Angry. Sad. Grateful. Compassion.
These are some of the emotions and feelings expressed by many of the precious little children that watched our video about the Roma at this week's VBS.
Hundreds of children came through our classroom this week to see and hear about our work among the Roma in Albania. They learned about what a missionary does, who the Roma are, where Albania is, and how they could help... in a tangible way.
One child said that when he grows up he is coming to Albania to start a new school. Another said that he wants to bring cars to Albania so that the Roma can get around town. One girl said that she is going to bring new homes to Albania. And, another boy said that he is going to stop complaining when his parents ask him to do chores. Yet another girl said she doesn't want any more toys because the Roma kids don't have any.
From the mouths of babes.
The name of our project at this week's VBS was Hapa Dollapa. Albanian for open the closet. A kid's game in Albania much like hide n' seek. But, this was also the name that we chose for a pantry that we are establishing for our tiny Roma community we work in. A closet that will contain food, medicine, diapers, clothes, blankets, wood for heating, and other basic necessities that the Roma lack but need on a daily basis.
For many of the children at VBS, it was the first time they saw poverty. And, it spurred them to action. Over $4000 was raised this week. I was told that many children simply brought in their allowance with pockets full of loose change. One boy said that all he had was a quarter. And one girl joyfully proclaimed she brought $10 million dollars!
No matter how much or how little was brought in by each child, it was seeing their hearts and the joy on their faces that was humbling to see.
Jesus had a special liking to children. And, it is obvious why. He said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)
So, thank you for allowing us to see a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven this week... through the precious mouths of babes.
Here in Albania, it is quite common for households to own and raise chickens and roosters, among several other farm animals like goats, sheep, and cows. We ourselves live between two houses with these animals. Often throughout the day, we hear goats bleating, cows mooing, and... roosters crowing. Aside from being awakened by the loud call of the rooster each day, it recently prodded me to reflect upon something a bit more profound.
He is perhaps one of the greatest and most well known disciple of Jesus. Known to be zealous, strong, present at Pentecost, taking the Gospel throughout Jerusalem, the Roman Empire, and becoming the leader of the first church in Rome. A man on fire, in love with Jesus, bold, a protector of the Messiah, and eager to see the Good News of Jesus transcend upon the known world of his time. He was so moved and made alive by Jesus that tradition states when he was later executed at the hands of Roman persecutors, he refused to die like his savior and insisted that he be crucified upside down on the cross.
Peter. The rock. The very man that Jesus told he would build his church upon and that the gates of Hades would not prevail (Matt. 16:18).
But sadly, he is also more known for something else. A bit more dark. Sinister. Less heroic. Weak. Lacking in integrity. And human.
It all centers around a rooster's crow. We all know the story. Here is the text:
"Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
This is the same man and only disciple to publicly declare Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). The same man who told Jesus that he loves him, not once, not twice, but three times (John 21:15-17). And yet, Peter denied Jesus just as many times as he said that he loved him.
What a coincidental paradox.
Peter said he loves Jesus three times. Peter denies Jesus three times. And, Peter realizes this after the rooster crows... three times.
And, still Jesus forgives Peter, loves Peter, and even laid his life down for him. The incomprehensible and unfathomable grace and love of God.
Here is something worth pondering...
Peter went on to live another thirty years after Jesus. Much of this later part of his life is described in the Book of Acts, as an early leader and planter of churches in Jerusalem, and beyond the borders of Israel into Rome.
How often do you suppose he heard a rooster crow during these later years of his life?
While passing through the streets and markets of Jerusalem. While on the road to Rome. While napping on the seashore of the Mediterranean. While trekking through the hills of northern Italy. While laying in wait in an obscure jail cell in Jerusalem. Being awakened at the early dawn sunrise of a Tuscan sun.
A rooster crows. His eyes open. He turns his ear. What did he hear? What was that? A rooster crowing off in the distance.
What goes through the mind of a man who once denied the Savior of the world three times?
Or, did Peter feel something else? Something more freeing and liberating.
A reminder of grace.
How often do we hear our own roosters crowing from a former time in our life and are reminded of something we would rather forget?
The hardened heart.
The angry spirit.
The taunting of a classmate.
The feelings of revenge.
The adulterous affairs.
The ugly divorce.
The embellishment of our achievements.
The failure of significant relationships.
The destructive lifestyle.
The false hopes.
The obsession of high achievement.
The betrayal of a friend.
When you hear your own rooster crowing how do you feel? What feelings do they invoke? How do you respond?
