Elusive Transformation?

We sat in the circle of Albanian women, their faces set and unsmiling, but when it was each lady’s turn to share, a shy smile broke out on her face as she introduced herself and shared how long she had been a part of the church.  IMG_0256_2

We were in Albania attending a CHE conference (community health evangelism) which is a Christ-centered educational training program that “equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change.” CHE is a holistic approach to working with poor communities, where transformational development is encouraged from within the communities by training them how to approach their identified needs.  It is a often a slow and tedious process—a CHE worker in Albania was estimating 5-8 years before any change becomes visible.

As part of the conference, participants went on various field trips to see CHE  in action.   I had chosen to visit an Albanian church where CHE had been started in 2008.   IMG_0254

“The hardest thing about starting CHE was overcoming the Communist mindset that we cannot do anything or make any decisions without the government,” the pastor, who along with his vivacious wife, had planted the church 22 years ago.

“But now the women have seen that they themselves can bring about change.” Most of the men were in Greece trying to find work and so this church was made up of women and children.

We were introduced to the CHE “committee”— a few of the women who decide on the projects and help mobilize community volunteers to help others catch the vision.

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Outside on the new volleyball court. These young Albanian girls are taking English lessons as part of another program sponsored by the church.

The women took us out to the volleyball field that they had worked together to build for the community’s children. They explained how they had bought pipe and worked together to pipe water from the mountain into their houses, and pooled their money to hire a painter from their community to paint the church.

Meanwhile, my friend had taken a different field trip and was visiting a poor Roma community which had been turned around after they had been taught that they were growing the wrong crop for their village’s elevation.  Now, the whole village was successfully growing peaches and had a contract with a supermarket chain in Tirana.  Sons and grandsons were returning home from eking out a living in Greece and Italy to learn the community trade that was now allowing an economically sustainable life.

I have no illusions that this is some kind of magic pill to swallow that effects change overnight—however, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that poor Roma communities need to be approached holistically, and community problems need to be addressed with the people and not for the people. Quick relief or random projects are not effective in the long term—I am learning this by my own experience in the Little Darda Church and by visiting numerous other communities.  Poverty is a series of broken relationships with the majority culture, each other, God, and the environment, and Roma poverty is further complicated by the nature of their long history with the majority cultures.  Until reconciliation begins between the majority culture and the Roma community, any development will eventually be stunted by a glass ceiling of prejudice and suspicion.

These lessons became even clearer in the next few days when my friend and I visited a  Roma community situated on a city dump—the poorest that I have seen so far…

Albanian Flavor

The meandering valley of Berat is cut in half by the river snaking through its middle.  The stone houses climb up the sides of the foothills, straining towards the castle, and the whole vista-pungent scene is framed by snow-capped mountains in the distance.  Mosques and Orthodox churches dot the landscape of the 2,400 year old town. IMG_0318_2

I got up early this morning to wander the city before our mid-morning meetings.  Winding through the tiny stone passages of the neighborhood-in-the-hill, each turn led to another olive tree garden hanging over the walls or hobbit-sized door. IMG_0298 I finally decided to turn around when I was hailed by a smiling Albanian woman who hoped to sell me some of her her jams and wines, all made from her family garden.  I held my ground until she held up the bottle of spicy smelling olive oil, the olives picked from their garden and pressed with press that has been in their family for three generations.

Her 31 year old son appeared in the door, hair ruffled from sleep, and began to chat with me in English.  “What are you doing here?” he puzzled as I explained that we were visiting different Roma communities.  “I am Orthodox, I really believe in God.  Do you have a problem with Orthodox?” he asked me.IMG_0310_2

“I popped into an Orthodox church down in the center this morning, but there were only 5 old ladies there for the service.  Where were you?” I responded.

We chatted for a few minutes before he invited me back since their family had turned his mother’s cooking skills and their quaint stone-winding property into a make-shift restaurant.IMG_0288

Later that day, N. and I trudged up the hill once more, lured by the promise of authentic Albanian food.  When the mother saw me, her face lit up and we were ushered by brothers and niece up to the stone patio next to the garden.  The next 3 hours were spent enjoying a sumptuous feast complimented by Turkish coffee and mountain tea.  Meanwhile, the family would leave us for some moments in peace and then dart in to check in about the food, ask questions, or tell us a story.

“I follow God because of how I was born,” our new Orthodox friend told us.  “My mother and father decided not to have anymore children after my brother, but nine years later my mother got very sick.  No one knew what was happening to her even though she was going to different hospitals and doctors.  One night, she woke up and there was a woman standing by her bed.  She understood the woman was related to God, and she told her that she and her husband must have another child or she would be dead in 3 months. This was the time of Communism, so the mother had no one to ask about the vision, but afterwards they had me and her health was fully restored.”IMG_0341

He mused on his life, recognizing God’s protection as a 16 year old boy joining a small refugee boat to Italy in the hopes of finding some work.  The boat dropped them chest deep into the water of the Italian coast before it sped away, and the police were already approaching them when he managed to quickly move through the cold water and run away.  Alone and young in Italy, he pointed out occasions were he believe God protected him through an angel.

We sipped the last of our mountain tea and regretfully took our leave, feeling our stomachs and souls full.IMG_0336_2