Renewing our Faith - A Trip to Albania

Is God enough? If He is, never fear anything, but go forward in faith. 

Freedom and Love are the two central characteristics to always remember in our Christian journey as we strive to offer a witness of God’s Good News to the world around us. 

The most crucial point in missions is not what one announces, but what one lives, who one is. 

Spirituality that is devoid of a struggle and agony for the salvation of the world is a crippled spirituality, both on a personal level as well as on a Church-wide level. 

Any static church that lacks a vision and constant endeavor to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world can hardly be recognized as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. 

To find yourself, you must offer yourself.

These were a few of the teachings that we – 13 students from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, St. Tikhon’s Seminary, and Hellenic College, along with my beloved former professor, Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, and I learned from Archbishop Anastasios during our recent class and trip to Albania. We traveled to Albania as a part of a 3 credit academic class, a mission trip, and a spiritual pilgrimage which was sponsored by the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and the OCMC.

We traveled as a group to Albania to learn from the church there, while also trying to offer a witness of love to our brothers and sisters. We were blessed by witnessing a Church decimated by communism, but resurrected by the power and grace of God. Reading the writings of Archbishop Anastasios and meeting him personally inspired all of us. Yet, we also met numerous other leaders – newly ordained bishops and clergy, long-term missionaries, as well as both female and male lay leaders and faithful Christians – who carried within themselves the same spirit of the Archbishop and are faithfully serving the Church and Albania.

One of the special realities we experienced was the fact that every Christian we met has CHOSEN to follow Christ and be Orthodox Christians. In Albania, following WW2 in 1945, all religion was severely persecuted by the communists. From 1967-1991, Albania did something that no other country in the world attempted – they forbade and ruthlessly persecuted ANY and EVERY expression of religion! So an entire generation of people grew up without the Church, and with no opportunity to be baptized or to learn anything about the faith. This left an entire generation without an opportunity to really know God.

Thus, when we encountered the many dynamic and faithful believers of Albania, we realized that we were entering a world like the early Church, with most Christians who are still in their first generation of faith! Imagine, we met with three bishops who came from culturally Muslim backgrounds, and yet who today serve the Church as Orthodox Bishops! We met with a few believers who risked their lives and were secretly baptized during the years of communism. Most discovered the faith during the difficult yet exciting years following the fall of communism. Many children, students, and young adults embraced the faith throughout the 1990s, and now are raising their children in the same faith. (I even had a special blessing on this trip to baptize the child of a dear friend and former student whom I had baptized herself back in 1995!)

This class and trip offered a unique opportunity for all our participants to learn from these beautiful Christians, as well as to share in some small, humble way, our own witness of love with all the people we met. I think both our students, and those we encountered, were enriched by the interaction over these past two weeks.

All our students came away expressing how their own faith journey’s had been enhanced, challenged, and strengthened by this experience. Here are a few of their comments:

This class and trip was one of the best experiences of my life. It recharged and re-energized me in my faith and made me become more passionate about following Jesus Christ and fulfilling our missionary responsibility with the world around us.

I became aware more of how we are part of a global church, even if we come from some small parish in America. Too often we get consumed with ourselves, and our own problems and struggles, and we forget that we are a part of a worldwide family. We are connected with one another around the globe, as a part of Christ’s universal church. This has helped me realize I must shift from a self-centered, parochial mindset to a Christ-centered, universal mindset!

The experience in Albania has challenged me to look at my life and faith journey from a new and different angel. It has awakened a spiritual excitement within me. I realize how little I know, and much I have left to grow in my walk with Christ!

I now better understand that missions is at the frontier of the Church. Watching and listening to the struggles of our long-term missionaries has given me a totally new appreciation of what they do, and the needs they have. I am returning to the States with a new commitment to support this missionary effort, and to challenge my home parish, and all my friends, with the responsibility to support this effort on the frontiers of the Church.

I’ve learned that we in America, and those in Albania, share many similar challenges of faith for the future. I saw so clearly that Christian ministry is ultimately based on relationships of love. Ministry in America, or in Albania, is really not so culturally different. We have to become witnesses of Christ’s love, but that can happen only through loving relationships.

I was greatly inspired to see the various lay male and female leaders in the Church in Albania. I have wondered in the past how I can serve the Church without becoming a priest. Looking at how many lay leaders serve in Albania, I realized that there is a place for me to serve Christ and His Church, even if I can’t become a priest.

Please pray with me that our Lord will continue to inspire and guide these young students to build upon this experience, and commit their lives to more faithfully living out our Orthodox Christian faith in the world around us!

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