I was born at the tail end of the civil rights movement in America. In fact, I was born the very same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was mercilessly assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. I don’t remember much about this period of time in the U.S. But, what I do remember is seeing old black and white footage of African Americans getting sprayed by fire hoses, beaten, and attacked by police canines at public demonstrations. I remember seeing films of African Americans being blocked from entering into public schools and having to dine and use the restroom in separate areas from white people. This is a period of time in America’s history that is foreign to me. And, quite honestly I have never experienced or seen racial discrimination with my own eyes. This is mainly due in part to the fact that I have always lived in affluent, mid to upper-class, white America. What I do know about racial discrimination and the injustice of it all is only from what I have learned in history text books.
But, I am glad the civil rights movement has come and gone. It has given me an opportunity to look back and see how America dealt with the issues of segregation, discrimination, and oppression. To reflect back and see where America succeeded and where it has faltered so as not to repeat the same mistakes again. I think there is much to learn from America both the good and the bad. And, while it’s not the perfect model and there is certainly still more work to do, I applaud America in how it has dealt with these issues and its treatment of minorities. Although I am not a political person, I was glad to see America finally elect its first African American president in 2008. A symbol, I believe, that we have indeed overcome much in the way of how we treat all people equally in America.
In 2009, my family and I were called to full time missions to live and serve among the Roma, commonly referred to as Gypsies, of Albania. Specifically, the Roma who live and work in the vast urban sprawl of Albania’s capital and largest city, Tirana. Like African Americans in the US, the Roma are a minority and in most part an impoverished people group. Most live in shacks (called baraks) on the outer fringes of society often located near rivers or trash heaps. They live together in small clusters of shacks with little or no water and electricity. They live off of a meager income by rummaging through dumpsters looking for metals and plastics. Most of the women survive by begging on the streets with their small children in tow. If they are fortunate enough, some Roma will setup a stand or cart on the side of the road or in public markets selling cheap goods such as used shoes, clothing, and old merchandise. They are essentially pushed out of society and left to fend for themselves, often having to pay bribes to work and stay out of trouble from the corrupt police.
Yes, discrimination, segregation, and oppression still exists. And, I've seen it with my own eyes here in Albania. It’s not as blatant or in your face as 1960s America. There are no signs that say Roma must use a different toilet from white Albanians. No police dogs are chasing them down. And, water is a valuable commodity so there are certainly no fire hoses spraying down innocent Roma men and women on the streets of Tirana. But, they are indeed pushed to the outer edges of society. Nobody really wants to hire a Roma man or woman to work. Most Roma children and teens are bullied both by students and their teachers at school. As a result, most Roma drop out of school and are illiterate. Most landlords won’t allow a Roma family to live in their apartment buildings or houses. They are often “shooed” away or looked upon suspiciously if they are seen hanging around neighborhoods or cafes too often. And, when Roma hop onto a public bus, you can be assured everyone is on guard. We ourselves get strange looks from white Albanians when we are seen with the Roma. I have had several white Albanians tell me not to hang out with the Roma, they are dangerous. One Albanian once told me that I will likely get murdered, beheaded, and all of my belongings stolen from me if I hang out with the Roma long enough.
The similarities of racial discrimination and oppression between 1960s America and today's Roma of Albania are eerily similar. A Roma woman looks upon what was once her home.
Yes, discrimination, segregation, and oppression still exists. And, there is no greater visual of this than what happened most recently to a large Roma community on the west side of Tirana, Albania last week. On August 7th, a Roma community consisting of about 40 Roma families were illegally forced from their homes to make way for a new business development. On this day, the developer and its workers came into their community and bulldozed all of their homes along with their personal belongings that remained inside of them. Most of their belongings, what little they had, is now totally lost or ruined. What makes this more tragic, is that the Albanian police and government have not intervened. Silence. The developers have essentially been given free license to destroy this community of Roma, with no consequences. And now, the Roma have nowhere to go. They are now literally living in a trash heap that was once their own homes. At night, sleeping at a nearby river’s edge that worms its way through the city. Roma families watching their homes being destroyed.
