Alfred Place Baptist Church

Albania

Part One: Albania.

On Monday morning May 9 we were driven to the Speke airport in Liverpool (now sadly renamed the John Lennon Airport after that pretentious Beatle, the hypocritical author of ‘Imagine.’). We were there two hours before our departure to London City Airport. The only significant aspects of that flight were the sight of brilliant yellow patches of oil seed rape all across England easily visible from 25,000 feet, and the steepness of the descent onto the runway in City Airport – going down like an elevator. Trevor Baker of the Albanian Evangelical Mission could not have done more to facilitate our convenience in flying to Albania, carefully planning each step of the journey. He’d even asked his sister-in-law if she would meet us and drive us the hour from the City Airport to Heathrow. She brought along Trevor’s happy Mam for company, and so we four chatted the whole journey from the east to the west of London.

 

A couple of hours later and we set off for Milan on another two hour flight. I sat next to an Orthodox Jew on his way to Israel, and getting married to a girl from Manchester in six months’ time. I told him that I taught the New Testament. “What is that?” he asked. I asked him if he had not considered how wonderfully Jesus of Nazareth fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament, Genesis 3, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, but he had no understanding of any of this. He did not seem to have any kind of education. “Is Milan in Rome?” he asked me. He had heard of Aberystwyth because his friends go there for a holiday each August. “Is it just outside London?” he asked. He had not had an ordinary education.

 

We waited two more hours in Milan for the connecting flight to Tirana. That lasted over an hour and a half and so it was 10.35 when we got to Albania. They are an hour ahead of us so the day was lengthened a little more, but we weren’t tired, and there was the customary relief at seeing our bits of luggage moving towards us on the carousel. With Trevor Baker was Geoff Townsend waiting there, a missionary converted in South Wales through the testimony of the church at Neath Abbey. We were driven the half hour to the Christian owned B&B in the centre of Tirana where eight or so of the British conference leaders were to stay until Friday. It was just after midnight when we got to our comfy bedroom. It had been a peaceful safe day, and I had completed the first few chapters of Garretson’s ‘Princeton and Preaching.’ We eight all had our breakfasts together in the cafe next door, and sometimes we ate an evening meal there too, sharing the cafe with a certain familiar presence in Tirana, that is, students with their lap-tops and books sitting at the tables snacking as they worked.

 

Albania is a country in the Balkans about the same size and population as Wales. It adjoins Serbia where almost 2 million Albanian speakers live – Kosova is 92% Albanian. It also adjoins Greece, and is across the sea from Italy where many Albanians work and whose soccer they follow. It is Europe’s only majority Muslim country, but Islam is held very nominally. There are derelict mosques everywhere. In the town of Gjirokaster (population of 35 thousand) where we went after the conference three of the mosques are in ruins and the remaining one is poorly attended. The scattered mosques are largely empty. Albania has been a nation which throughout its history has been dominated by surrounding countries. In 1945 communism was imposed upon it. Its dictator, Enver Hoxha, announced in 1967 that it was an atheistic state but in 1991 communism collapsed when old Hoxha died. Every day in Tirana we drove past the plinth on which his statue had once stood. His successor announced that the attempt to achieve atheism had been a mistake. There are a million Albanians who have left the country to find work across Europe and in North America.

 

Tirana is the size of Cardiff – 300,000 people – and growing rapidly, in fact every single town is a building site. You cannot travel along a road for five minutes within a hundred miles of Tirana without noticing new blocks of flats and offices going up. There is a buzz in the air and hope for the future. There is this juxtaposition of the old and new, the burdened donkeys, the cultivation of some fields with a horse or ox and a wooden plough, cutting hay with a scythe, the beggars everywhere – in the cities they are carrying sleeping children; they are persistent and angry at refusals. Then there is the new, the shops, the stereotyped dress of the young copied from European TV programmes, the smart business women, the Mercedes everywhere, the cafes on the sidewalks, the restaurants, the skyscrapers. Ten more years and the country could be flourishing and then there will be the new enemy of materialism to oppose the gospel. Albania has some oil and much fertile land and fine deep water ports. The combination of the old and new was evident in the sight of a shepherd using a mobile phone while sitting on the back of a donkey.

 

Both our B&B and the Conference were situated in the wealthiest part of Tirana, the capital of the nation and so untypical of the whole. The traffic is unbelievable, as bad as Manila, with old ladies and gentlemen walking or wobbling on their bikes through speeding vehicles. Car horns sound incessantly. The Conference was held the Lincoln English Language School ten minutes’ drive away from the B&B where we were staying. This conference is the first coming together of two similar strands of evangelicalism in Albania, who hitherto have had small separate annual conferences, the Albanian Evangelical Mission which had chosen myself as a speaker and the men of the John MacArthur’s Shepherd’s Conference who had chosen John Glass, the pastor in Geneva, to address us. The leaders from John MacArthur’s church are the ones who have opened this language school. It is based in a former home of Enver Hoxha – his town residence – and is about 200 yards from the parliament building. The place in which he dreamed his atheistic dreams was the very venue of our conference. Virtually all Albanian young people want to learn English, and so this language school run by these Californian missionaries, and another they run in another part of town, are thriving. They support themselves and also make enough profit to pay the $8,000 a month rent on the former Enver Hoxha property. The large room where we had our conference is their Sunday meeting place.