It is my own opinion that Peter's life was a reflection of how he felt about the rooster's crow. He was truly a man in love with Jesus. A man that experienced an unconditional love like no other, forgiveness, and a joy that transformed his entire being. And, these, I believe spoke much louder to him than the mere crow of a rooster.
I don't think there is nothing wrong of being occasionally reminded of our past. Because it gives us a wonderful reminder of where we once came from... and where we are now... and only by the grace of a loving God.
So, the next time you hear your own rooster crowing. Stop. Smile. And, give thanks and glory to God for delivering you from a dark time in your life to a life of light into God's extraordinary Kingdom.
It's easy to point out the negatives that can be found in our society. Every country has them. But, just as there are negatives to be found, there are also many positives to every country. Although I have only lived in Albania for three years, and can easily point out a number of negative things, I can just as easily point out the positives. Albania is beautiful, with its stunning mountains and glistening sandy beaches. The people, in general, are friendly and welcoming. And, despite the poverty in Albania, there is a sense of joy and freedom that you don't find in a lot of places around the world. But, more than the beauty of this country and the general warmness of its people, Albanians have taught me a few key life lessons that I have learned. Lessons that I wish to keep with me for the rest of my life, even when I move from Albania to wherever else the Lord may take me someday. So, here are five of these life lessons that I have learned and value.
1) Slow down. The number one thing I have learned by living in Albania is to slow down. Albanians have a word for this: Avash avash (slowly slowly). Stop what you're doing to drink a coffee. Drive slower. Walk to places. Take a nap. If you have to be somewhere by 7:00pm, make it 7:30pm... it's okay. Don't devour your food at the table and leave. Instead, nibble and stay longer to talk. Calendar? Pfft. Who needs a calendar? What happens is what happens. Make firm plans for Thursday? Kismet (fate will decide). Need your car back from the mechanic by tomorrow? It may be several days. Don't worry. Enjoy life. Slow down.
2) Friends and family. Traffic comes to a complete stop when two Albanians who know each other stop to say hello. When two Albanians greet each other, they hug and kiss both cheeks. When you ask, "How are you?" it is not a rhetorical question. They genuinely want to know how you are doing. Then proceed to ask, "How is your family? How are your children? How is work? Are you with good health?". When you pay a bill, hire an electrician, or meet a new friend, you must first drink a coffee with them. Get to know them, where they are from, and how many family members they have, how long have they been married. Dominoes? It's not a competition, it is a common means for a group of friends to gather together and talk about politics or sports. And, here is the big one: Cafes are NOT about the coffee. They are an EXPERIENCE. It is a place to talk, meet, and laugh with friends and family. Coffee is just a bonus.
3) Improvise. Lack of resources have caused Albanians to improvise with what little they have. And, they do it well. Car breaks down? Tighten a few screws, clean the part, use aluminum foil to make a casket, use the nuts and bolts from the old Mercedes to fix the newer Audi. Part doesn't quite fit? Bend it, pound on it, it will fit. If its broke, don't throw it out quite yet, it can likely be used for something else. Old and worn out? Don't rush out to buy a new one, we may be able to fix it or modify it to make it last a few more years.
4) Community relationship. When someone dies in the neighborhood, the entire neighborhood gathers together to mourn and show their respect. When someone gets married, the entire neighborhood is invited to join in the pre-wedding celebration. And WOW, Albanians know how to celebrate weddings. When something needs fixed or repaired in the home or business, it becomes a community affair. When the electricity goes out, the community finds ways to get it restored. When the chicken gets out, the community helps to find it, catch it, and bring it back to its rightful owner. It's about serving one another. Blessing and being blessed. Giving and receiving. In fact, the Albanian word for relationship is "marredhenie", which literally means take and give. It's about serving one another. It's about community.
5) Value things. Albanians value their cars, homes, and... get ready for it... their shoes. It used to really bother me when I get behind an Albanian driver who stops at every nook and cranny on the road or the smallest speed bump. Now, I know why they do it. They want their cars to last longer. Albanians spend a lot of time cleaning their homes, mopping their floors, and flogging their carpets. Why? Because they value their home. And, shoes? Good quality shoes are hard to find here. So, they take special care of their shoes in order that they last longer and look nice. There are other things that Albanians value. But, my lesson learned? Value and take good care of what little you may have. They can save you lots of money and headaches too.
Five life lessons that I hope to take with me wherever I go. Thank you Albania.
For the past few months I have been sensing something. I don't know exactly what it is. I can't quite place it. But, there is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. A sense of not knowing what the next step in ministry to the Roma will be, and what exactly I am supposed to be doing.