Sadly, instances like this are nothing new to Albania. Almost three years ago another Roma community was forced from their homes at a nearby train station. This time their houses were burned and there were several injuries. All was lost. And, today this same Roma community are now living on an obscure lot of land at a trash heap on the edge of a river barely surviving and making ends meet.
I want to be fair. The Albanian government is helping. But, here is what it looks like: There is a small housing complex available to the Roma. It is located on the outskirts of Tirana… far away in the hills of an outlying area… with no electricity and no water. In an area where the locals do not want them and where many Roma have already been threatened with knives and at gunpoint. A place where the Roma do not have access to the city’s dumpsters to look for metals and plastics. A place too far for Roma women to walk with their small children into to town to beg or wash windshields. So, I humbly ask… is the government really helping? Or, are they just conveniently pushing them out?
Cast aside. Pushed out. Not wanted. A nuisance. Roma man wallowing in the remains of his home.
What is the answer? How can this and other injustices of the Roma be resolved? I wish I had a solid pat answer. I don’t. But, what I do know is that Scripture is very clear about the way in which we as believers of the risen Christ should be treating the poor, to act justly and love mercy. When people look at us, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus. We are to embody Him by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: namely to declare, using both words and deeds that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. And, we need to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor. For His glory God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. And, among the Roma.
I am hopeful there will be resolution. But, in order for that to happen we as believers need to rise up to this occasion and be the light and the salt of the earth that Jesus told us to be. We need to pull together as one Body, our gifts, talents, and resources that God has given to us and help make right what is clearly a wrong. So, I ask you fellow Christian… how is God calling you to help? How can you be a part of not only helping with this situation, but with the plight of all the Roma in Albania? A people who are cast aside to the outer fringes of society, often living in squalor with no hope in sight. Please pray and act. And together, let us watch God do amazing wonders of His kingdom for the Roma of Albania.
In missions, there is a lot of discussion about reaching the unreached peoples of the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Depending on what source you read, there are anywhere between 5,000-7,000 unreached people groups around the world. This amounts to roughly 2.7 billion people. There is an area where most of these people call home. In global missions, this area is commonly referred to as the 10/40 window (located between 10 and 40 degrees latitude north of the equator) which is comprised of northern Africa, the Middle East, and most of Asia. Many missions sending agencies focus on sending their missionaries to these areas of the world. These countries are typically dangerous to Westerners, especially to those who are preaching the Gospel where some can be kicked out of the country, imprisoned, and in some cases face execution. There is a large need for Christian workers to go to these hard to reach places and introduce the abundant life of Jesus Christ into these people's lives for the first time… offering them salvation, hope, and joy that comes through having faith in King Jesus.
But, what about the billions of people around the world that do not fall into the 10/40 window? There are many countries in the world that are considered "reached". But, many of these countries have such a low population of believers of Christ that they are really no different than some unreached countries. In many of these countries that have been reached, generations have since passed and now we have a new segment of society of either unreached people groups or devout atheists. For example, here in the country of Albania where we serve it is considered a "reached" country. But, the percentage of born-again, truly transformed believers of Christ is nearly infinitesimal (less than 1%). Right out the front door of our house there are hundreds of people in our neighborhood who have never heard the Gospel before. But many of their parents or other family members have seen the Jesus Film many years ago. When Communism fell in 1992, missionaries from the West flocked to Albania eager to introduce millions of Albanians to the Gospel of Christ for the first time. This, after being closed off to the West for 40+ years. Every village in Albania had been essentially reached. There was even an influx of thousands of newly professed believers of Christ. And, Albania was figuratively checked off the "unreached" list by many missions sending agencies. As a result, many of these missionaries left, with little or no follow up. Many churches that were planted early on have since died out. And now we are once again back to square one, a country with a very small population of believers and with a large segment of society whose generation today have never heard the Gospel.
