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? 

Salvage, Beg, or Pray - A Roma Story (part 1 of 3)

By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania

It rained yesterday, which means the road to church is muddy. As far as dirt roads go, this one isn’t the smoothest, and I hope we don’t show up in mud-soaked jeans. Even if we did, I remind myself, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to our hosts. 

Today is “Roma church”, or the day we go to the house of the only family of Roma believers we know, listen to a chapter of the Bible on a solar-powered recording device (because half of our congregation can’t read), and try and find truth in the words while juggling the chaos of seven kids running around a tiny cement room. I’m only a month into living in Albania, but it’s already my favorite day of the week. 

As we park the motorbike, I marvel at the tiny cement structure. Most Roma families in this neighborhood live in shacks constructed of corrugated tin, cardboard, and whatever else they can find, which makes this house an anomaly. We walk over a river of trash and broken toys to reach their doorstep, but before we can knock on the door, a four-year-old boy with a devious smile and a giggle to match bursts out of the house, quickly followed by his older sister. They bolt past us and into the “yard”, playing a high-stakes game that ends in tears in about 60 seconds. Those tears used to scare me, but I know better now; in another minute, they’ll be at it again, this time for the win. 

Holding back laughter, we step inside the structure and gratefully find it heated by something that looks like a piece of square cement cradling red-hot electrical coils. I’m too busy enjoying the heat to ask questions, but as a curly-haired toddler falls over and almost hits her head on the coils, I start to wonder if this is the safest option. It’s not, of course, but when your entire culture is based around your collective ability to survive, burns are of little concern.   

Joni, usually loud and jovial, is lying on the couch, looking like he just woke up from a too-long nap. He’s been ill for the last, well, for a long time, but Sula, his wife, warmly and firmly greets us. Like most Roma couples, they have probably been married since they were teenagers, a fact that still disturbs me no matter how much I tell myself how different our lives have been – what different choices we have been given.

One thing Sula and I do share in common is our age; we are both 26, and when I find this out, I have a hard time hiding my shock. Maybe it’s the way she carries herself or the fact she’s had four children or the fact that I’m uncomfortable thinking of all her 26-year-old self has experienced that I have not, but I would’ve guessed mid-30’s at least. I take a moment to study her: though uneducated, she is clever, resourceful, and a bit shrewd – and it’s lucky for her family that she is. Since Joni got sick, she’s had to find ways to feed six hungry mouths every day, a task made even more difficult by the discrimination she receives from mainstream Albanian society. As it is, her two options for earning money are to salvage through the trash for recyclables, or beg. 

Today at least, she has a third option, and she takes it. After serving each of us a glass of soda and a cookie (food I feel guilty for taking but do to honor her), she finds a place in our circle. Tuning out the sounds of squirrelly children as best as a mother can, she closes her eyes, bows her head, and she prays. 

Joni and Sula 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? 

Photo Essay: Albania

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