I remember growing up as a kid, living in an affluent neighborhood in suburban America, and all the innocent fun I had. My friends and I lived precariously through one another, freely roaming the streets of our neighborhood on our bikes and skateboards. We would play outside all day; football, basketball, soccer, hunting, fishing, Hot Wheels, Star Wars action figures, you name it. Often times our parents allowed us to stay out way past dark during the hot summer Texas nights. This is when the fun really got good where we played hide n' seek and my favorite... German Spotlight. This was a time when America was a bit different from what it is today... or so it seemed. A time when people left their doors unlocked, sitting outside drinking iced tea, kids weren't getting kidnapped, and sexual predators didn't lurk around every corner. Perhaps it was my youthful innocence that blinded me to some of these things, but life was fun and there was absolutely no danger.
However, there were always a few neighborhoods in our part of town where my parents rightfully told us to never go into. These neighborhoods often were found on the outskirts of our community and were usually comprised of lower working class people. Most of these neighborhoods consisted of minorities such as Hispanics and African-Americans. It was usually in these neighborhoods where crime seemed higher, including news reports of murder, kidnapping, gang activity, and drugs. Many of these types of neighborhoods still exist throughout America today. And, ever since my childhood I have always been afraid to venture into them, avoiding them at all costs. Even as an adult I recall finding myself lost a time or two in these types of neighborhoods; both in south Dallas and Northeast Houston and remembering my heart palpitating a bit faster as I tried to quickly navigate my way out of them. I still avoid these neighborhoods even as a 45-year old grown man. I have great fear of these neighborhoods. And, if I am real honest with myself I likely fear the people that live there too.
Now imagine these same types of neighborhoods in Albania. Places where as a white Albanian your parents always told you to never go into. Like America, most of these places are comprised of the lower working class, namely "black people". These black people in Albania are better known as Roma or gypsies. It is in these neighborhoods where your parents told you there is murder, violence, drugs, gangs, and kidnappings. One white Albanian once shared with us that his parents told him it is in these neighborhoods where you will get kidnapped, beheaded, and all of your belongings will be sold as merchandise. Even as missionaries to the Roma, living in one of these Roma neighborhoods, on several occasions we were admonished by white Albanians that we shouldn't live here. It's way too dangerous and we could get killed. The same fears that I had both as a kid and adult in America exists among many white Albanians here in... well... Albania.
The main reason why I am sharing all of this is that I have been greatly inspired in many ways by several white Albanian men and women who have been put into my life. They have demonstrated to me what it looks like to overcome fears and prejudices. Over the course of several years, these two men have joined us in ministry to the Roma. They have ventured out of their comfort zones and are serving in these "dangerous" neighborhoods. It's a big deal to see a white Albanian to not only go into a Roma neighborhood/community, but to converse with, make peace with, and show love to the Roma. And, it is I believe, a sign of a transformed life by way of the power of the Holy Spirit that now resides in these great men and women of faith.
I am firstly inspired by my good friend and brother in Christ, Anri. He has been an integral part of our ministry to the Roma. He and his wife Dori lived in our home located in the heart of a Roma community while we were away for two months. Not only did they live in our home, but while we were gone they made many new friends with the Roma, helping to lead several of them into a new found faith in Christ. Anri and Dori have also ventured into other Roma communities much poorer than where we lived, developing new relationships, and showing and sharing the love of Christ to them. Anri and Dori have even prodded their church into becoming more active in their faith in reaching the "least of these". Many of the Roma that have encountered Christ through Anri have a great respect for him. And, this is powerful. There has been no greater example of the love and power of Christ that I have seen thus far here in Albania than what I have seen through both Anri and Dori.
I am also greatly inspired by another Albanian believer that I have come to know in recent months. His name is Genis, and he pastors a small church here in the heart of Tirana. His church was one of several that we met with in raising awareness about the Roma. Over much prayer and consideration, Genis and his church agreed to adopt a large Roma community in south Tirana. A small group of believers from this church were eager to begin serving their newly adopted Roma community. For whatever reason this group hasn't transpired yet. But, this hasn't deterred Genis from pursuing the Roma community that he has committed to. Not only is he shepherding and leading his church, which is a large task in of itself, but he alone is taking the time to go out to his adopted Roma community each week, meeting with new families, drinking coffee with them, and finding ways to reach out to them with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I have enjoyed watching this young man be guided by the Holy Spirit, overcoming his own fears, and seeing the new relationships that have already begun to form.