And, of course there are countries that have long ago been considered Christian countries, once beacons of light to other countries around the world sending thousands of missionaries to the darker recesses of the world. Most of these "Christian" countries exist in central and northern Europe, but also including North and South America. However, in these countries we are now actually seeing a reversal of people coming to faith, where the Christian population is actually declining and many are leaving the Christian faith and the church they once grew up in. Many have become disenfranchised with traditional “Churchianity” and are embracing alternative religions or no faith at all. For the first time last year in America, Protestantism was no longer the dominant religious faith, being outnumbered by a combination of other faiths or no faith at all. As a result, missionaries from other countries like South Korea and Nigeria are actually sending Christian missionaries to the US and Canada, introducing Americans to Christ and involved in new church planting efforts around the country. And in Europe, in countries like The Netherlands and Germany, churches are now being converted into mosques, museums, and market places. And, some of the highest populations of atheism are no longer found in Communist countries, but in places like Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and The Netherlands.
So, what do we do with all of this? What do we do with the declining population of those who profess a faith in Christ? What do we do with the increasing population of atheism? Well, global missions should truly remain global, not confined to a certain segment of the world's population; encompassing the entire globe, not just a focus on the "unreached" people groups of the world. I propose we open the window a bit more. Let's not limit it to the 10/40 window. Let's open it up 20 degrees more to include the former "Christianized" countries of the world such as Europe and North America. The way I see it, if we don't open the window, we will be calling America and Europe "unreached" countries 25-30 years from now. And, I mean that literally; where generations will have passed, and newer and younger generations will have never heard the Good News of Christ.
This leads me to another question. How do we reach those who are already reached? How do we reach out to those who have indeed heard the Gospel before but for whatever reason have chosen to reject its message? My guess, and I’m not claiming absolute certainty on this, is that many of these “reached” people are hearing a form of Christianity that is both westernized and institutionalized. A form of Christianity that finds it basis from an Enlightenment-era form of reasoning, focusing more on morality, debate, the afterlife, and following a list of do’s and do nots. And, I don’t believe this is the same Gospel message that Christ taught. People need to see love in action. Not only do they need to hear it through proclamation, but it needs to be modeled and demonstrated through our lives and our actions. They don’t only want to hear what you have to say unless they truly know you care about them… now. People want to know how can a belief in Christ possibly benefit and change their life now, here, while on earth. One of my favorite quotes that I think best encapsulates the paradox of abundant life now and life after death is this:
“Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.” (Shane Claiborne)
We need Christians to not only mobilize around the world to distant and far off countries, but to remain in their own cities, towns, and villages. We need Christians to share the Gospel through both word and deed in their communities. And, I don't mean the stale, institutionalized form of Christianity to be propagated. I mean, the get-in-the-trenches, get-your-hands-dirty form of missions. Where we no longer focus on rules and morality, but focus on helping others, loving the least of these, and bridging the gap between the haves and have nots. We need to stop obsessing over immorality and obsess with loving others no matter who they are. And, I’m willing to bet this will require leaving the comforts of our own environment and our own biased socio-political ideologies. We need to bring the Light to the darkness and not expect the darkness to be the Light before we bring it.
A couple of examples come to mind of what it looks like to bring the Light of Jesus Christ to people through both word and deed:
I am reminded of my friend Don who lives and works among a shunned people group called the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. He has relied solely on faith to open a workshop in the slums of Tirane, Albania, enabling local Roma and Albanian men with new works skills and an opportunity to provide a better income for their families. At the same time, he spends time investing in the spiritual lives of these men through sharing the Gospel and conducting small Bible studies in his home or workshop.
