The Synergy of Partnership
It was 1990, and the dawn of a new era in Albania. After over 45 years under oppressive atheist leadership the Communist infrastructure began to crumble. The succeeding two years were a convulsive period, filled with public demonstrations and small concessions given in an attempt to spur economic growth while still preserving the communist state.
In December 1990 when President Ramiz Alia granted Albanians a number of freedoms, including the right to practice religion, there was no great crowd of Albanian evangelicals to celebrate this new-found liberty. Any definitive number is difficult, but estimates are that there were no more than five evangelical believers in Albania.
But Alia's decision to open the door to religious freedom did not strike a host of evangelicals as coincidental. With a burden for this nation of 3.3 million, they had prayed and planned on entry for some time. Describing the entire period of communism's downfall, Phill Butler echoes the sentiment of these missionaries when he says, "God was shaking the nations."
With no pre-existing evangelical presence, the opening of Albania gave mission workers a prime opportunity to work cooperatively, offering a unified presentation of Kingdom-life to the poorest nation in Europe. Figures given before the communist era (and still used today) estimate that 70 percent of Albanians were
Muslim. Yet they would prove to be a people thirsty for the Gospel. As early as 1991, the Albanian Encouragement Project (AEP) was founded as an umbrella organization of mission agencies under which the entire foreign mission presence could workpromoting unity and cooperation while partnering in numerous projects.
While the net gains have been great, Albanians will certainly remember the '90s as something of a roller coaster ride, with several significant drops into chaos. In 1992, the Communist Party suffered a decisive loss in Albania's first authentic democratic election in the modern era. Referring to Albania's absolute dictator of over forty years, an official of the incoming democratic party said, "[Enver] Hoxha destroyed the human soul. This will take generations to restore."
In 1997, political corruption and popular outrage at bogus investment schemes gone awry led one newspaper to describe the state of emergency as "on the verge of madness."
Alongside this turbulent political and economic scene that frequently approached anarchy, the AEP labored with progress that was genuinely praiseworthy. "By the end of 1991, there were three separate churches in Albania. By the end of 1995, we had a church in almost every major town of Albania," says AEP participant Eric Stensland, who has worked in Albania since 1991.
By 1997, with 6,000 Albanian believers and a church in every region of the country, the AEP-affiliates began shifting to indigenous leadership. Figures taken in the spring of 1999 give testimony to 7,500-8,000 believers in 154 churches throughout the country.
Though evangelicals are still numerically dwarfed by Muslims, the figures can be somewhat deceiving. Albanian Muslims have been quite nominal. One missionary describes a typical Albanian who ardently advocated that a mosque be built in his home town, yet scoffed at the idea that he would ever attend it. The most significant social structure in Albania is clearly the extended family. It has been through these clans that the Gospel message has been propagated. "If you get a breakthrough into a family, that's where [the Gospel] will spread, through the natural relationships," says Stensland.
Perhaps it shouldn't be odd, but the fledgling evangelical community in Albania has emulated the partnership and comity modeled for them by their foreign brothers and sisters. They have formed an umbrella organization themselves, known popularly as the Evangelical Brotherhood. This alliance of evangelicals in Albania proved to be most critical in ministering to the flood of Kosovar Albanian refugees that began to pour into the region earlier this year. Nearly 440,000 Kosovars sought refuge in Albania as a result of the campaign of ethnic cleansing orchestrated by Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic.
Kosovar Albanians and those from Albania proper have tended to view one another with a bit of disdain. But it was the Christian community in Albania who, both with common hospitality and an organized joint effort of over 100 Albanian churches and 70 AEP agencies, in disproportionate number, were the first to offer assistance to their beleaguered brothers. One Christian worker notes that "The evangelical churches make up only .2 percent of the Albanian population," and yet, he continued, "these believers took care of approximately 70,000 refugees."
Maybe the most profound and unforeseen fruits of the cooperative, foot-washing testimony of the Albanian believers is how it has contributed to at least an initial warmth towards the Gospel hitherto unseen amongst Kosovar Albanians. Stensland reported that a number of Kosovar leaders were beginning to say, "Will you please come into Kosovo when it opens and plant churches in our region? What we have seen in your life is what we want."
Even before the horrific ordeal of 1999, the Kosovar Albanians were in great need of an authentic, life-changing Gospel.
Youthful enthusiasm and hope for a brighter future have contributed to the vigor present in the evangelical community in Albaniaa country whose population has an average age of below 27 years.
Rough estimates were that fewer than 100 evangelicals were scattered across Kosovoand quite divided.
The AEP's story provides a striking illustration of the far-reaching impact of partnership. Though few in number, the testimony of the Albanian church was powerful and far more than symbolic. If God has been an active force in shaking the nations, in Albania He has also shown what the prophet Haggai recognizedHis glory and His Son, the Desire of All Nations.