Albanian elders playing dominoes on the side of the street.
I was having a conversation with a group of buddies of mine the other day. And, we were all sharing some general observations we had made about Albanians. One of my friends chimed in and said Albanians seem discontent and unhappy. But, on the other hand, families remain together, kids seem joyful and playful, people gather together outside where there is a general sense of joy, happiness, and contentment. In fact, the remark was made that Albanians seem to be more content than many of us Americans do. So, we all agreed that Albanians are likely content, but have a feeling of hopelessness that has permeated their society here. A melancholic feeling of despair where things don't seem to be getting any better for them. You can just see it on their faces.
Many Albanians I have talked to share with me of their disapproval with their government, the economy, and overall living conditions. One Albanian told me while living under Communism he and his family at least had food on their table everyday. Now, they don't. While freedom is certainly valued here, it comes with a price. With a low income, minimal job opportunities, a poor economy, and a government that is reluctant to fully move forward, Albanians are indeed feeling hopeless. Sadly, many Albanians resort to gambling, drugs, and alcohol to medicate this feeling. While others work tirelessly 7 days a week, from sunup to sundown, trying to make ends meet. Many Albanians live on a loan-based system, borrowing money from their wealthier friends and then remaining indebted to them for the rest of their lives. Essentially becoming slaves. If the loans aren't paid back within a reasonable time, often serious repercussions are the result.
As Christians, even we struggle with discontentment at times. I know I do. It's a learned behavior to become content. Even the Apostle Paul had to learn to become content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12). We know the answer is not found in government, economy, or money. The answer to hopelessness and despair is found in Christ. The only way I see it, is that Albanians need to be taught about hope. What hope? The hope found only in Jesus Christ. And, the only way they will know this is by us sharing it with them. The only problem is, there are only a couple of hundred missionaries here. But, there are several millions of Albanians. We need more Christians to come here and share with them the message of hope. The hope that there is something indeed better than this life. An abundant life. A life of hope that can begin now, and will span for all eternity within the presence of a loving and holy God.
"Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."
"I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."
(1 John 5:13)
Greg playing volleyball with neighborhood teens.
Something amazing transpired last week. But, before I share this great miracle with you, a little background information is required. For the past few months since we've lived here, a small group of teen boys have been giving me trouble. They're a bunch of rebellious teens trying to be cool and impress their friends. Each time I walk by them or ride my bike past them they have something to say to me that they know I don't understand. Each time it is followed by laughter from those in their little group. Obviously the remarks are derisive and mocking. They do this because they know I'm a foreigner and won't understand them. One time, one of these guys spit on Coleman as he was walking by. I've confronted them twice with some pretty harsh words to say, warning them to back off.
Last week the final straw was drawn as I and Coleman rode by them on our bikes and one of the guys said something to us in Albanian while the rest of the boys laughed at us. I got off my bike. Walked over to the jokester, got into his face, and had a few choice words with him. Christlike? Probably not. And, perhaps I let my anger get the best of me. Although, they likely didn't understand what I told them, we walked away with the understanding that these boys best leave us alone or their will be further consequences. I was deeply frazzled and bothered by these boys who I'm supposed to be ministering to and become a positive role model for. Sadly, many of these boys don't know what respect is because it's not modeled in their own homes. Often, their fathers beat them and kick them out of the house. And, here I am yelling at them just like their own fathers do. Deeply bothered, I called up a couple of members of my field team and we gathered together to discuss this and spent a good amount of time in prayer.
When I returned home from the prayer, the group of teens were still hanging around the same spot near our house. You can just hear the awkward silence as I rode by them. I went inside our courtyard, dropped off the bike, and sat down in my thinking chair inside my home. Actually, it's a brown leather Lazy-Boy recliner that inevitably puts anyone to sleep who dares to sit in it. As I was sitting, I prayed and the Spirit led me to go sit amongst these boys outside and just listen to them. If the opportunity allows, engage them and see where the conversation may lead.
I setup my camping chair amongst the group of teens. They looked at me as if I was a little crazy. I just sat there. I didn't say a word. Inevitably, they approached me and asked a lot of questions. They asked why we're here and what do I do for a living. I told them I'm simply a missionary, to tell people about God and to help them in a way that Christ would help them. I told them of my visions of starting a church in our community. I told them I want to teach them how to gain some basic skills so they can make a decent living providing for their future families. I want to teach them important values and principles of life that will help them gain respect amongst their peers and in their community. They were elated to hear this and were eager to kickstart this vision for me... right now. I told them I needed some time to learn the language first. We had a small conversation about God and they wanted to know the differences between Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus. My answer? Only one of these men claimed to be the Son of God and He still lives. I didn't criticize their beliefs, but only reinforced what I know to be true about Christ. This deeply interested them. Especially the one boy who was a Muslim.
The conversation came to an end and then suddenly a volleyball game ensued. They tied a rope across the alleyway and politely asked if they could borrow a ball. They wanted me to play with them and teach them some basic volleyball skills I learned in America. It turned out they were just as good as any average American. There wasn't much I taught them. I'm used to playing on much wider courts rather than a 7' wide alleyway. Nevertheless, all went well and we played for a couple of hours until it got dark. Afterwards, we all went our separate ways shaking hands and giving high fives. Peace and joy was restored and trust was gained.
I attribute this late afternoon miracle to a few things: the hand of God, prayer, and my willingness to step out of my comfort zone. I look forward to carrying on these relationships with these teen boys and seeing where it may lead. I sincerely hope and pray that someday they will become men of faith, men of integrity, and effective in their community where they will teach these same principles and values to their own families and those around them.