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.
On this beautiful day here in Tirane, on the 1st day of the year , I reflect back on the year 2012 with great rejoicing and contemplation. As Frank Sinatra once sang, "It Was a Very Good Year". Looking back, it was indeed a very good year. It was a year where we witnessed a huge move of God right here in our Roma community. Earlier in the year, we saw seven young men (Erjon, Ilir, Indrit, Rildi, Xani, Masarjo, and Ledio) profess a new faith in Jesus Christ. These guys were later baptized and to this day consistently attend our Bible study each week in our home. Some of these guys have even brought visitors with them as they are understanding what it means to go out and make disciples of others. During the summer, we saw three neighbors come into a new relationship with Jesus Christ. One of these believers, Nazifi, whose wife Bona was already a believer, has been very excited about his new faith and is eager to see a community of believers grow in his neighborhood. In November, our friend Bushi, who lives amongst the Roma on the river also professed a new faith in Christ. His wife, Ejla, already a believer, is our househelper who comes to our home four days a week to not only work for an income, but spend one-on-one time being discipled by Marcella. Our teammates Don and Krystal who live about 5 minutes from our home have also seen a handful of men, women, and children come into a new relationship with Jesus this past year. Perhaps the most exciting thing to see is this new community of believers come together and worship as one body. Led by our team leaders, Dave and his wife Julee, this past year we have had a handful of gatherings hosted at our home and at our neighbor Nazifi's house. Each time there has been a sizable gathering of worship, fellowship, and learning as we come together to give honor and praise to our King. These are some exciting times and all of us look forward to seeing what God will continue to do in our community this year.
Compared to more "rougher" places to live, Albania is a relatively easy place to live. But, it can also be at times very difficult especially living in an impoverished community. As a family, God has sustained us and carried us through this year where we had to rely on Him and His grace day-by-day. Although in most part there were many highs this year, there were also some lows worth noting. For example, we experienced the coldest and wettest winter on record in Albania's history last year. As a result of these record freezing temps, our water pipes froze and bursted, leaving us without water for several days. Many days we often experienced complete power outages, leaving us without electricity (and heat) for many hours and sometimes up to a day. We experienced a few problems with our vehicle this year, getting into a few major fender benders (none of which were our fault), and dealing with mechanical problems. Our car is just shy of 10 years old, and we hope it will last several more years here. But, it definitely has taken a beating since being here in Albania. As one friend recently told me, "it has become Albanianized!" The engine light always remains on and it has enough rattles, shakes, and noises to make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sound like a smooth Cadillac.
These lows were certainly offset by many highs. In March, we attended a mandatory team conference in Croatia. This was a wonderful time for our family to reconnect with our team and also spend time visiting a beautiful and unique country. In the summer, we traveled back to the US to reconnect with our family, friends, and supporters for 7 weeks. This was also an opportunity for Morgan to receive a checkup by her neurologist for her Myotonia Congenita. The good news is that she is doing very well and it hasn't progressed much. We also found out her medicine is readily available here in Albania. In September, Coleman and I visited Istanbul for a week, where we got to spend quality one-on-one, father-son, time together. This was a crucial year for Coleman since he officially became a teen for the first time. In October, we spent a few days in Vlore, where we also got to visit some neighboring villages and cities to see the many beautiful sites Albania has to offer.
This year was the year for visitors for us. We had two staff members from our home sending church (121 Community Church) come visit us to offer encouragement, see how we're doing, and to see where we serve. For the first time we finally got to meet our Pioneer's Area Leader from Bosnia, Jim Baumgardner. He spent a week with us, teaching a church-planting conference, spent much time getting to know each other, and planning and praying about the future direction of our time here in Albania. We also received two wonderful ladies from our home sending church who spent a week with us. They got to experience what life is like here and observe the wonderful ministries God already has us involved in. Finally, Marcella's mother and sister recently stayed with us for a week, where our kids spent much quality time with them. They also came bearing many Christmas gifts that we were able to enjoy this season, giving us a small taste of home.
