Travel Days

We flew overnight on Austrian airways, leaving early morning on the 12th with a layover at Washington Dulles. We were all tired, but some of us were awake enough to go out to the National Air and Space museum Udvar-Hazy center for a couple hours. My dad decided to meet us there, since my parents live in Washington DC. He, my little sister Alina and I hung out with Will, Danita, and Ron at the museum, which was pretty awesome.

The overseas flight was very nice, though I spent most of the flight asleep. Some of the team were unable to sleep and were having difficulty adjusting to the time zone change. We arrived in Vienna at 8am local time and found a secluded room where we could nap through the 4 hour layover. I was able to engage with a high schooler named Christian who was sitting with us. He goes to Herndon high in the DC area. He is catholic, but really believes the bible is more like children’s stories to teach us how to do good works. His flight left before I got to deeply share the Gospel, so I quickly went through Romans Road and challenged him to ask his youth group leader more about the Law.

We arrived in Tirana and were greeted by Aldo with a bus. He took us to a hotel, then we all had souflaqe at Big Bite. Aldo is the head of the high school ministry of CRU in Tirana. We were also met by Avni, one of the operational directors of CRU in Albania, and Skerdi who is a new staff member as of this year. We had a great time getting them acquainted with the whole team. On the way out we met an American couple who had just moved to Tirana. They were looking for a good church to go to. Aldo gave them the info for his church which meets at the CRU office building, the “Instituti Jeta e Re” (New Life Institute). They were very happy to run into some Christians, and I hope they will attend church on Sunday.

Later I took Bryan and Danita to their first Albanian coffee at Relax Café across from the hotel. They enjoyed it, should help them feel more comfortable tomorrow when they start having coffee with the students. We met up with the others and Aldo took us to the office where he gave us an introductory orientation on Albanian culture and history, as well as our basic schedule. We went from there to Vila 12 for dinner and watched the World Cup final while we ate. All the Albanians were cheering for Germany, but some of us were cheering for Argentina. When Germany won there were some fireworks outside the hotel.

Blerina (Aldo’s wife) was there with Amanda, their daughter who was just born a couple months ago. She was sleeping but it was good to see her for the first time. Aldo told us over dinner about his desires to grow the ministry and open high school programs in other cities. They need more foreign partners; their primary problem is a lack of resources. I hope we can help with that.

Day 1

Today started with breakfast and a short meeting in the patio with the whole team. We walked to the office and had a devotional around 10:30. Will shared from Isaiah. Shortly afterwards we invited the students in for a short dance party & group dance practice. Aldo assigned our team members to the different groups. I joined group Lucky Stars along with Matt. The group consisted of Daniel, Amadis, Frensi, Gerti, Liams, and 3 girls including Ensi whom I had met at last year’s camp. The leader was Eri, we had Fatmir as an Albanian high school volunteer, and Almos from the Hungarian team. I was glad to be in a group with Eri and Fatmir, they both were part of last year’s camp. This was Eri’s 5th year on staff.

The teams each had to choreograph a dance for a competition on Wednesday. We went to an unused room to work on our dance for an hour, it was an interesting group choreography from a youtube video they had found. Matt was really getting into it, he has some good moves. After a while we took a break and went to Coffee with the whole group. I tried interacting with Gerti but he had some trouble understanding me and Fatmir had to translate a lot of what I was saying. We all had a great time getting to know eachother. After coffee, Matt and I had lunch with Fatmir. We talked a bit about his college plans, and about our difficulties with unbelieving relatives. If Aldo will let him, he’d like to stay for one more year at Ice & spice. It was a good conversation. I’m glad to be able to get to know Fatmir a little better. We came a little late to Patrick’s bible study because of lunch. He is teaching 2 timothy all this week. It’s difficult because everything has to be translated, but he did a good job.

We started the evening with some games, one was about naming the other people in the group. That’s agood idea for an icebreaker, I’ll have to remember it. After the games was the life map presentation. We ended up all sharing our stories, because only 2 of the kids had prepared a life map beforehand. The kids were on the edge of their seats for Matt’s testimony. Almos also did a great job, he drew his life map on the back of a paper in about 5 minutes, and it was pretty detailed. He has some very good artistic skills.