 

The Conference was bilingual. The American church had purchased simultaneous translation equipment and so there was none of the start-stop mechanism of speaking through a translator. The Tosk Albanian messages were translated into English and vice versa. The translators sat in the window and one could hear through the headphones the birds chirping in the large garden behind them. We were forty people regularly present and about sixty people attended, new crowds attending in the evenings; the room was just the right size. The Powerpoint presentation at the side of the pulpit spelled out the following announcement – which was projected on the wall in large letters throughout the whole Conference,

 “Konference e Barinjue & Fjala, Maj 2005, Ju Lutem, Fikni Celularin” which means, “The Shepherd and Word Conference, May 2005.” Shepherd is t
he American MacArthur half, and Word is British Albanian Evangelical Mission half. But what was the keynote verse for the Conference? “Ju Lutem, Fikni Celularin?” It simply said, “Switch Off Your Cell Phones.”

 

How strong is Christianity in Albania? They say that since freedom to worship and evangelise was granted in 1990 (when there was one single church in the whole country) about 120 evangelical churches have come into existence with about 8,000 professing Christians. There is plenty of corruption in the nation; how the country needs Christians to be its salt and light. There are a few Bible Schools and the MacArthur Grace Baptists put on a presentation during our conference of a new college they are opening next year up to Master’s level, with full time lecturers and with DVD’s of all the lectures given at the Master’s Seminary in California. What leadership, drive, confidence and fund-raising powers Americans have.

 

There are a growing number of books translated into Tosk Albanian. At the Conference Stuart Olyott’s ‘Dare to Stand Alone,’ his commentary on Daniel, appeared for the first time selling at under a pound. A free copy was given to everyone. There were other books by Jonathan Edwards, Dr. Lloyd-Jones, Flavel, Smeaton, Leahy and Richard Alderson’s little book on the first century Christians which sells very well in Albania. There are only a couple of Christian Book Shops in the nation. Conferences and churches are the places where these books sell, but until there are stronger churches and more powerful preaching literature is not going to sell like hot cakes. Book distribution entails weary, heavy work, transporting and delivering boxes to the few outlets, and homes fill up quickly with boxes of new books waiting to be purchased. There are three different hymn and song books in Albania, and now there is a committee bringing these together and adding a number more to make a hymnal of 400 hymns in Albanian.

 

Wages are poor; teachers and policemen earn 20 pounds ($40) a week. The state pension is 10 pounds a week. Little wonder people are open to bribery and corruption. Everything was owned by the State until 1990, land, every educational enterprise, shops and businesses – the lot. The last decade has seen the transition to the free enterprise system. Many mistakes have been made; a pyramid investment scam cost many their life savings and almost sparked off a civil war. But there is no turning back, and people work and invest and study.

 

The Conference was interesting, and the contrast of preaching styles of John Glass of California and myself was striking. He talked about his feelings and experiences more than I did, and was very lively and there was nothing I disagreed with. He gave us a slide presentation of his life and conversion with shots of his wife and teenage children skiing. In one message I misjudged the occasion and was brought low at my failure but generally I pitched my sessions about right. Some of the local Christians and missionaries from Italy and France were very impressive men. The young translator into Albanian from Gjirokaster named Florence was quite outstanding. Early twenties and soon to marry a pastor’s daughter, top of his class in English at the Tirana university, he can translate quickly and accurately and is ready to tackle the biggest volumes. He comes from one of those nominal Muslim households and had memorised large chunks of the Koran as a boy, and then God began to work in his life and he began to attend the church in Gjirokaster. What a wonderful change has taken place in his life and Trevor considers him to be the future of the Albanian church. May he be so, and delivered from all the fierce temptations on the way.