Too often we missionaries from the West come to foreign lands assuming we have all the answers, dispensing all the knowledge we have obtained to those less "enlightened" than us. Oh, how wrong can we be. We have a lot to learn from them. Not only from the very people we are reaching and serving. But, from those who are a part of the Body of Christ comprised of men and women from every tongue and nation. I have learned a great deal from Anri and Genis, my Albanian brothers in Christ. Seeing their love in action and seeing their own fears be demolished. I don't know that I will ever find myself thrust into those off limit neighborhoods back in America. Perhaps I will someday. But, if I do I will have two men that will always remain in my memory... Anri and Genis. And, I will know, because of their examples, that it is indeed possible to overcome both our fears and our prejudices, allowing others to see the love of Christ more clearly.
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.
As I write this I hear the Muslim call to prayer out our front window. Five times a day we hear the Muezzin call out from atop the minaret at the mosque just 400 meters from our home. It’s always a stark reminder why we are here. Today is the 27th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In Albania it is called Ramazan. And, many Albanians observe and recognize this festive and somber time of the year. Most Albanians identify themselves as Muslim from a heritage that stems from living under the tutelage of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for 500 years. Therefore, Ramazan is more of a tradition here rather than a strict religious observance.
For Albanian Muslims, their day starts very early during Ramazan. Roma (Gypsy) men and children come out into the streets beating their drums at 3am in the morning. This is to wake everyone up so they can rise and eat before the fast begins at sunrise. Then, when sunrise begins, Albanian Muslims refrain from eating and drinking for most of the day. Muslims fast for two reasons during this time: to be near the poor, and to become closer to Allah. As the sun begins to set, Roma Gypsies will take to the streets once again with drums in their hands to remind Muslims that their fast is over. It is during this time that Albanian Muslims will gather their families together to feast and celebrate. This time of gathering and feasting is called Iftar. Iftar is also a good opportunity for the Roma to collect alms, as Muslims usually give out leke (Albanian currency) to the poor.
Several days from now will mark the end of Ramazan. The last day of this holy month is called Eid. Eid is perhaps the most important day of this holy month. Muslims from all around the world gather in unity to pray at their local mosques. They do not fast during this day and partake in as many acts of charity that they can. During this day is when the Roma go throughout the city with their drums and flutes collecting more alms from observant Muslims. Eid in Albania is called Bajram and is actually a national holiday where most places will be closed for the day.
Because we work primarily with Roma Gypsies, Ramazan has been a good opportunity to share with them about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Reminding them Jesus came to give good news to the poor (Luke 4:18) and to give life and life abundantly (John 10:10). Ironically, in a couple more months Albanian Muslims will celebrate what is called the greater Eid (Kurban Bajrami) which recognizes the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened with a sacrificial lamb. What a perfect illustration of the ultimate lamb who was sacrificed for all of us in order that we may live, including for our Muslim neighbors who know Him not (Romans 5:8).
Please pray for the Roma of Albania and that they will see the true sacrificial Lamb of God through this holy season.
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.
About a month ago, I finished reading a book by one of my favorite Christian authors, Max Lucado. The title of this book is “God Came Near”, arguably his best written and perhaps most popular book. One of the chapters in this book he aptly names “Women of Winter” in which he recollects the biblical stories of several women whose lives were deeply changed by their encounter with Jesus. These were not your ordinary women, certainly not the pillars of their communities. In fact, they were shunned from society, social outcasts, untouchables. There is the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman who had a bleeding problem, and of course the harlot who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet. Three women. One rejected. One dying. One lonely. By the world’s standards these three women could give nothing in return. They’d served their purpose: borne their children, fed their families, pleased their men. Now it was time to push them out into the cold until they died, making room for the young and spotless. That’s where Jesus found them. Shivering in the icy sleet of uselessness. The raw winter of life.
As I was reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of a particular Roma lady in our neighborhood. Her name is Zana. To most people around here she is a nobody. An outcast. Poor. Too many kids. A beggar. A nuisance. In fact, her own husband has pushed her out of his home along with her seven children. Were these children all from the same father? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have my doubts. Ironically, Zana also has a disability. She can barely walk with a pronounced limp to her step. And although she is likely not much older than 30 years old, she looks like she is at least 50 with tanned leathered skin and wrinkles spread across her face. Zana can be found in the center of town each day, with a blanket spread out upon the sidewalk as she sits down with her hand held out begging for money. Somehow through all of this hardship she manages a smile on her face each time we see her. She has invited us into her shack of a home and served us coffee while her little children are playing in the trash heap behind her home where flies and feces can be found. She never seems to worry much about what ails her or her family. There seems to be a confidence that carries her each step of the way. I am deeply moved by the tenacity of this little woman.