There was a talent show after the life maps. Daniel did some good card tricks. One of the Iowans, Andrew, sang “I See Fire” – it was fantastic! Two thumbs up. I tried to catch up with Daniel and Amadis to invite them to coffee tomorrow, but they said they didn’t know if they’d be able to come back tomorrow. I hope I don’t miss an opportunity with him. I’ll pray that God brings him back. Instead, I grabbed Danita and we scheduled coffee with Ensi and her friend Klodi for tomorrow.

We had a staff wrap-up meeting to share stories, and Aldo pointed out a girl who had just accepted Christ that day. She was nervous but she explained that she accepted Christ for a new life and the forgiveness of her sins. I was glad to hear her testimony. After the meeting we went to dinner and had a very nice meal. It was Alma’s birthday so we all sang for her and had cake. Alma was part of the staff for RPJ (the high school ministry) last year but she is taking a sabbatical this year. It was very good to see our team adjusting very well to the format and beginning to have good coffees. I’ll pray that God will continue to smooth the waters for us.

Day 2

Today we saw the Father at work. We had a meeting at the office at 10, then we waited around a while for our coffees. My coffee was scheduled with Ensi and Klodi, but only Ensi showed up so she went to coffee with Eri. I went to coffee with Aldo, Ron and Danita at the cafe right across from the office, and we spotted some girls who went to the camp. They had missed their scheduled coffee so we invited them to sit with us. Their names are Bori and Jadie. We had a good conversation that turned to God after we started talking about CS Lewis’ book “The Problem of Pain”. We described Lewis’ argument then talked about how Pain entered the world and how Jesus took away sin, which is the cause of pain. Danita shared her story – the girls were very interested in that. I could see Bori especially leaning in and listening very closely. We asked them if they were ready to receive Christ, but they said they were not yet convinced in their hearts.

Later we had the large group time. Some of the volunteer kids put on their “Lifehouse” drama, which is a musical play set to Lifehouse’s song “Everything”. Fatmir played Jesus, Hyrije played the main character. It was as good as last year, Hyrije is a very good actress. The kids in my group were moved by it and understood the symbolism immediately. We had a discussion time on the story of the prodigal son and we related it to the lifehouse skit. Again, the kids all intellectually got it. We challenged them to believe it, to accept Jesus, and two of them did! I have coffee with them tomorrow, their names are Frensi and Liams. In the staff meeting that night we learned that 6 others had accepted Christ today, including Ensi while she was at coffe with Eri! God worked a miracle today.

We went to dinner at Pizza Time and I sat with Will, Aldo, Erin, Dionys & Jeff. Will was talking about some ideas he had for a potential business opportunity in Albania. He is starting a business to consult with airline parts manufacturers to get them certified under international standards, and he thinks he could do that for a business in Tirana. Matt was also talking about maybe joining up with the oil & gas company that does all the Albanian drilling and exploration. It was fun to see a love for Albania growing among my friends. I would love to see some of them make long term commitments to Albania but we’ll have to wait for a while and pray about those decisions so we don’t do anything on impulse.

We made one last stop to have a beer at Relax café. Matt, Ron, Will, Danita and I all hung out and chatted about random stuff, even dragons in the Bible. Matt was contending that the Behemoth in Job is a dragon, and that dragons could have been on the Ark. It was a fun discussion and a great way to end the evening.

Day 3

We started this morning by being tourists. Aldo and Mentor met us at 8 to show us around town. We went to Sky Tower and had coffee at the rotating bar on the top floor. It had an awesome view. We sat there for an hour and had a great time. It also gave some of us an opportunity to chat one-on-one about how people were feeling about the week. It’s always challenging in the middle of a discipleship trip like this to see how you’re being effective. You have to trust that God is using you even though you can’t always see how. I’ve felt that way before, even last year. Later on we would hear more about how effectively God was working through us.We went from there to the new Greek Orthodox church. It was very nice looking but I prefer to go visit churches that have some history. The Greek/Eastern orthodox church have some very fascinating history in general. We finished our tour by walking past the historical museum, and arrived at the office at 11. Some of us had coffee right away, the rest had our devotional. Lucy led it, she did a great job.

