This year’s OCMC mission team, which was organized in cooperation with the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Center for Family Care (CFC), to Albania witnessed to many Albanian families through prayer, teaching, and fellowship.
I am back from my OCMC Family Team to Albania. It was by far the most uplifting and beautiful journey I have ever been on. There are many things I could share, but will keep it to the parts that have impacted me. The purpose of our Team was to facilitate a family camp for Orthodox parents and their children over 5 days, for 16 families. In Albania, Communism ended in 1990, after decades when religion was outlawed. Many of the adults attending the camp grew up either during this time, living lives absent of religion, or during the early years of freedom, when the Church was slowing being reestablished. This family camp was the very first of its kind, and its goal was to teach parents and their children how to incorporate the Orthodox Christian faith into their daily family lives, to share this knowledge with others, and most importantly to strengthen their faith through fellowship. I specifically worked with the children’s program. My teammate Elena and I created detailed lesson plans that included stories and crafts that we used each day in our class of four to eight-year-old children.
I was asked numerous times on our last day of the Team what was my favorite part of the trip. It wasn’t our beach day excursions, or the festivities we had on the last day filled with dancing, music, and ice cream. It wasn’t traveling to all the beautiful places of Albania with its bustling cities, mountain–side villages, and scenic countryside. It was meeting the families and getting to know each and every one of them, listening, and seeing what they each had to offer. It was the kind and humbled hearts of each parent and the innocent joy and laughter that came from the children every day. Each family had a story to tell and something important to share and teach all of us. At the end of the day, perspectives were changed and relationships were stronger because of the personal and spiritual input each person was willing to give. Their strengths, weaknesses, growth, and faith were a blessing to hear and witness. Each family was supportive of one another, and because of them our OCMC Team grew and was strengthened in our faith. Meeting our Albanian counterparts, spending time with them, worshipping with them, and learning from them was the greatest and most fulfilling part of my whole trip. We were all impressed with their passion and enthusiasm for growing in their faith.
Most of us who have been born into our Orthodox faith in some way or another take our faith and the fact that we can freely practice our religion for granted. I met people who so obviously are thirsty for spiritual growth and knowledge. It takes more than just attending church on Sunday mornings. It means talking about God, listening about God, thinking about God, and praying to God every chance we get. I was inspired by people who had lived through a time when religion was outlawed completely; they all practice their Orthodox faith as if it is the most important thing they have to hold onto. And it is.
The saddest thing that I witnessed happened on our very last night in the busy capital of Tirana, after a wonderful evening of eating delicious ice cream in a café. As we were all on the side of the street laughing and talking while we waited for our bus to take us back to camp, I looked down to see a small boy lying on the sidewalk, his back resting up against a building. His skinny arm was folding under his head, taking the place of a pillow, and he mumbled in his sleep, as if he were having a bad dream, as people and stray dogs walked past him, pretending not to see him. He did not look like he could be older than seven or eight years old and looked like he had not eaten in weeks. All I wanted to do in that moment was hold him in my arms and tell him everything was going to be alright and to give him a bed more comfortable than the concrete he lay on. There were many hard things to witness and hear in Albania during those two weeks. But I learned something valuable: although we live oceans apart, we all face the same struggles and fears.
From the parents I heard stories of failing marriages, sickness, financial struggle, and working to get proper affordable education for their children. But, as my teammate Nicole said one night, no matter where we live and who we are, this is what binds us together in humanity; that we each struggle with something, and that struggle can bring us together and encourage us to have compassion for one another. At Vespers one night, surrounded by all the families, everyone was so focused, lost in another world we cannot see - God’s perfect world. In that moment, I felt completely detached from the outside materialistic lifestyle that consumes me in America and completely at peace as we stood unified in worship and love for God.
Before I end I want to share with you the most important lesson that I learned from a very wise man I had the blessing of getting to know during our time in Albania. In a discussion I had with my mother and two other girls on the Team, our teammate Nicole expressed that she does not know whether it is right to pray to God for things that we need and want when we already have so much. The wise man we asked was Bishop Nikolla, and I could feel in my heart that whenever he talked with us, it was the Holy Spirit speaking through him. To answer this question he said we are never to be afraid to ask God for things as long as we are ready and willing give back to others. He told us that the most important thing to remember throughout our lives is to always give because we are given many things by God. He said those who are blessed with many things have the most responsibility to give to others. He said it is the most important thing to help our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, whether we know them or not, with our talents, time, and finances.
I thank all those who supported this OCMC Team effort. You were apart of a domino effect that first started with your support in monetary giving and prayers. You helped others in another country grow and learn in their faith, and it is only because of you that I was able to witness this. You gave me the most incredible opportunity to represent and partner with you in this amazing journey of faith. It is very important that we all remember to keep Orthodox Missions, Teams, and Missionaries, wherever they may be, in our hearts and prayers each day. They do great things for our faith. I encourage you to visit the OCMC website to learn about these incredible Orthodox Christians. Thank you all again from the bottom of my heart for your support, love and prayers, it really does mean the world to me.