Society doesn’t know what to do with these women. Sadly, even the Church doesn’t know what to do with them either. These women might find a warmer reception at the corner bar or tavern than in a Sunday school class. But, Jesus would find a place for them. He would find a place for them because He cares. And He cares unconditionally. No one would have blamed Jesus for ignoring the three women. To have turned His head would have been much easier, less controversial, and not nearly as risky. But God, who made them, couldn’t do that. And we, who follow Him, can’t either.
To the woman at the well:
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13-14)
To the bleeding woman:
Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:22)
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3)
Roma rummaging through trash heap.
In 2008 I had the opportunity to serve the poorest of poor. There is a people group in Honduras known as, "the people of the dump" who literally live, eat, work, and sleep in the city trash dump. Inside this trash dump there exists disease, human excrement, germs; where people can be found working near mangy dogs, cows, and vultures. The smell is nauseating and the flies are numerous. Many people have called it, "Hell on earth". Here in Albania there exists something similar. Although the Roma don't live in a city trash dump, they live right on the banks of a river that acts as a city trash dump. People from all around come here to eliminate their trash in this small neighborhood that seems hidden from the rest of society. Like Honduras, disease, feces, and germs exist here. Mangy dogs can be seen fighting over half-eaten food. Adults and kids often rummage through this trash seeing what they can round up for themselves. In fact, their houses are made from this same scrap material. I can't imagine waking up everyday to this life. It's no wonder many of the Roma revert to alcohol and drugs... draining out their depression and hopelessness. They often ask, "Where is God in all of this? He's not here." Hell on earth.
Alleyway in Roma neighborhood.
Jesus often spoke about hell throughout the Gospels. We get the English word "hell" from the Greek "Gehenna". And, Gehenna means "Valley of Hinnom" (Nehemiah 11:30). During Jesus' time, this was a literal place existing on the outskirts of the city of Jerusalem. It is believed this place acted as the city trash dump. It was also the place that many pagans sacrificed children to their gods (2 Chronicles 33:6). Here, there was "gnashing of teeth" often associated with dogs fighting for scraps. Fires were used to burn corpses and other waste. Jesus' audience included 1st century Jews, and they knew of this place that He often spoke of. They associated it with a place nobody dare venture into. It was for all intents and purposes... Hell on earth.
Three boys from the Roma neighborhood.
I don't want to get into some theological discussion about hell. There is enough of that already going on. But, what I do want to focus on is the hell that many people are already living here on earth right now. It's hard to imagine places like this actually exist. Especially during this 21st-century we live in, with the numerous technological advances and modern comforts we have. We have the ability to tap into resources we've never had before. We have the ability to end poverty, hunger, and disease. And although there are a great many organizations and ministries already doing this, there is not enough. Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God more than any other topic. And, I believe Jesus equipped us with the ability to bring the kingdom of God to people who are living in hell on earth... now. He charged us with caring for "the least of these". As I gaze upon the Roma neighborhood and see a lone naked child rummaging through the trash, I am overwhelmed with raw emotion. I ask myself "Why?!". Why, does this dear child deserve this? I don't have an answer. But, I know that the only way this child will be helped is by God calling out more people from the comforts of their own lives and bringing them here to work. Bringing the kingdom of God to these people. Letting the light of Jesus Christ pierce the darkness they now live in.
Roma hous made of scrap material.
Please, will you prayerfully consider joining in this work? Consider this a plea. We don't need money... yet. We need people. We need you. We need people who believe in the words of Christ to care for the poor, the widow, and orphans. The message of love, grace, and compassion. The message of hope that cannot be found in programs, organizations, or strategies, but only in Jesus Christ. We need people willing to jump into the trenches, get their hands dirty, and help lift up the very people that Jesus is drawn to. Mother Theresa once said, "First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise amongst the poor." We see Jesus everyday in the Roma begging in the streets of Tirane. We see Jesus in the naked Roma boy digging through the trash heap. We see Jesus in the drunk Roma man wallowing in his sorrows on the side of the alley. And, we see Jesus in the helpless Roma woman who is beaten by her husband. Will you join us? Will you come see Jesus with us?
"The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
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.