I am reminded of Pastor Jeony who also lives and works near the slums in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He has helped facilitate a school program that enables children and their parents to receive an education and job skills, allowing them to leave their lives working in the disease-infested city trash dump. This educational program doesn’t go without hearing and learning about Christ. Each morning the children gather at the school to sing praises of worship to Jesus and learn more about God through the reading of Scripture.
Closer to home I am reminded of Shane who essentially moved from the comforts of his middle to upper class background and decided to live among the homeless of Philadelphia. This led him to start a new community revitalization project in what many would consider a gang-infested, drug-laden, and impoverished neighborhood. He, along with several others helped restore what was dismissed as hopeless, into a newly revitalized beautiful community where the homeless now live and thrive. All of this was accomplished alongside the teaching about God’s love, grace, and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in action. This is how I believe we reach the reached with the Gospel message. There is certainly a place for the public proclamation of the Gospel, especially in unreached countries. But, in places where the Gospel is already being promulgated in churches, on TV, the radio, and bookstores; love in action is where people will truly see who Jesus is. And, this is what I believe the new wave of missions is to look like. Incarnational and holistic approach to ministry. Bringing justice where there is injustice. Enabling the poor to leave poverty. Reaching out to the disenfranchised, the unloved, and the oppressed. Helping men, women, and children see themselves for who they are, loved by God. Restoring them into the people that God intentionally desires them to be… created in His image, reconciled, rescued, and redeemed. Not for just the life after we die. But, for the life here and now. Making all things new. And, bringing God’s kingdom onto earth just as it is in Heaven.
For the past 24 hours I have felt the weight of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. When that happens, my mind starts asking my heart lots of questions. Why am I feeling this way? What is God telling me?
It all started yesterday as I was driving with a friend down the busy Lana Blvd. here in Tirane. She and I had just had an amazing visit with some of Albania’s poorest people, in their “home” by the river. Our hearts are tender toward them and we both want to show them the love of Christ. As I was driving, I was learning so much from my friend as we were discussing different strategies in the global scene of how to help them. I remember saying “sometimes we don’t see the forest from the trees “– me describing myself as seeing the trees and her seeing the forest, because of our differing daily roles here in Tirane. I was so interested in hearing what she had to say and saying what I was thinking that I was in auto pilot for what happened next.
As we were stopped at the red light, and my windshield was squirted with water from a Roma boy – I was quick to turn on my windshield wipers to communicate to him that I did not want my windows cleaned. First, let me tell you that all around Tirane, at almost every intersection of the Lana Blvd, there are many beggars, and every time I see them, it’s an inner struggle. If we give them money, we are reinforcing their bondage of begging. Early on, based on this thought and conversations with other believers, we had decided not to give them money (Leke) when we see them. Is that right? I don’t know. Aren’t they who Jesus refers to as the least of these? Yes.
The boy was very persistent in his effort to obtain some leke. I tried to ignore him, and eventually rolled down my window and offered him my water, which he did not want. He went on to another vehicle or the light turned green, I don’t recall, but I immediately felt badly and even began to explain to my friend all the justifications for what I had done. No matter how many “good things” I can think of that I do for the poor, it doesn’t cancel out this act. It still makes me teary.
Conviction. It’s painful sometimes, but without it we aren’t as moved to be more like Him. Thank you God for taking the time to show me how my actions certainly broke your heart and the heart of someone you love. I am grateful that this lesson is done in love and is not for me to feel badly about myself, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ! I got so interested in talking about the forest that I ignored the beautiful tree you placed right in front of me.
1. Isn’t it my intention to show Christ’s character in all that I do? Yes.
2. What evidence of Christ is in me while I ignore the beggars at these intersections? None.
3. What must my behavior look like at these intersections if I am to show Christ to them?
I’d love to say I have the answer for this, but I don’t. I may even avoid driving for a while till I have a sense of what God wants me to do. This is what I am still praying through and would love to hear others’ insights. Feels a little paralyzing, but I know the Lord will show me the way.