 

On Friday we were driven by Geoff Townsend and Shirley to Gjirokaster which is 5 hours south of Tirana, half an hour away from the Greek border. Ian MacNaughton (a pastor near Liverpool whom I have known for years) and Violet his wife also came here with Trevor Baker in Shaun Thompson’s car. Geoff Townsend and Shirley work here with Shaun Thompson the pastor, all four of us, the MacNaughtons and Thomases, happily sharing a long week-end together in Geoff and Shirley’s home. That was the best part of our time away, getting to know that story of the lives of six or seven Christian leaders, how they had come to know God; the trials they had gone through; the call to the mission field; the old age and infirmity of their parents; their children believing, rejecting the gospel, being saved later in life; the difficulties in the churches they belonged to; their plans for the future; the work they were doing now. That repeated six times was extremely valuable and encouraging. I spoke to a group of missionaries on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday morning at the local church where Shaun is the pastor. There were around 40 present Sunday morning including some beautiful children from a Christian orphanage and some students from the local university. I preached on new wine and old patches while Shaun interpreted for me excellently but sentence by sentence. It made me more appreciative of the simultaneous translation facilities we had had at our disposal in Tirana this past week.

 

Part Two: Leaving Albania for Greece.

 

Shaun misses a worker who spent two periods of a few years serving with him here but now has returned to England to work in Worcester with the Open Air Mission. Andrew Geuter was saved after the collapse of his first marriage when he was going out with a divorcee whose father is a Christian. “Andrew, you need Jesus Christ,” his future father-in-law said to him, and the man’s daughter, who was herself then a long way from God, had to repress her giggles. But God used the words and Andrew began to read the Bible, and so the great change began to take place in him and in his wife also and in some of their seven children. He went to the Birmingham Bible College where he heard about the situation in Albania and after graduation was there and working with Shaun. He has great facility in learning languages, and could sing heartily. Shaun and Andrew took open air meetings together in various Albanian towns. Andrew would start to sing in his fine baritone in a market place,

 

“What can wash away my sin?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

What can make me white again?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

How precious is the flow

That makes me white as snow.

None other fount I know

Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

 

And the crowds would gather and soon the two men would be preaching to scores of Albanian men. Shaun speaks with such fondness of him, and looks forward to his annual return visits.

 

On Monday morning Shaun, Jennifer and their two little children Joy and George (who is not yet a year old) took us from Gjirokaster to Greece. It is about 40 minutes to the border and we took half an hour to get through t
he customs and emigration and then in an hour we had reached the large town of Ioannina. The town spreads out around a castle which is set on a promontory on a large lake. Ioannina rests under a range of mountains where snow is still visible in the gullies. This backdrop is a magnificent setting for the town on the lake and there are many small shops in the central streets with flats with washing on their verandas above them. Silver-work shops are plentiful. Ioannina is packed with young people going down the main street from the Town Hall to the lakeside where they drink milkshakes and Cokes in vast open air cafes, so different from our drink culture. There is one supermarket on the outskirts of town and a Toys’r’us. There is also a permanent old-fashioned fair adjoining a new complex of fast food outlets, bowling allies, and multi-screen cinemas. We took a ride on a Ferris wheel, and I won little George a soft toy on the handgun stall, shooting down ten empty cans of soft drink . . . any chance to brag, so let’s go for it . . . Shaun and I also showed off our driving skills to our wives and admiring children on the dodgems.

 

The town of Ioannina has an evangelical church whose fine building is 70 years old. Its pastor Leonidhis is supported by the European Missionary Fellowship. He was at London Theological Seminary with Gary Brady. When he was an Orthodox Church teenager he was led to read the New Testament and by that means alone became aware of his sin and that Christ was the Saviour. For a time he did not meet another Christian and considered himself an oddity in the whole world in his beliefs and experience. Then God brought him into contact with a believer who introduced him to others, and the Saviour, having revealed himself to Leonidhis, proceeded to reveal to him his many people also. At an EMF conference Leonidhis met his wife Irene from the English Lake District and they were married in Maryport by Gary Rowcroft 20 years ago. We visited them in this delightful flat and they took us to see the church building. It is a plodding work in Ioannina – as everywhere in Greece. “Have you translated any books into Greek?” I asked him. “There is no desire to read evangelical books amongst Christians here,” he replied sadly. So Greece is far behind Italy in the number of books and reading Christians in the country, but what a change has taken place in that country in the past decades. May it be the time for Greece to know a season of encouragement.

 