As I sit here and enjoy the sounds of our kids playing together, I am reminded about how adaptable kids are. Perhaps even more so than us adults. Our kids have transitioned extremely well to Albania, where they each have acquired many close friends. We give many praises to the school they attend at GDQ. Without GDQ and the wonderful staff, I'm not convinced our kid's transition would have been as smooth. They each have a few close friends that they often spend time with. I am particularly struck by how close Coleman has become with his fellow classmates, all of which are missionary kids, and how naturally they have all bonded. I see great joy in Coleman's demeanor whenever he is with them. Likewise, both Morgan and Drayton also love their close friends and the thought of any of them leaving for whatever reason saddens them. Each of our kids have one or two local Albanian/Roma friends they have likened to as well. We are very grateful for God's provision in this area of our lives.
Marcella and I had a good year. Health wise, it seems Marcella has acquired some significant allergies by living here. And, I have borderline high blood pressure that I need to be careful with. But, overall our health is fine. We remain united and supportive of one another, eager to see what God will do with us as a married couple, as parents, and diciplers. We already see great opportunities to minister to other parents and married couples here. We each continue in our full time language studies and hope to begin transitioning a bit more into ministry by this summer. Not sure what that will look like quite yet, but are continuing to yield to God's leading on that. Our primary mission is simple... to make disciples and help form a church that is self sustaining and duplicatable. Getting there is what is challenging, but we can only rely on God and His purpose to make that happen.
Looking ahead, over the next 5-6 months I will be praying, planning, networking, and strategizing toward a direction that I feel God is leading me in. I don't want to get into any details yet since at this point it is only a vision. But, let's just say it has to do with something that will offer a long term solution to help the Roma come out of poverty. If God is behind it, then I am certain it will come to fruition. As things move along and come together I will share this with you in greater detail. In the meantime, please be praying for discernment and wisdom as I begin moving in this direction.
Finally, we hope 2013 will be a better year than 2012 for many of you. I know of several people who were laid off and are suffering economic hardship... I am confident God will provide. I also know of several who are going through trials of cancer and other illnesses... I pray God will truly heal you. Furthermore, I am grieved by certain events that occurred in my home country last year. Violence and anger has seemingly permeated our land. I hope more lives will be spared both in the womb and outside of the womb. I hope Americans will become more united. And, I hope the church in America will become more involved. There is no greater time than now for the church in America to become more engaged with society. Making change not through legislation or petty politics, but by getting into the trenches of society. Getting their hands and knees dirty, meeting people where they are and effecting their lives in such a way that people truly want to know more about this man of peace we call Jesus.
In America, when someone chooses to follow Jesus, not much is at stake in the way of danger or persecution. For this, I have been very fortunate and thankful to live in a country with such religious freedom as this. However, in places like Albania where we currently live, when someone chooses to make this same choice they must also give serious consideration to the cost. They know this is not some spontaneous decision to be made based on some emotional plea or moving speech made by an evangelist. They know they may very well be ostracized and teased by others in their community for their new faith in Jesus. And, in some cases they may be disowned or shunned by their own family members.
Two weeks ago, four young men made a public profession of their belief in Jesus Christ. I peered into the eyes of one of these young men that I have recently been discipling as he thought through what it means to become a Christian. And, for a fleeting moment I believe I sensed some fear and apprehension in him as he truly considered the cost. This week, one other young man has surrendered his life to Christ. Covered in tattoos wearing a mohawk, he comes from the "rougher side of town" where drugs and gangs are the norm. He is proud to be a new resident in the kingdom of God and knows what this may entail as he goes back each day to face his friends. Considering the cost.
One of the young men who has been coming to our Bible study who is not a believer... yet, comes from a Muslim home. He tells me his parents are Muslim and he is having to be careful to come to our gatherings. Considering the cost. Another young man who recently professed a belief in Christ has been proudly displaying his necklace with a cross on it to show everyone that he is a new Christian. Last week, a man approached him and angrily ripped the necklace off of his neck saying he didn't "want to see that shit around here!". Considering the cost. And, one other young man who is also a Muslim has been consistently attending our gatherings for numerous months. He tells us he believes that Jesus existed, is real, but is not certain He is the Son of God. Nevertheless, he is drawn to our gatherings each week to hear more about this man we call Jesus. Considering the cost.