It may be hard to tell from this picture, but this little girl probably hasn’t been bathed in several weeks. Her name is Angjila, and God has been placing a heavy conviction upon my heart for her. I first met Angjila on my way to a local café. While on my bike I simply said hello to her in passing. That’s all it seemed to take for her to realize that someone actually acknowledged her. Her eyes lit up, and with a big smile on her face she hopped over to a nearby garden (kopesht) and picked a flower to give to me. I thanked her and said Mirupafshim (goodbye)! Over the next few weeks I periodically saw Angjila around our neighborhood, all dirtied up with matted hair, tattered clothing, and with a big smile on her face she would always say hello to me. Inevitably she would find another flower at a nearby garden to give to me. When we moved into our new home, every day she would bang on our front door with a few more flowers to hand off to me. I would place them in a small vase on our patio table and she nodded with approval. She loves to play in our courtyard, ride the bikes, play ball, and have meaningful conversation. But, over time she began to be more demanding and always insisted we let her in. Many times, she let herself in without our permission or knowledge. On several occasions we caught her fiddling with the door jack in the back of our courtyard and she let herself in. On another occasion we caught her on Drayton’s bike riding around in our courtyard unaware to us. Finally, we had to firmly but lovingly tell her to go away. We told her she is only welcome back if she knocks, and we answer the door to allow her to come in; a basic value and principle. One day, she came by banging on the door and I had to turn her away due to another engagement at the time. She went away with a very sad countenance upon her face. I peered my head out the door and watched her walk away with her shoulders slumped down. Sadly, I watched as an older girl passed by and flicked her on the head. Before I could get myself to the two girls, the older girl and Angjila had gone their separate ways. Time and time again Angjila bangs on our door insisting to get in. She would beg and plead. Finally, I asked her why she wants in so badly. Ride bikes? No. Play with our cat? No. Play ball? No. Then why? I just want to be here.
It finally dawned on me that maybe she wants in so badly because our house is a safe place for her. Here she is treated well. She is talked to, played with, given something to drink, a snack, and a place to just sit and talk. It is obvious to me she is neglected and possibly abused, physically or sexually. One day I found her wandering the neighborhood only in her underwear, with dirt on her face, and hair matted up. She still looked happy, but I wondered how much abuse this little girl goes through. I hope I’m wrong. I hope she is not abused and only neglected. I know that sounds odd. The thought of this little precious girl being abused just kills me inside. Angers me. Not having a bath or something to eat… well we can deal with that much easier. But, abuse! How do we best deal with this situation if in fact she is abused? We don’t want to falsely incriminate her parents. For now, the best thing we can do is to let her in as many times as possible. Talk to her, get to know her, play with her, and love upon her just as Jesus would. She is seven years old and has never stepped foot into a school. Today, I helped her count to twenty in Albanian. I showed her the Albanian alphabet. And, I told her about Zoti (God) and His son, Jesuzi and how much He loves her and cares for her. Then, I gave her some free time to simply draw whatever she wants. And, guess what she spent thirty minutes meticulously drawing? Flowers in a kopesht.
Please pray for Angjila. Please pray for wisdom and discernment. Please pray that we die to our selfish ways and remain available to her… always. Please pray that she is delivered from any and all neglect and abuse. Please pray that somehow, someway, through all the darkness, that she will see the Light of Jesus Christ.
This is the drawing that Angjila finished tonight. Flowers in a garden.
For all of my life I have lived in middle to upper class white suburbia America. Most of my friends were white with a few African-American, Asian, and Hispanic buddies along the way. Rarely, did I ever encounter any discrimination or hostility because of the color of my skin or my nationality. I heard many stories growing up about how black people were treated poorly throughout American history. And, sadly I have observed this same dislike towards Hispanics even today. I can’t say that I have ever been discriminated against. Nor have I intentionally discriminated against others. But, I know there were likely some instances when I may have thought to myself that I was better than someone because they were a different color than me, or lived in a different socio-economic status than I. But, I was never vocal about these thoughts and kept them to myself.