You see, for the past three years since we have been here, it seems everything has been relatively clear. We have been moving forward in the ways that God has been leading us. Praying, thinking, learning, teaching, scrambling, meeting, discerning, advocating, discipling, developing, reassessing, changing, buying, feeding, clothing, transporting, going, leaving, and so on. Everything has seemingly fallen into place. A lot has been gained: Pioneering into new Roma communities, numerous relationships with Roma and Albanians, the acquisition of a new (and difficult) language, cultural understanding, raising awareness about the Roma, advocating for Roma communities and their families, marching in protests for housing, a couple of small programs initiated, some churches prodded to help, a few new disciples made, and seeing the natural development of a team that has been a part of these efforts here.
Don't get me wrong, these are wonderful things and it's been awe inspiring to see all of this transpire over the past few years. And, I truly can say with complete confidence, that it was a move of the Holy Spirit upon people and upon this city.
But, here is where the uncertainty comes in. I feel I have lost my breath a bit. Perhaps I have gotten ahead of myself. I'm not burnt out. But, I feel I have lost some momentum and steam. I have recently been met with some resistance and obstacles. Hit another wall. Lacking a bit of motivation. Discouraged. And, I've even found myself becoming slightly jaded and cynical toward the very people I am supposed to love and serve. And, I absolutely refuse to succumb to that.
As a result, this has caused me to pull back on the brakes a bit. And, pause...
Ironically, during this past month of uncertainty and pause, there have been people in my life who have and continue to speak very deeply to me. A mentor, a group of friends, a ministry partner, my Area Leader. A few books that I have recently read and continue to read are speaking to me as well. As a result I have come to the conclusion that I may be entering into a new season of life and ministry here in Albania. I can't quite pin it down. But, it looks like a season of simply being and listening. Not always feeling compelled to do, but to simply be and listen. Listen for God's direction and guidance. Listening for my Shepherd's voice. What is He telling me to do? I wonder how long this will take. Because, it's been over a month and I haven't heard from Him. Did he go on an early summer break? Was He tired of all of this rain we have been having and did He bail out?
I, of course, am being cynical. But, this is also a small glimpse into what I am honestly feeling... silence. Nothing. Nada. Crickets chirping. A bit of frustration and confusion. Sadness. Uncertainty.
I know I am wrestling and struggling through some things right now. And, maybe this is precisely where God wants me. To go through this struggle, where there will also likely be some suffering and pain. Because it has been painful. And, not everyone can understand that... but God.
So, here I am. I've come to the conclusion that I am now to enter into this new season. I can't say I am elated by it. I do tend to get restless and impatient. I'm a doer not a waiter. After all, I come from a results-oriented society. Things need to get done. The thought of doing nothing but being still and listening is incomprehensible. But, as I am learning to yield to the Spirit and walk by faith, this is clearly where God wants me right now. And, I need to be good with that. I need to just be obedient to it. So, here I am. I am letting go of my own agendas, visions, methods, goals, and desires. In part, I am dying to self. And, letting God... be who He is and do what He does best. Therefore, I surrender myself into this new season of simply... being and listening.
Something dawned on me today as I was having coffee with a Roma friend of mine at a local cafe. As we were talking I was hearing R.E.M. belt out the familiar tune, "The One I Love" over the cafe's loudspeakers. I couldn't help but acquiesce to this song for just a brief moment of acknowledgement with a quick bop of my head and a grin. This song was then followed by a string of other familiar 70's and 80's rock/pop music. Artists such as: Van Halen, The Pet Shop Boys, The Eagles, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Foreigner, and many more that took me back to my younger days. As a child of the 70's and 80's I was thoroughly enjoying this brief moment of musical heaven with my friend who was likely clueless as to why I had that corny smile on my face.
So, I got to thinking how common it is to hear this genre and style of music playing in many cafes throughout Tirana. Because, it's a pretty good chance you will hear 70's/80's music in just about every cafe you walk into here.
And, now I think I have a theory why....
Albanians were not aware of this wonderful style of music during communism, since the country was completely closed off to the rest of the known world during that time. It was only after communism fell (1991) were Albanians introduced to this music for the very first time. And, even then it took many years after to hear the full variety of this music since the infrastructure within Albania was quite poor and underdeveloped. So, while the rest of the world was listening to and enjoying new 90's and 2000's music, Albanians were just being introduced to 70's and 80's music. It seems to me that 70's/80's music is still relatively new to them even to this day. And, it seems to have stuck with them.
Which is fine by me. Because there is nothing like drinking a hot makiato in Tirana with a Roma friend while listening to A Flock of Seagulls piping over the speakers.
