Albania Youth Team members were the first Team to have orientation at the newly dedicated OCMC building
But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand' (Matt.10: 6-7).
I returned last week from my second OCMC short-term mission trip. It was a blessed trip and a time of service for me that will forever be a profound piece of my personal history.
I wish that each and every one of you could have been with me to share what my eyes saw and what my heart felt. I am still sorting through in my mind’s eye all that I shared with my fellow Team Members and my brothers and sisters in Christ in Albania. Words do not come easily. If I could only pick you up and place you in my heart and let you sit there for a while; I believe that perhaps then you would understand why words fall short.
Our team was a perfect combination of Orthodox Christians. We were cradle Russian Orthodox, cradle Greek Orthodox, and a dedicated convert of the OCA. We bonded quickly at the new Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) in Florida. It was as though the Lord knew all along, before any of us met, that we would be placed together in fellowship and in His service. We were the first team to go through pre-field Team orientation in the new facility. It is incredible how the Mission Center has grown, and it is humbling how dedicated the clergy and laity are working to serve and to heed the Lord’s calling and to dutifully follow in the steps of St. Paul.
We were a “Teaching Team." We were to teach a rather diverse group of classroom teachers, catechism teachers, youth camp leaders, and youth ministries counselors. We had three days to design a curriculum for our Albanian audience. We had four days to teach and share everything we knew to this group of fifty. We prayed as a team that the Lord would guide us to use the right words and to use our gifts. Aaron, the music teacher of the Team, is to graduate next year with credentials in music education. Aaron’s passion and gift is writing music and playing music for his rock band in Pennsylvania. Susan is a middle-school counselor in Florida, degreed in listening to others, but her passion is story telling…and oh, how this angel could spin a yarn! I was the visual artist, and my passion is making art and teaching this wonderful visual language of the mind, heart and soul.
We arrived in Tirana after a long flight. Aaron and I both had served in Albania on a prior Mission Team. The muted light, the smells, the sounds, and the beautiful people were familiar, like family. We found our way to St. Vlash seminary and monastery in Durres. (It is speculated that St. Paul entered this region through the port of Durres.) My first night in Albania, I tossed and turned all night. My sleep was restless as I wrestled with an understanding that our Lord is the greatest artist of all and that Jesus Christ is our Rabboni, our greatest teacher, our Master. I prayed that Christ would work through us and show us how to teach our Albanian fellow workers with humility, grace, and the right words.
“My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
As the team leader, I reminded all of us every day to put on Christ, to forgive each other, to encourage each other, to truly love each other and to see Christ in every student and person we met. We were to model our faith and to teach by grace. Our days began with Matins and ended in Vespers. Our daily prayer practices included the Albanian teachers and the children from the Home of Hope Orphanage. The Team would meet with me in my room before going to bed to pray together as well. It was for me the perfect way to end our day.
Our blessings were three-fold. By the Grace of God, during our mission Father Thomas Hopko (Orthodox theologian, Archpriest and author) was teaching at the seminary as an OCMC Mission Specialist when we arrived. The fifty-three teachers in our training, including us, were generously included as students to listen to Fr. Thomas’s lectures. His words and insights fed all of us…we were spiritually thirsty and needed nourishment, and he carefully led our hearts to see Christ in our gifts and in our teaching. He reminded us to “let the Lord use us.” He reminded us that “we are God’s handiwork and that we are God’s poem…each with our own story and ancestral/generational sin.” Fr. Thomas reminded us that we “should pray to the Lord to heal our pain, our wounds, and our stories…because without healing we are useless as teachers…we will only be adding sickness and darkness into the world through our teaching if our hearts are not healed through Christ.” He asked us to “teach by putting on the new and the wisdom of our Father, Jesus Christ, and our Mother, the Theotokos….to remember that the disciple is not above his teacher, for Christ is our only teacher.” Fr. Thomas, with a beautiful smile on his face, said, “Please use me Lord, and let me be like Balaam’s ass!” So with Fr. Thomas’s insights and words in our minds and hearts, we taught. We did our best. We fell short at times, but we grew together in Christ.
The oppression in Albania under Communism and Ottoman rule was more evident as I taught. Critical thinking and open-ended creative resolutions were unfamiliar to some of my older students. Our teaching was in English, with a few words in Albanian. We each had a translator as we taught; however, some of our words and abstract concepts were not part of the Albanian language or mind-set. With the best of intentions, we, students and teachers, tried our best and learned new ways to understand each other. The current Albanian educational system is in its early formative stage and full of bright promise.
Reflected smiles on our students' faces were often our gauge of understanding…crossed arms were our signal of lost communication. We taught from 8am-1:30 pm with lunch and a nap in between and then met again from 5pm - 7:30pm, shared a simple Apostle's Fast dinner, and then after Vespers taught again from 8pm - 10pm. We came together equally, all of us, as teachers. But it was slowly revealed to us that our journey was not about being teachers: it was about being learners. We, Albanians and Americans, all came away learning far more than we had ever planned on paper. Our shared commonalities brought us together as we served the Lord. We were blessed to share our teaching and learning styles with one another. We were all Orthodox Christians who, through our individual gifts, teach others about the Lord’s light, love and forgiveness… that is what the Lord has called all of us to do.
In the last days of our mission, we were invited to the St. Vlash Seminary graduation and to a new church consecration in Fier, of St. George’s Cathedral, with Archbishop Anastasios. We were thankful to receive a blessing from this modern day apostle. We also spent our time with the orphans from the Home of Hope, eating pizza, singing songs, making art, putting on plays, playing a game of Albanian style kick-ball, praying, sharing stories, and eating simple meals. Oh how beautifully the children had grown since last year--I was home! They embraced us and clung to our sleeves, beaming with smiles. We did not need a translator, nor did we struggle with abstract adult teaching concepts. Our time was spent smiling, singing praises to our Lord in their small chapel while the children laughed at our American accents. We let the children teach us. We were ready students and willing to see Christ among them. We as a Team learned to see God in the small things and in the in-between spaces. The children at the Home of Hope Orphanage took us by our hands and with their love showed us how to be disciples. I finally understood what Christ was asking us to do.
Please continue to support Orthodox Christians around the world through the ministries of OCMC. Please pray for the current, and future, long-term Missionaries in Albania. Their work is so very important at this time. Pray for the clergy and laity in Albania, for their spiritual and physical strength so that they may continue to be witnesses of Christ. Pray that their struggles and burdens are few and that our Lord’s Light will continue to fill their days. Pray for all of us as one family, one people, sisters and brothers in Christ.