When the Rev. Patty Garner, Coordinator of the Unity Women’s Desk, first met Vjollca Mazi and Dena Fortuzi in 2013 at the European Women’s Conference in Albania, little did she realize what extensive friendships and connections would result. Nor did she imagine what gifts Home Moravian Church would receive from our brothers and sisters across the globe in Albania.
After hearing about the remarkable ministry of three women—Vjollca, Viola Grillo, and Merita Meko, who started five Moravian Churches in Albania—Patty met with the Rev. Rick Sides and the Mission and Evangelism Committee at Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C. As a result, members of Home Church convened an Albanian Task Force to study the possibility of forming a partnership with Albanian Moravians. In November 2015, Home Church’s Board of Elders approved the partnership, which the Rev. Sides aptly named “GIFTS”: Global Initiatives For The Savior. And thus the journey with our brothers and sisters in Albania began, resulting in manifold gifts given and received.
In the summer of 2015, after attending the American Moravian Women’s Conference in Maryland, Vjollca and Dena visited Winston-Salem and spent a week with Rev. Garner. Members of Home Moravian Church met Vjollca and Dena and heard firsthand about their fledging ministry in Albania, a small country of about three million people located in the southwestern part of the Balkan Peninsula.
From 1944 until 1991, a totalitarian communist regime isolated the country from the rest of the world, outlawing all religion. In fact, Albania was the first officially atheist country in the world, as defined in its constitution. With the fall of Communism, Albania underwent a period of deep and often dramatic social, political and economic change. Social conditions, unemployment levels and average incomes continue to be among the worst in Europe.
As members of HMC learned more about Albania and Vjollca’s and Dena’s commitment to minister and witness to the less fortunate in their country, they responded with a financial commitment to their ministry called The Bathore Project.
Outreach to Albania’s poor
The Bathore Project, a three-pronged outreach ministry, serves one of the poorest areas in Albania and includes:
- Economic Support (to provide food and to enhance both practical skills and education, with the goal of creating a way out of poverty)
- Emancipation Project (to help victims of domestic violence)
- Evangelization Project (to teach the Gospel)
To encourage greater self-reliance, providing economic support means more than just monthly food supplies. The collapse of Communism meant the collapse of state-supported schools, creating an educational void for the poor for a decade. Because everyone needs the opportunity to learn and grow, the Bathore Project emphasizes learning and developing skills.
One of the women who initiated the Moravian ministry in Albania, Merita Meko, works with about 30 women of Bathore weekly, instructing them in cooking more nutritiously on a meager budget, while others have instructed these eager learners in geography and such basics as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Merita also encouraged them to share openly with one another, developing friendships.
In the most recent report, leaders were thrilled to announce that 20 illiterate women can now write their names. Acquiring these skills of self-reliance and establishing supportive friendships will help women stand up to the threat of domestic violence, which occurs to one in three women in Albania.
As Sister Patty Garner explained, “With their daily needs being met, the third part of the Bathore Project of evangelizing the people will be realized. This method of evangelization is in the best tradition of the Moravian mission work.”
In addition to financially supporting the Bathore Project, individuals, families and groups from Home Church began a Family-to-Family Initiative to offer monthly food supplements to 40 of the poorest families identified by the Bathore congregation.
During Vjollca’s and Dena’s time in the U.S. in the summer of 2015, Dena shared that as a result of prayer, the working of the Holy Spirit and the strengthening ties with Moravians throughout the world, she had begun to feel a tug to serve her sisters and brothers in Albania as an ordained minister. Encouraged by Rick, Patty and the Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood, Dena began distance learning classes with Moravian Theological Seminary in the fall of 2016. Dena’s gift of service will be a blessing to Albanian Moravians for generations to come.
In July 2016, two youth and an adult from the Albanian Moravian churches attended Senior High Camp at Laurel Ridge, while tentative plans are for two youth from Home Church to attend summer camp in Pogradec, Albania in 2017. Through emails, photo exchanges and visits, fast friendships continue to develop with our brothers and sisters in Albania.
A visit to Albania
At the invitation of Vjollca Mazi, Dena Grillo and the Albanian Moravian churches, four members of our Home Moravian Task Force—Betty Cole, William Cranfill, Ann Radford and Charlie Stott—traveled to Albania in September 2016. Even though he was not a member of the HMC Task Force, Bishop Sam Gray was available to accompany the group and eager to add another country to his list. “Having someone with Bishop Gray’s experience in visiting a variety of other cultures benefitted all of us,” said Betty. “He helped us expand our American perspective.”
