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OCMC News - Anastasia Pamela BarksdaleSeptember 2009 Newsletter

by Anastasia Pamela Barksdale (Posted 9/2/2009)

The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania is a living, vibrant Church.

After being in Albania for a year, I think the most important witness I can send back to my prayer partners in America is this message:  The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania is a living, vibrant Church.  It is alive today by the grace of the Holy Spirit after 50 years of persecutions intent on annihilating faith and belief in God.  The missionary spirit dominates the life of the Church; not because there are OCMC or other missionaries here, but because every aspect of ministry is filled with the apostolic vision and ethos.  His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios came to Albania as an emissary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1991 and remained, laying a firm missionary foundation from the beginning of the restoration effort.  Today, the life of the Church revolves around mission, because the Church is constantly reaching out and seeking to draw all people into the Body of Christ, into true life. 

Because of the evil that was done here under communism, we (missionaries) are here to strengthen the presence of Christ in the community and to offer our witness, our faith, and our love to the people of Albania.  Despite the communist ideology of brotherhood and equality, for 50 years people were taught to distrust and fear their neighbor and to isolate themselves from the whole world.  True brotherly love, friendship, and fellowship were undermined.  The Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania, which was resurrected from complete ruins in 1991, less than 20 years ago, understands that its work is that of restoration and transformation.  The Orthodox faithful here are trying to rebuild and restore what was lost and corrupted, but they do this with a dynamism that is not nostalgic – not just trying to recover the past - but creatively seeking to bring all of humanity and all of creation back into a relationship with the living God within the context of life today.

The real missionary here is His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios, who has worked tirelessly for 18 years resurrecting and restoring the living presence of Christ in Albania and offering hope and faith to the Albanian people.  We are all foreigners, “strangers in a strange land,” brought here by the Grace of God to witness, to mentor, to teach. 

It is impossible to see or understand what we as OCMC Missionaries do here without knowing the Church, the people.  That is why I decided to highlight some of the ministries here and to introduce you to the people we work with.  It is important for you to realize that we do not work alone, nor are our sacrifices greater than those of the Albanian people who serve the Church here.  We are all part of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, whether we are Americans or Greeks or Albanians.  In a very real way, by our witness, we are working to restore the catholicity, the universality, the reconnection of the Orthodox Church in Albania with the universal Church after 50 years of isolation. 

The United Nations and the European Union are holding up Albania today as a model of religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in a region of the Balkans that has known so many wars and atrocities.  God, Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are “alive” and working miracles in Albania, and that’s the truth!  The world sees it and wants to know why Christians and Muslims live here in peace, why Orthodox and Catholics work together for peace, why when the rest of Europe is still struggling with how to respond to the claim that “God is dead,” in Albania, God is very much alive.  I wish more youth workers and mission oriented people from the Church in America could come here to Albania to learn from His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios; to catch the apostolic flame and take it home to America and enlighten the mission fields, the hearts, of the American people.
 
Orthodox Campus Ministry

There is a very successful Campus Ministry to the students at the University of Tirana lead jointly by OCMC Missionary Nathan Hoppe and a young Albanian woman, Ana Baba.  Ana is a seminary graduate and has been working for the Church for over eight years.  She is dynamic, dedicated, and a force of love and faith to be reckoned with as she is catechizing students for baptism, organizing lectures and excursions, and counseling and mentoring hundreds of college students.  Her witness of love and faith manifest the presence of Christ in the lives of so many people.  The Church owns a wonderful center for ministry, located two blocks from the University of Tirana, that would be the envy of every OCF worker in America if they saw it.  There is a large meeting room/Chapel, a small salon and kitchen, a library, a bookstore, and a computer lab and craft room.  Their program offers a variety of lectures on spiritual topics, small group discussions and Bible studies, a Saturday liturgy, and then a “liturgy after the Liturgy” (Archbishop Anastasios) – a social outreach project to an orphanage, or a hospital – extending the love and glorification of God into everyday life.

Ana recruits the young college women to become leaders and mentors at a month-long Girls’ Camp.  This camp becomes a time of catechism, a time of spiritual growth and learning.  Each time I visit the camp, the girls reaffirm my understanding that here they have an opportunity to be an Orthodox community, to live their faith, to grow and learn in the peaceful setting of an ancient monastery, Shen Joan Vladimir.

Universality

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus”  (Gal. 3:28).

In the early 1990s when OCMC Missionary Fr. Martin Ritsi and Miron Cako, then a young Albanian catechist, made forays into the countryside and villages, they found destroyed Churches where crypto-Christians, still lighting candles in the rubble, were emerging into the light of day.  They catechized and baptized hundreds of children and adults.  Now, 20 years later, working in the Archdiocese, in His Beatitude's office, I have met many Albanian Orthodox Christians; some were those crypto-Christians, and others are the new generation of priests and laypeople educated at the Theological Academy and in the Seminaries in America and Greece, like Jorgo Papadhopuli, the coordinator of the Youth Office. 

Others are dedicated Orthodox Christians from Greece who have lived and worked in Albania for many years, humbly offering their witness, and love: Archimandrite Justin Anthimiadhis trains and coordinates a Byzantine Choir.  He witnesses Christ with love and humility as he translates, writes, teaches, and offers spiritual counsel.  Sister Argyro Kondogeorge has served Christ and the Church as the Archbishop's faithful assistant in Greece, in Africa, and in Albania for 50 years.  Sister Eleni Galanopulou is administrator of the Foundation of Love Vocational School.  Sister Athanasia Puliu, a retired nurse, works tirelessly to bring medical care to the poor of Tirana at the Annunciation of the Theotokos Orthodox Medical Clinic and has helped to establish clinics in small villages throughout the countryside.  These women are untonsured laywomen who serve the Church with zeal, commitment, dedication, and humility and are given the honorary title of “Sister” (or “Motra” in Albanian). 

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Prayer for Missions

God of truth and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Hear our prayer for those who do not know You. That they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth, and that Your Name may be praised among all peoples of the world. Sustain, inspire, and enlighten Your servants who bring them the Gospel. Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile. Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church, and raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world. Make us witnesses to Your goodness full of love, full of strength, and full of faith for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world. Through the prayers of all the missionary saints, Have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
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