We traveled to Bajram Curri with Astrit, the pastor of the church there, and his wife and three precious children. On the long journey, I got to know his kids, who enjoyed teaching me how to count and say the colors in Albanian. Astrit's land rover broke down on the way, and we were able to make it to a tiny mountain village not far from the road. There, we found a mechanic, who worked in a metal lean-to and who miraculously happened to have the bolt we needed to fix the car. As we sat waiting for the mechanic to finish, we watched villagers walk by with their donkeys and cows. It was my first time being in an Albanian village.
On my first day in Bajram Curri, I went grocery shopping with Theresa and Rakaela, Astrit's twelve-year-old daughter. The town is so different from Tirana! It is in the far north of Albania, so the winter is bitterly cold and dreary. Theresa said that the mountains surrounding Bajram Curri are stunning, but we couldn't see them through all the fog! Over 70% of Bajram Curri's population is Muslim, and the people think with a very backwards and old-fashioned mindset. Most of the people who live there were originally from villages, so they live very simply and do not enjoy many modern conveniences. The stores there sell only a small variety of necessities, so Theresa often has to cross the boarder into Kosovo to do her grocery shopping. Human trafficking is such a threat in Bajram Curri that young girls mostly stay in the house, and NEVER go out alone. In fact, trafficking is so common in north Albania that members of the Albanian mob from Tropoja were depicted in the movie Taken. It is very difficult to live there, and even more difficult to carry out effective ministry. Astrit certainly has his work cut out for him as the pastor there!
I spent the week helping Theresa with her various ministries. She, Astrit, and Violca, Astrit's wife, are involved in the Manna Program, feeding children who live in poverty. Every day after school, about a dozen children come to the Manna Center for a nourishing lunch. Violca, a remarkable woman, cooks for them every day, and Theresa teaches them Bible stories. One morning, we realized that the Manna Center had flooded because someone had left the water on in the bathroom. No one had used the facilities since the weekend before, so the water had sat for several days and done damage to the walls and doorways. We waded through an inch of icy cold water to remove the furniture from all the rooms. Then we swept away the water, dried the floor with towels, and replaced all the furniture. By 11:30, we had the Center cleaned up and prepared for the first group of kids to come for lunch. I loved meeting the children, and it was a wonderful experienced to be involved with the feeding program.
My favorite part of the trip was helping Theresa teach her English class. On Mondays and Wednesdays, she teaches about sixteen Albanians, ranging in age from 12-15. I helped her prepare and teach the lesson about how to describe feelings in English. We played games with them, and it was fun to get to know some of the girls in the class. They were all friendly and eager to learn, and they all adored Theresa. On Thursday, six of the girls came over for lunch. Theresa and I made them lasagna because she likes to introduce them to American food. We also helped them make bracelets that tell the story of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Theresa is involved in such a wonderful ministry with these girls, and it is amazing that their parents allow them to come to lunch with a Christian woman. As a single, Christian woman who works hard and travels alone, Theresa is not looked upon well in the primarily-Muslim community. Yet she has won the respect of many Tropojans, and, miraculously, they allow their daughters to spend time with her.
I learned so much from Theresa during that week. She is so full of joy, so strong in the Lord. She wakes up early every morning infuriatingly cheerful, and throughout the day she continually thanks God for simple things that people usually take for granted. Each night before she goes to bed, she thanks God for how he blessed her that day. She is involved in some of the hardest ministries in one of the harshest regions of Albania, but she faces the challenges with steadfast persistence. Not to mention, she taught me many useful things about being a missionary, such as how to understand the culture, how to cook with staple foods, and how to use a Turkish toilet.
Bajram Curri may be a depressing place, but it was enlightening for me to see what the more rural areas of Albania are really like. I am grateful that I got to experience a little bit of what life is like there. It was encouraging to hear the stories of some of the believers there, and sobering to hear the backgrounds of the children who come to the Manna Program. What a tough place to be a missionary in!
- The small church in Bajram Curri - that the believers would stay strong in the Lord, and that more people would come to know Him.
- The Manna Program - that the children who come for lunch would learn to love the Lord.
- Theresa's ministry to middle school girls - that more of the girls would become believers, and that their parents would continue to allow them to spend time with Theresa