Incidentally, the Trinitarian Bible Society brings out a fine calendar in Albanian and the church in Gjirokaster purchases hundreds and distributes them around the town. The Greek Orthodox Church sustains a hostility to evangelical Christianity. There are a number of Greek speaking villages in Albania near the border with Greece. Geoff and Shaun and others distributed in one of them at the beginning of the year Scripture calendars produced in Germany with texts for every month and the names of the saints’ days to make them kosher to the Greeks. The local Priest went wild when learning of this activity, found our brethren and told them to get out of his village or he would call the police. “Call them, and I’ll give them a calendar,” said Geoff, “You are not living in Greece now mate. There is freedom of worship in Albania.” So the priest got into the pulpit the next Sunday and told his parish to burn the calendars. I mean, people might get converted to Christ mightn’t they? Iola and I entered an Orthodox Church in Corfu and the young priest was brushing the floor after a wedding. I had a long talk to him and it was getting interesting. “Sit down,” he had said to me as we spoke of Christ, but then another clergyman turned up with his family (the Orthodox are married, unlike the Romans) and distracted him. In this man’s parish there is a woman’s Bible Study each week. I asked him if he were married. “Of course,” he replied. Greek Orthodox bishops must be celibate. One huge problem with Greek Orthodoxy which it shares with Islam is its theocracy. Both are theocratic religions; one says that if you are Greek then you are Greek Orthodox, it’s a sign of national identity. The other says that if you are Turkish then you are a Muslim. So becoming a true Christian is for both the betrayal of your birthright and nation. You become a subversive, alienated from your own society. Archbishop Christodoulos is demanding that a person’s religious allegiance be stamped on Greek identity cards, but the government is resisting that. But the Greek Orthodox church has identified itself unfailingly with Greek state mechanism, enjoying the accompanying power and privileges. One of its power bases is compulsory religious instruction in schools. The present Government is trying to make such courses elective. There is a new tide of sleaze, deep corruption, drug dealing and money laundering, being reported in the Greek media about the Orthodox Church.

 

Outside Ioanina there is a magnificent specimen of a theatre set into the hillside, 2,400 years old. We arrived early one morning thinking we would have the place to ourselves but there were buses outside and a couple of hundred police cadets in their uniforms having a guided tour. When they left there were just a few of us tourists. Iola and Shaun climbed to the top of the ridge looking down on the amphitheatre while I remained on the ‘stage’ at the bottom and we ‘tested the acoustics’. In other words I declaimed Ephesians 2:5 for the sake of the other tourists while Iola and Shaun gave me the thumbs up from the top. In the afternoon we had a boat trip on the lake to a pretty island with a hundred houses, a church and monastery and a score or more shops.

 

At 8.45 on Wednesday we caught a bus from the bus station to Igoumenitsa, the port to the island of Corfu. It was a two hour trip zigzagging up and down the hills – how mountainous Greece is. The bus dropped us at Igoumenitsa harbour and I went to the ticket office to get two singles to Corfu. “Hurry up! Run! The boat is leaving now! Buy your ticket on board!” So we ran to the boat a hundred yards away, and the captain and crew shouted at us from the bridge high above, “Hurry up!” Thanks very much! I got on board and then Iola climbed the truck ramp after me and as she got off it the chains lifted it up and we were away, over the sea to Corfu. What a successful adventure, all over in three minutes. I like adventures like that.

 

Corfu is an island over thirty miles long, shaped like South America. The town of Corfu has a population of 30,000 while over 100,000 live on the island itself. We had no hotel reservation so we got into a taxi and told the taxi driver to take us to a hotel. The first three he tried were all fully booked but we finally got our two nights in a hotel two or three miles out in the country. We caught the local bus into town at the end of the siesta and immediately were witnesses of another ‘adventure.’ The bus driver stopped the bus and approached a passenger accusing her of not paying her fare. She argued back with him fiercely, but he was not a man given to compromise, he went back into his seat, switched the engine off, and took out a plastic bottle of water and had a drink. How would this stand-off end? The rest of us passengers pretended nothing was happening, She finally rose to her feet and, with bitterness etched all over her face, and invoking all the Greek gods, wagging her finger at him and threatening to report him, paid her fare and walked back to her
seat, head held high like Maria Callas at the end of a particularly impressive aria. Everyone was a winner. No one applauded, though it would not have been out of place. He started the bus and on into Corfu we rolled, he impassively threading his bus through the double banks of cars in the narrow streets.

 

We had one whole day in Corfu. We walked from the hotel to the bus-stop. I asked a man where it was. “Come with me,” he said. He was driving to his shop in the middle of town. He sold wood craft. How kind of him. After exploring the fortress we walked to the gardens of the English Cemetery meeting a father and son looking for a soldier who had won the Victoria Cross to take its photograph for a friend who was a military historian. The cemetery is well cared for. One stone said, “Watch, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.” There were many stones erected for children dying in infancy. They were often the largest memorial stones.

 

We heard some people in Corfu walking along and talking in Welsh together. They were from Ystrad Gynlais and soon we discovered some people we knew in common – Wales the big village. On two days running we got into conversation with a Greek woman in her twenties. She spoke English well and I told her that the best way of learning the language was to read the New Testament in English. “Where will I get an English New Testament?” she said. A good question. Christina (that is her name) asked for our address and is going to write to us. I shall send her a Testament in Greek and in English.

 

We flew home to Liverpool on Friday night arriving just 40 minutes late. The flights to Bristol and Manchester were respectively 3 and 4 hours late. Poor people. We got a taxi ride home and were fast asleep by 2.30 a.m. Saturday morning, thankful to God for the privileges we had enjoyed.

 

GEOFF THOMAS