Aldo joined me and Fatmir for lunch with Frensi and Liams at Big Bite. We spent an hour teaching them about how their lives have changed now that they have professed faith in Christ. We showed them the great commission, talked about living by the Spirit and running the race so as to win. They understood that now Jesus dwells inside of them, and they should not continue to sin. Aldo showed them Ephesians 2:8-9, they know that faith is a gift from God for salvation not based on their own worthiness. I will continue to pray for them, and Fatmir will be inviting them to come to church and bible study.

At 1 we had dance practice to work on our choreography with the group. Afterwards we discussed 2 timothy in the bible study led by Patrick. Frensi was there with the new bible we gave him. It was good, we discussed false teachers and divine inspiration of scripture. The kids had good insights.

We took a team picture outside at 4, but we were missing Jeff because he was sharing the Gospel. Afterward the dance competition began. Our team had an awesome choreographed dance, we got 1920 points. Will and Aldo’s team however got 2020 so they won. I credit their victory to Will’s robot moves. If we had to lose I’m glad that we lost to a good performance.

In the staff meeting there were no stories of new conversions but several good conversations. One kid, Andrea, had just become a believer this past week and was already having coffees with his friends and sharing the gospel! It was awesome to hear him share in the meeting. We had dinner at a new place and I sat with Skerdi and Anila. We had some good conversation, talked some more about their mission and I learned a few new Albanian words. The highlight was Ermal’s story about being suspected of organized crime in America. He had been describing a movie to a friend at a starbucks and quoted a line in English: “They are 15 minutes late? And they call themselves organized crime?” after which he continued to speak in Albanian. Apparently someone overhearing this called the cops and they followed him for 30 minutes until he stopped. Ermal is a witty guy.

After dinner we went back to the hotel and spent some time planning Texas night. It’ll be a blast, I’m excited. More on that tomorrow.

Day 4

We had a busy last day. We had coffee in the morning with Albanian staff. Skerdi and Anila invited me, Lauren and Patrick for coffee to talk about their mission. I should consider whether I can support them too. Lauren had come straight from a photo shoot. She and Ron had taken pictures of Aldo & Blerina with their baby Amanda. They were some sweet pics from what I saw.

I met some boys for coffee at 11. Skerdi went with me to the rooftop café above Coin. Daniel, Amadis, Gerti and Flori. Flori is a believer who contributed well to the discussion. He is studying engineering and wants to go to the state for College. Daniel and Amadis had some interesting questions. Daniel wanted to know how we can be sure that Jesus really rose from the dead, since the Gospels were written so long after the fact. We shared from Acts the testimony of Paul before Agrippa to show that the earliest message was of Jesus’ resurrection. We showed that he could easily have been disproved by 1 witness calling him a liar, or by producing Jesus’ body. Daniel and Amadis left coffee with fewer questions but still not believing. Gerti continued to ask questions, Matt was excited to hear that he’s opening up.

We had lunch with Aldo and Skerdi then I went to the hotel and changed into my Texas outfit. We had to hurry to coffee with Ylli, Aldo, Afrim and Avni. We talked about the future of the camp and our involvement. They want us to bring more teams in the future because they are expanding to new cities. Eri will be leading RPJ in Elbasan next year. Their biggest need is manpower. Avni also shared a prayer request: they have a donor who will match up to $25k in the next couple months. Avni will send us more information on that, but they asked us to pray for fundraising.

We hurried again from there to Texas Night. The guys were already setting up. I went downstairs to make a trashbag piñata and chatted with Afrim about helping their website. They have something functional but it’s not the best. He’s having some trouble getting content from the other leaders so they were unable to do the podcast. I think I could help a lot if I could go there for longer than a week.

Texas night was a blast! It started with “Deep in the heart of Texas!” then we went into the balloon game. The kids all really enjoyed it, and so did the staff. Blerina was very competitive! In the end team Orion won, and our trashbag piñata fell in one hit. The game show was also a blast. The gals and Ron put my name as one of the multiple choice answers for Sandra Bullock’s picture, then tried to get the kids to choose “Gordon”. That was special, I appreciated it.