Being in Albania has given me a small glimpse of what many minorities face in America. When I walk past a group of Albanians I can feel the stares behind my back. Their whispers to one another speak volumes. Sometimes young Albanians will gawk at us and loudly jeer, “Hey Americano!” On several occasions we were charged more for an item simply because we’re American. Even though the color of our skin is very similar to Albanians, our family sticks out by the way we look. It is obvious we are either American or Northern European. We are truly minorities here. Everywhere we go, we barely understand what is said. Some Albanians get discouraged with us when we try to understand what they are saying. Traffic signs look foreign and if we make a wrong turn or unintentionally get in the way, we are scoffed at as crazy foreigners. Don’t get me wrong. In general, Albanians are very warm and friendly people. And, it’s not everyday we experience these unfriendly encounters. But, these encounters give me a reminder of what many people face in America. Whether it be the young Hispanic family just arriving in America for the first time; or, whether it be the 70-year old African-American who has faced discrimination his entire life. I am thankful that I have been spared the humiliation of derision and discrimination all of my life. And, although I don’t always enjoy it, I am thankful for God’s gentle reminders that discrimination still exists and nobody is immune to it. It’s real, it’s here, and many injustices are bred from it. There is nothing more I can say to this, except that we must emulate Jesus and take up the cause of those who are treated less than us: the poor, the weak, orphans, widows, and social outcasts. Jesus was there for them and so should we.
Photo of the Roma ladje (neighborhood) by the river.
Yesterday, Dave and I visited a Roma home in mourning over the death of their father, who was also the oldest brother of eight and a grandfather to many. He was 75 years old and died rather unexpectedly. It is customary to visit the family, pay your condolences, sit and talk with the family over a cup of coffee, and leave a small financial gift (500 leke) underneath the empty coffee cup as you leave. Afterwards, we went down to the ladje (neighborhood) situated down by the river and visited with one of the baptized believers there. We had more coffee and talked about what was going on in the neighborhood and some of the injustices that are occurring amongst the Roma people. Just recently, some Roma families were burned out of the neighborhood they were squatting in by the Albanian government. These families and their belongings were destroyed by the fire and they have no place else to go. Before we left we prayed over this brave believer, his family, and his household.
Albania is desperately trying to become a part of the European Union. And, the United States is wanting to help Albania as well. But, Albania has some issues to work out before being allowed into the EU. One of these issues are human rights issues involving the Roma people. The US recently sent some money to Albania to help build a refugee camp with adequate shelter. However, the US and other countries are reluctant to send more money because of the corruption that occurs within the country, concerned that the money might be spent elsewhere. Supposedly, the Albanian government is now in the process of building adequate housing for the Roma community and a lottery is in place to determine a number of families that will move into the camp. We found out last night that one of these families is the believer we visited last night. He is now waiting to be notified by the government to move in.
This reminded me a lot of the plight of the African people of America. For many years they suffered under slavery, injustices, and had no civil rights. It was only in the late 20th century when these injustices began to overturn and the government stepped in to help African Americans get their feet firmly planted on the ground. I now see why many programs are in place and although it is an imperfect system, I am glad to see they no longer suffer the many injustices I now see here in Albania amongst the Roma people. I hope someday the Roma will be afforded the opportunity to have their most basic needs met (adequate housing, food, and healthcare). This should be a collaborative effort of both the government and the church. Sadly, the church is lacking and we need more Christian workers to serve here amongst the Roma.
Please continue to pray for the Roma here in Albania. Please pray the Albanian government will help provide a way for the Roma to begin having a better life. Please pray that any funds coming into Albania for the Roma will truly go to the Roma people. Please pray God will send more Christian missionaries to help serve amongst the Roma. More importantly, please pray that the Roma will see the true joy and happiness found only in Jesus Christ.