saying like, ‘I've sinned,’ means ‘I deserve this horrible life that I've had.’” But Rina hadn’t killed anyone, and she certainly wasn’t the one who had walked away from her marriage. In her worldview, saying she had sinned meant she must have done something to deserve her suffering, and she just didn’t think it was true.

Listening to her friend’s objections, Alisa realized what Rina needed was an entire worldview shift, and since only God could do that, they left the conversation alone. Rina still came to church and Alisa still worked tirelessly to help her financial situation improve, but nothing changed in Rina’s heart – and maybe, Alisa thought, nothing ever would. Then one Sunday during communion, Alisa noticed her friend was in turmoil. Showing more emotion than she’d shown since they’d met, Rina turned to Alisa and said, “Would you get me one?” Alisa did a double take, asking if she was sure, to which Rina responded, “I believe this. I believe it. I want you to get me some this time.” A few minutes later, she took her first communion.

Alisa smiles now as she talks about the change she’s seen in her friend. While she used to say things like, “God hates me. Look at my life. He must hate me,” she now tells Alisa, “I do have hope, and my son is working, and he's going to school, and there's hope that life is gonna get better, and that's just because of what God has done in my life.” The difference is stark, dramatic, and good.

While Rina’s reality is still marked by more difficulty than most people see in their lifetime, there are glimmers of light there, too. Her church (because it is hers now) collected enough money to move her to a better house. Her son (most of the time) goes to work. And her relationship with Alisa has become more of a true, reciprocal friendship. As proof, Alisa tells the story of the time she went to visit Rina and found her surrounded by a few other Roma women. The unlikely group fell into talking about their children and what it’s like being young mothers. “And it felt like,” she remembers, “Oh, we're all just sitting here as friends, sharing common life.” No one asked Alisa for anything except her opinions on raising boys; it was a new, wonderful dynamic.

And it is this dynamic Alisa hopes will continue. Rather than become Rina’s forever benefactor, she hopes to one day just be her friend. Until that day comes, Alisa is committed to helping with humility, always pointing Rina back to her true Provider. Because the reality is, Alisa knows, she could have been the one watching her son languish from lack of food while her neighbor’s pantry sat full of homemade cookies. However much she may feel independent or secure, she knows (more than she ever has) that “we're all really dependent on God for our daily bread.”

When talking about what she wants her friendship with Rina to look like in the future, Alisa describes a setting where, “I go over and just visit with her, where God is providing for her needs, and I can just be a friend that encourages her to have more faith.” Two mothers, two followers of Jesus, two women dependent on God for their daily needs. It’s a beautiful image, and though faint, it’s already starting to appear. 

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back - A Roma Story (Part 3 of 3)

By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania

“Are we getting better at answering your questions?”

To be honest, I don't know what Sula’s asking; she’s speaking in a language I don’t understand, but my teammates tell me about it afterwards. They also tell me how sad the question made them feel.

My teammates – a married couple, their three children, and a single – have lived and worked in Tirana, Albania for almost two years. They came here to start a church among the unreached Roma people group, and like most endeavors in God’s kingdom, it’s proving to be far more difficult than they ever thought possible.

Oppressed and discriminated against for centuries, the Roma are used to receiving handouts from compassionate and/or guilt-ridden strangers. However well-meaning, these efforts have created a mentality among the Roma that says: “Outsider = money”. This ingrained perspective has been one of the team’s biggest roadblocks to church-planting here. How, after all, do you form a reciprocal, life-giving relationship with a woman who’s opening line every time you see her is, “My husband is sick, can you give me money for medicine?” And at the same time, when does it make sense to ignore the very real needs of those you came to serve? It is a dangerous, tricky tension to navigate.

Which is why it is remarkable we’re meeting in Joni and Sula’s home at all, listening to a recording of John 8:1-11, discussing what this passage says about God and people. The fact that we’ve gotten past the what-are-you-going-to-give-me phase and formed a friendship (at least a tentative one) is a huge victory.

We don’t often celebrate the victories, however, mostly because by the time we recognize one, we’re up against another barrier. Take today’s, for example: “Are we getting better at answering your questions?” may seem harmless, but to us, it means Sula is still trying to please us (possibly so she’ll get a reward). It means she believes she is “lesser”, not just materially but also intellectually. It means in her mind, she is the student and we are the teachers, instead of all of us being the students of a holy, utterly mysterious, yet nearer-than-we-could-ever-imagine God.