It's hard to believe we hit our 3-year anniversary here in Albania this month. A lot has happened in these first three years, some good, some bad, but all as God had intended. We have already learned and experienced so much in this small span of time that would otherwise have taken us a lifetime to know.
We've learned a second language and a second culture (and still learning). What its like to live as a foreigner in a strange land. We have learned that our kids are more easily adaptable and content than their parents.
We've seen live cows, lambs, and chickens slaughtered for food before our very eyes (that was different). We have experienced the taste of Turkish coffee, raki, sufflaqe, and qofte and found them to be quite delectable. But, we are often reminded how we miss the familiar tastes (and smells) of an American cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake.
We have relished the beauty of Albania's majestic snow-capped mountains. And, have floated in the turquoise blue water of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
We learned that flexibility has taken on a whole new different meaning. And, that daily calendar plans really don't work much here. Spontaneity is the norm.
We learned that we needed to make our home our refuge rather than the always open door policy we originally came here with. We know what its like to be shivering cold and miserably hot... living in an uninsulated home. And, we now know what its like to go months with a broken plumbing system and daily power outages.
We've seen what community really looks like and participate in the daily lives of our neighbors. We have made some good friends (both foreign and domestic) that we cherish and will likely never forget.
We have heard the wailing and cries of new widows. But, we have also seen great joy and beauty at the marriages of newly wedded brides and grooms.
We've learned that missions is not all warm and fuzzy. That discipling can be very messy, unorganized, and takes a lot of time. And, that there is really no one right way to do it.
We have seen injustices, corruption, violence, neglect, abuse, and discrimination. And, it is horrifying. We've seen the ravages of communism and a nation who is now struggling to find its identity in a free democracy.
We have learned what living in poverty looks like up close and very personal. We've seen little Roma children with distended bellies, rummaging through trash, and eating food scraps from dumpsters. We've seen, felt, and experienced the very real hurts, pains, and anguish of those we are serving. Seeing Roma mothers who can't afford to care for their children and hand them over to a children's home. We have seen what hopelessness and despair looks like. Watching men without work wasting away their lives on alcohol, drugs, or gambling.
We've seen that God changes us, our views, our priorities in life, and how He can easily change our direction. And, knowing how vital it is to yield to the Spirit and rely on God because we genuinely and truly need Him to get us through each day.
And, even though life can be challenging living and working in Albania, we still seem to love it here. Somehow through these first few years we have never felt forgotten or abandoned. We are affirmed each day by God and by the encouragement and faithfulness of those that support us.
This is where God needs us at this moment in time. It's not always delightful. But, we are in awe at how God is working in the lives of those who don't even know they are being touched by the very hand of God. And, that is a cool sight to behold. And, we want to see more.
It is our desire to see people rescued, redeemed, renewed, and entirely transformed in Christ. And, it is this that motivates us and keeps us in this great race.
Thank you for these first three years. We wouldn't have changed the story. These are three years we would never take back.
And now, we eagerly await to see how God will write the next three years...
There is a passage in the Bible that REALLY scares me.
For years it has raised a bit of fear and worry from within. The text is haunting and I know many of my friends who say the same thing. It has been the subject of great debate, theological equations, and has questioned if whether or not we are truly "once saved and always saved".
But, most recently I had a revelation of sorts that has dispelled these fears and conundrums. Call it an epiphany. Intuition. Or insight from the Holy Spirit. But, whatever it is, it has since affirmed what I should have already known about God.
Here is the spooky passage in question:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
For years I thought to myself, there is no assurance, no matter what I say, do, or how I live my life that I will enter into the kingdom of heaven. That I can be professing with my mouth, proclaiming Christ to the ends of the earth, making disciples, planting churches, serving the least of these, caring for the sick, the poor, the destitute and still not make it through the pearly gates of Heaven when the time comes. I can spend hours praying, reading my Bible, memorizing verses, going to seminary, and preaching dynamic sermons, and still be turned away. I can be a Billy Graham or a Mother Theresa and still not be recognized by my Savior. Ouch! That hurts.
What then can we ever say or do that will appease the Judge?
The first part of this passage tells us that there will be people, assuming most will be Christian, coming before King Jesus informing Him that they have proclaimed His name, given lip-service, and perhaps said some really cool things about Jesus. The second part of this passage describes a people coming before King Jesus pleading their case about how much they have done for His kingdom: prophesying, driving out demons, healing... and who knows what else. Perhaps these same Christians with good intentions have studied their Bibles, know their theology, helped rebuild homes for the poor, given a hot meal to the needy, volunteered at the orphanage, and given thousands of dollars to charity.
