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.