Vjollca and Edi Mazi graciously welcomed and hosted our team as we visited and met the church leaders in Bathore, Burrel, Pogradec, Elbasan, and Tirana. Everywhere we traveled we were greeted with grateful smiles and lots of hugs! Although none in our group, not even Sam, could speak Albanian, language was never a barrier to express our appreciation and brotherly love for each other. In all of the churches visited, we experienced a feeling of “being one in the Spirit” with our brothers and sisters as we shared our Moravian faith. The trip to Albania served to cement our relationships and strengthen our commitment to the partnership.
In Bathore, the poorest area in Albania and the focus of the Moravian mission, church members and their leaders, Haxhi Murati and his daughter, Etmonda, welcomed us warmly. We shared worship and fellowship with the amazing sisters and brothers who carry out the ministry in Bathore. In addition, we met families being served by this ministry.
“We went to their homes to meet them and to allow them to extend hospitality…to us,” said Sam. “I think this was very important for them. Most of them offered us candy as a welcoming gesture. We had nothing to give them, but that’s what made it so important, I believe. It forced us into a situation where we understood, for a brief moment, what it’s like to receive something when there is nothing we can offer in return.”
Sam added, “So this was a way for people who are on the receiving end of a ministry to be able to be the givers. Besides the candy, they gave us their time. They opened up their homes. And these families seemed proud to be able to welcome visitors from another country into their humble homes. It gave them a sense of dignity.”
While in Albania, we saw the monthly food distribution to the 40 families that are a part of the Family-to-Family partnership. We witnessed women lifting and carrying 50-pound sacks of flour, large bottles of cooking oil and other items such as pasta and rice in smaller bags. One quick-thinking woman resourcefully found a wheelbarrow to carry the heavy bags of flour for her friends.
We felt the strong sense of community among the members of the Bathore congregation, and we experienced a feeling of mutual respect for each other. As Charlie Stott reflected later, “We, who knew nothing of lack or deprivation, were humbled and somewhat embarrassed by their gratitude.”
In Burrel, we met Eridona Gjestila and her mother, Shpresa, leader of the church in Burrel. Eridona had attended Senior High Camp at Laurel Ridge in July, so we were especially gratified to see her again. Like the other Moravian churches in Albania, Burrel has a thriving daycare program. Our hearts warmed to hear the voices of women and youth singing, “This Little Light of Mine” in English, even if they did substitute “bowl” for “bushel”!
Youth play an integral part in the Moravian churches in Albania. Their exuberant participation infused the church services in Pogradec with energy. Pogradec is the home of Ernis Bektasha, another one of the campers who attended Laurel Ridge this summer. Ernis’ parents are church leaders and also help maintain the beautiful camp facility in Pogradec.
While the church in Elbasan may have the smallest congregation of the Moravian churches in Albania, their leaders are very dedicated. With an eye to the future, they are mentoring a mature 15-year-old girl to assist with the leadership. All of the church leaders in Albania exhibited tremendous commitment and dedication to meeting the needs of the people in their area.
On the last night of the trip, we shared communion with the church in Tirana, the capital of Albania. Bishop Sam Gray, the first Moravian bishop to lead a communion service in Albania, celebrated Holy Communion with all the Moravian congregations gathered in the church in Tirana. Voices, raised to sing “How Great Thou Art” in Albanian during the serving of the bread and wine, crystalized the shared spirit of worship for all of us, whether Albanian or American. In truth, we were “One in the Spirit” as we sang. As Sam said, “What was essential that night was that we were one in the Spirit and Christ was present in that place.”
Indeed, Sam summed up our trip the best when he said, “We went to Albania to observe a ministry that is a way in which we can give to them. But what sticks in my mind, and I’m sure what sticks in the hearts and minds of the others on the team, is what they gave us. Not just the beautiful tokens given to us in gift bags, but rather the gift of themselves, their friendship and love, their time, their commitment to this ministry and their partnership with us as together we serve God’s world and God’s people.
“So, as I reflect on our time with these sisters and brothers, how we do our part, and they do their part, I’m reminded of a verse in 1 Peter Chapter 4: ‘Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.’ ”
Betty Cole and Ann Radford are members of the Albanian Task Force from Home Moravian Church. Photos by the team who travelled to Albania.