I am laying witness to what I believe is a great move of God here in our little obscure neighborhood in east Tirane. I am humbled by the young men that God has placed into my life; both those who are new believers in Christ, and those who are earnestly seeking the Truth. I have seen with my own eyes the transforming power of God in these men's lives. And, even though I am supposed to be the teacher who is bringing a message of hope to them, they are in fact teaching me many things. Namely, what it means to truly consider the cost to become a disciple of Christ. I firmly believe these young men will someday become the core of what will become a new church in our community, and who will one day be a great light upon this dark neighborhood. A light where people will see the never ending love, grace, and hope found only in Jesus Christ.
* If you think about it, will you please pray for: Rildi, Erjon, Ledio, Indrit, and Ilir. These are the young men that have recently considered the cost and surrendered their lives to Christ. But, please also pray for Sabi and Masarjo who are both Muslim and are being drawn to Christ, but still have questions and are uncertain at this time.
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.
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.
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.
Roma dancing at local celebration.
Local Roma burying their dead
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance."
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)
Within just several days I have laid witness to many good and joyful things, while at the same time many sad and despairing things. On Sunday, Marcella and I were invited to a local Albanian home to join in the festivities of celebrating the birth of a newborn son. This same festivity also celebrated the birthday of a local Roma man who turned 30 years old. There was much joy and laughter, as we feasted on roasted lamb, potatoes, cabbage, and tasty red wine. There was also a live Roma band along with dancing as we all celebrated this wonderful gift of life.
Then, yesterday we received word that a local Roma man just down the street from us had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. I had just seen this man an hour before he died. He was only 48 years old. Roma mourn a bit differently than we Americans do. There was no invitation and everyone within the neighborhood showed up to pay their respects today at the mother's home. They were all dressed in black and many women were wailing and lamenting loudly in despair. Waves of people made their way to the buses and drove to the local cemetery to bury the dead man's body in a formal funeral ceremony. Within minutes the event was over and everyone made their way back home. The mood remained somber all throughout the day today.
Weeping. Laughing. Mourning. Dancing. Perhaps Solomon was on to something when he wrote this lovely and thought-provoking passage from Ecclesiastes. Life begins. Life ends. Life can be very short and brief. Life can be very long and eternal. It is indeed the circle of life. There is joy here, but there is also much despair. I pray for the Roma that they will someday see the Light of Jesus Christ shine ever so brightly upon this community and upon each of their faces. Will you please pray with me?
Greg teaching local Roma and Albanian boys how to play a new sport.
Right now our primary focus is language learning while at the same time developing relationships. Developing relationships with the Roma is perhaps the single most effective form of ministry. They value relationships, togetherness, and "face-time" more than actual learning in a structured teacher/student environment (i.e. church, school, Bible study, etc).
Over the next year or so, I will be earnestly seeking God's will for our ministry here in the Roma community we live in. I will be observing what the greatest need is in our community, prayer walking, and asking local Roma believers for their input.
I found out today from our Team Leader that one of these biggest needs in the Roma community is ministry amongst pre-adolescent boys. These young boys ages 8-13 are perhaps the most impressionable years of a boys life. This is because it is not too uncommon for boys to get married by the time they are 13 years old. Once they get married they are usually much harder to reach since they are busy working and trying to provide for their new families.
Sadly, most Roma boys have no father figure in their lives. Their fathers are typically not involved and therefore have no positive role model from which to emulate. Roma boys are usually left to survive on their own, usually leading to drug addictions, alcoholism, gangs, and a promiscuous lifestyle.
A life with Christ and a positive male role model for these boys would certainly change things for them. I possibly envision a Boy Scout type program for these boys, introducing them to recreational activities and outdoor camping. Also, instilling godly values as being: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent (the Boy Scout Law). All of these things, along with frequent Bible stories, would be used to point them to a personal relationship with Christ.
Perhaps this will be a future ministry for me. I don't know. It's something to prayerfully consider over the next year or so. Will you please help pray with me over this? Also, please continue to pray for our language learning acquisition so we can quickly begin ministering and serving the Roma community.