Super Christians with a capital "S" embroidered upon their chests.
Surely, these Christians who have proclaimed the name of Christ and have done many great things in His name will be counted among those with whom Christ will say, "Well done thy good and faithful servants". Surely, many crowns will be awaiting to be placed upon their heads while a great multitude of angels sing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. A glorious day that many believers look forward to.
A day when Jesus says to them:
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
((sound of a record scratching))
Wrong line. Can you say that again, please?
"Away from me, you evildoers!"
Wait a minute.
You mean to tell me that we can say and do many things in the name of Jesus and still not be guaranteed eternal life in the kingdom of heaven? There's got to be something we're missing here.
There is a small snippet from this passage that we often overlook and pass off as a smug remark from Jesus. It's subtle. Easily overlooked. Read into something else. But, it is KEY. It is the ANSWER. It is this:
"I never knew you."
Let those words sink in. Read it very slowly.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
I'm reminded of the father who goes off to work everyday at 5am every morning and doesn't come home until after dark. He's a hard worker and has climbed up the corporate ladder. Making a six-digit figure income. He provides for his family. Always food on the table. They have a nice house with a pool. Two cars. The kids have all the latest and cool toys. He serves at church and plays a mean round of golf.
But, his wife and kids don't know him. They don't see him. He's aloof. Too busy. Catching up on work over the weekends. Playing golf with his buddies on Saturdays. Serving at the church on Sundays. Emotionally distant. Doesn't know that his son aced his spelling test on Tuesday or that his daughter scored a goal at the soccer game on Saturday. Unaware that his wife cries each day in the bathroom with the door closed because she is alone. Or, that his kids simply long for his warm embrace complete with the scruffy whiskers and scent of his cologne.
I... NEVER... KNEW... YOU.
Likewise, we can be great sayers and doers of Jesus and still not know Him. Jesus wants to know you. He doesn't want to know how many souls you are saving or how many Scripture verses you are memorizing. He wants to know you. He doesn't care that you wrote the most beautiful hymn or penned the most poetic prose. He wants to know you. If Jesus could only take one thing with Him, it wouldn't be the Bible, a cathedral, or church building, Calvin's Institutes, or Matthew Henry's Commentary Series. It would be YOU. He wants to know YOU more than anything else.
So, the question for you is...
Do YOU know Him?
I mean REALLY know Him. Not the gospel story. Not that He was born in Bethlehem. Or, that he fed 5,000 people. Or, what He said in Matthew 24. Or, the precise understanding of His crucifixion. But, do you REALLY know Him? Do you know Him in a way that is different from the way you know your spouse, your best friend, or sibling? In many ways its indescribable. But I know it involves this: unconditional love, complete trust, and unwavering faith.
Do YOU know Him?
Do you know Him in such a way that at any given moment of the day, you can knock on His door and share anything with Him, the good, the bad, and the ugly? After all, He does have an open-door policy. Do you know Him in such a way that you actually long to be in His presence the moment you awake, and then walk with Him every moment of your day? Being with Him not just during your morning devotional or prayer time. But, when you are sitting on the toilet, taking a shower, doing chores, walking through the store, laying down, hiking a nature trail, playing checkers, or making love to your wife. After all, God can be found in the beauty and joys of life. But, He can also be found in the mundane and ordinary.
Do YOU know Him?
Knowing Him involves placing your past, your hurts, your wounds, your scars, your weaknesses, your anger, your despair, your expectations, your bitterness, your control at the foot of the cross and saying, "I am yours". He says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest". The abuse you endured as a kid, the taunting from bullies, the secret sin that nobody knows about, your prejudices, the broken relationships, the physical and emotional pain, your regrets, your deepest fears, even your doubts about Him... go ahead... place it at the cross. Then, let Jesus speak into your life. After all, He is the lover of your soul. Praise Him when you are awake and allow your soul to praise Him while you are asleep. Glorify Him. And, like a child proud of his Daddy, show Him off to others... through His creation, your words and actions, and your love to others.
Do YOU know Him?
To know Him involves participating in His life and His kingdom. To experience in His suffering, the mocking of others, feeling different, being rejected by your family and friends. Experiencing His pain, His death, His burial, and resurrection. Dying to yourself, being reborn, becoming more like Him. Living vicariously through Him with reckless abandon. Feeling, experiencing, and knowing the power, life, and love of Jesus. The Apostle Paul said it best:
"I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead."
But, more than anything else remember this: Jesus wants to know you. But, do you know Him?
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.