The kids gathered around and Matt shared the bridge illustration. Later I heard Keaton say he reallyappreciated that someone explained the Gospel from stage. Normally the Albanians prefer to share the Gospel over coffee. Bryan followed up by rocking his testimony. The kids were all really engaged and listening intently. We had discussion time and Matt engaged with Gerti again. He thinks that if he is good enough that God will let him in to heaven; little mistakes are no big deal to God. A couple of other kids in the group were paying attention to the conversation and Eri thinks they would be good to follow up with. The end was a dance party. We learned Copperhead Road and then Matt taught us to two step. The kids really liked the country dancing.

We had a good staff meeting and a great dinner. I sat across from Almos and we talked about Speak Out which is CRU Hungary’s English camp. Almos is doing a great job of discipling some people through that ministry. It’s awesome to hear. The highlight was when Matt played with and then ate Sebastian the Shrimp, who was originally Will’s meal. The Albanians then gave us some really cool gifts. The team loves their Albanian soccer jerseys.

Aldo and Mentor stayed with us at the hotel until the cabs came. We had a debriefing and everyone wanted to stay longer and come back next year. I think we’ll try for two teams. That may mean I need to stay in Dallas at least 1 more year. We’ll definitely be talking about what changes we can make to allow us more time in country next year. It was a great conversation and everyone left feeling very happy and full of love for all the people we met.

Day 5

Our travel day started out as all our other travel days have: with very little sleep. Our flight left about 6 in the morning from Tirana. We arrived in Vienna about 7:30 for our longest layover. Some of us slept on one of the fancy couches in the terminal while others talked about a variety of topics. About 9 I went with Will and Danita to see if we could take a bus to a pub in Fishamend. Unfortunately we got lost in the airport and missed the bus, so we ended up eating lunch at a pub in the airport. It was good to just relax a bit and have some good conversation. We were all talking about how we wanted to stay longer in Albania, but by that point it was too late to go back. We hopped on our flight to Rome and arrived about 4:30 in the afternoon. Ron, Danita, Lauren and I decided to walk around the area for a while until dinner and eventually made our way over to the Coliseum. It was a nice three hour walk, but it was problematic for Lauren because she had had so little sleep. We went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant around 8:30, and stayed there till 11. Dinner in Italy takes a long time, but it’s good. There were some minor problems due to lack of sleep but we all got a good night’s rest that night.

Day 6

We started the day at 11 by taking the metro to the Vatican. Most of the team decided to take a guided tour, but Danita and I were not interested in that so we skipped the tour and just wandered around the Vatican ourselves. We saw all the good parts, including the Sistene Chapel and Vatican Square. I like Vatican Square a lot, it’s very pretty. We then wandered side streets on our way to the Parthenon, and stopped at a little café for some pasta & good conversation. We talked over the events of the trip as well as our future plans. Danita and I both really would like to go back sooner rather than later, and we may begin exploring options to do that. We saw the Parthenon and the Spanish steps, then went back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group.

From the hotel we went to dinner at a restaurant near the Coliseum. We spent about 3 hours at dinner which was great, because it gave us a chance to really debrief from the trip. The universal agreement was that we wished we could have stayed longer. We discussed what things we could have done differently and came to a few conclusions. We should have fundraised sooner so that we would have better options for flights. We could have skipped the Rome trip to have one more day with the camp. The group voice seemed to say that if we had known how much we would fall in love with Albania, we would absolutely have chosen to skip the Rome part of the trip. One suggestion was to have our side trip be to Greece, or even Vlore instead. That way not only would we cut down on travel time providing us more time in Tirana, but maybe we could even invite the staff to join us. Those were good suggestions that we’ll definitely take into consideration in planning next year’s trip.

Despite the fact that we only got 4 days in Tirana, I have no regrets. Even if I wish things could have gone differently, God was in control of our whole trip from planning to final execution. I trust that He has used our 4 days effectively, and I trust the CRU leadership to continue to disciple those kids while we are gone. Already we’ve heard several more stories of kids coming to Christ on the last day of the camp, and our whole team has been rejoicing over those stories.

As much as we wish we could be there, our role is a different one. Our role is to go back to Dallas and tell all our friends and family of God’s goodness, of His work in Albania, and our newfound love for the people. Our job is also to pray for the continued success of CRU and especially RPJ. Finally, our job is to recruit more people to partner with Albania in the ways that we all desire to. I know that for my part, God made a good decision entrusting me with this job, because I intend to carry it out to the best of my ability.