How do you get past that?

The truth is, we don’t know. My teammates have tried to encourage Joni and Sula to lead the discussions, to own their role as equals in the church, but nothing has worked. We’ll be the first to admit that while we know on paper how to plant a church among the poor and unreached, reality is another story. To do it well – to do any of this well – we need Jesus.  

Sobered but not disheartened, we say goodbye and walk away. I look back and shake my head as Sula’s four-year-old son picks up a not-so-small rock to throw at his older brother. It is a far from perfect church; we struggle with fear, pride, addictions, temper tantrums, and a deep distrust in God’s provision and goodness, among other things. But it is, miraculously, a church. Most important, it is his church, and may God give us the grace to remember it.  

Sula and her family are the only known believers in the Roma community our Pioneers team currently works in. Would you consider specifically praying for this unreached people group, giving your resources to those who serve them, or going yourself?  

Portrait of the Lost - A Roma Story (Part 2 of 3)

By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania

Gypsies. Poverty migrants. “Europe’s Unwanted”. Criminals. 

Few people groups in the world have been given so many derogatory labels, yet the Roma bear them with unseen grit – unseen because whether by a well-timed turn of the head or sheer ignorance, most people aren’t paying attention. 

Numbering anywhere between four and 14 million, the Roma originally migrated to Europe from India. They made their first appearance in Europe’s history books about 800 years ago, and the report isn’t encouraging. The locals, it seems, didn’t know what to do with these dark-skinned, newcomers on wheels. No matter how much the Roma tried to assimilate – even going so far as to adopt their new culture’s religion – the Europeans struggled to accept a people so different from themselves. So they did what many of us do when confronted with something “other”: they oppressed what they feared and controlled what was different, resulting in the enslavement, ridicule, and exclusion of the Roma people.

The atrocities dramatically and tragically increased with the arrival of World War II. Targeting anyone who did not fit their “ideal”, the Nazis embarked on a systematic genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 million Roma, one of the largest (and least-talked about) mass killings in history. After the war, European governments attempted to curb Roma populations through forced sterilization, a practice that continued well into the 21st century.  

While the violence may have stopped, that doesn’t mean Europe has finally accepted their Roma neighbors. In Albania, employers decline to interview much less hire them, officials refuse to test their children therefore barring them from public schools, and social services – even churches – have been known to miraculously “run out of supplies” when Roma mothers get to the front of the line. Through a combination of broken systems, prejudice, and their own hopelessness, the Roma have become society’s “bottom feeders”, the ones who sort through dumpsters for recyclables and extend their hands out for charity, and society is in no hurry to change that. 

Yet, for all the ways the world might classify the Roma as “poor”, their greatest poverty is a spiritual one. While most claim to follow some form of Islam or Christianity, their real god is survival, and they worship him well. When a Christian relief organization comes to town, they are devout Christians, and when Ramadan starts, they are sincere followers of Islam. As professional survivors, they know exactly what to do and say to fill their stomachs for a night – but little about how to find purpose, meaning, and hope. And until they know Jesus, they never will. 

It would be tempting, logical even, to treat the Roma as victims – but it would also be an injustice. Yes, they have suffered much at the hands of the powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are saints. And while they have certainly endured great pain, they have also laughed, danced, loved, and sinned. They are mothers who want good futures for their children, teenage boys who crave acceptance, and babies who want to be held so much they cling to your neck when you tell them it’s time to go. More than anything else, they are people – people who need far more than a meal or even a job. Instead of offering them our pity, may we lead them to the only real hope we have ever found. May we lead them to Jesus.  

As the Church, we are called to serve, love, and tell the unreached about the love of Christ. Would you consider specifically praying for the Roma people group, giving your resources to those who currently serve them, or going yourself? 

Photo Essay: Albania

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Video: From Albania to Greece

After living in Albania for several years, Andrew and Alecia moved to Greece to make disciples among Albanians who have immigrated there. They recently partnered with local believers to plant an Albanian-speaking fellowship at the foot of Mars Hill in Athens, just steps from where Paul preached the gospel 2,000 years ago.