photo by Ron Acord

Day 1

Back for a third time! Kinda hard to believe we got 20 people. We have 2 teams full of great people and we’re here and ready to rumble. Will and Lauren are leading one team of 10 that’s staying in Tirana, while Lucy and I lead the team that will depart to Elbasan on Sunday. Getting here was much better than last year, thanks mostly to Lucy’s organizational leadership and Will’s being on the ball with prep. In fact I pretty much left most of the prep work to them. It’s great that Lucy’s leadership style is pretty much the opposite of mine. We complement eachother well even if we butt heads sometimes.

The plane flights took a lot out of people but everyone was ready and willing to join in the camp ASAP. I hopped in with Aldo’s discussion group until it was time to dance. They brought in a professional dance instructor to teach the kids some kind of choreographed salsa dance. It was fun to learn but a lot of the kids seemed to feel awkward about partnering. I saw a lot of the boys staying on the outer edge of the room. We danced till 8, then everyone planned a coffee for tomorrow.

Patrick had already been here a couple weeks. He was teaching a study on Ephesians at the staff retreat, then he did a discipleship camp for the kids. He did awesome. He was telling us at the wrap up meeting about some of his coffees that he had during the discipleship camp. After the debrief we wall went to dinner, 31 people. It was a big outdoor pizza place that was really nice, with live music. I sat with Jeff, Alma and Erin. It was fun to catch up with them, and a great way to end the first night.

Day 2

I was glad to get a full night’s sleep when we awoke today. First order of business was moving everyone about a mile down the road to Hotel Sokrat. I’m sure it was quite a sight to see 20 americans wheeling luggage through the busy city center.

We had an orientation, then some time to kill. I scheduled coffee with Juxhin (eugene) and invited Fatmir as well. He and I caught up while we waited for Juxhin. Fatmir told me about his schoolwork, and his trip to Bosnia. He was telling me how much more difficult it was to share the Gospel in Bosnia, and how he was grateful for the openness of the Albanian people. He gave me a souvenir to keep from Bosnia. Juxhin met us at Bit Bite and we talked about his future. He is a believer and his parents also accepted Christ, but they emigrated to America. Juxhin follows them in 2 weeks; they’ll be living in Boston. I tried to impress on him the importance of getting plugged in to a church when he moves there. I hope he will - I’ll be praying for him.

After lunch I went to coffee with Matt and Coleton. We sat with a few boys including Elton, Helion, & Redion. Coleton was instant friends with them. He told them all about slaughtering hogs and owning guns. Then he asked them what they believe. Helion and Redion are both muslim, but only culturally. Coleton took the time to plant a seed, and Matt watered it while we were gone in Elbasan.

photo by Ron Acord

We all went to the park for a field day. They had several games including a sack race, relay race, water balloon toss and tug of war. My team, “The Shining”, didn’t win any games, but that’s OK. Emily left our team after a bit to go talk to some girls who were sitting by themselves. They talked for an hour or two on many subjects including the Gospel. She told us later that one of the girls believed she was too sinful and God would not accept her. Emily had a great opportunity to share about God’s unconditional love.

On our way back we handed out fliers for the camp in the area near the University. Apparently Coleton was great at this - he stopped a bunch of kids who didn’t seem interested and got them to take fliers. We had our debriefing then went out for dinner. The leaders went with Afrim and Lavdi to have dinner at their house, while the rest of the team went to dinner at Era. It was great to see Lavdi again! She and Lauren bonded over their shared love of the Myers-Briggs personality test. They were discussing all our various personality types and analzying us. It was a good time.

Day 3

Happy Independence Day! We celebrated without fireworks, at a nice beach and restoraunt overlooking the water. We spent the afternoon in Durres, but first we went to tour Aldo’s hometown Berat. We got up super early and piled into the bus at 7:30ish. The whole team plus some of the students, who are trusted volunteers at the camp. We also included Dennis and Teri, who came from Kansas to participate in the camp.

photo by Ron Acord

After 2 hours we stopped in Berat. It’s a beautiful city. We went up to the castle overlooking the city and walked all around it. There was a museum of an old orthodox church in the castle. Apparently am old New Testament manuscript was found there dating back to around the 6th century. The views from the top of the castle were the best part; we took lots of pictures.

We loaded up and went to lunch at a restaurant near the house where Aldo grew up. He pointed it out to me from the balcony. It was good to see where he grew up. After lunch we all loaded up again for Durres. I think all the bus time was good for team bonding, especially for some of the people who aren’t as well connected around the Porch.

Durres is a nice beach city right on the Adriatic. The water was very clear. There were a lot of people there, probably because it’s saturday. The whole beach was covered in fixed umbrellas which you can apparently rent. We camped out at a beachfront coffee bar and enjoyed the water.

Dinner was at a seafood place at the end of the main pier on the beach. You could tell it was a fancy place. The food was delicious too. The shrimp in my risotto was delicious. I sat with Erica, Brittany, and Candace. I’m glad I got to know them better over dinner, especially since Brittany and Candace are going with me to Elbasan tomorrow.

Day 4

Church was great this morning! A pastor from Houston spoke, he’s here with a team from his church to do campus ministry. He spoke on the need for community, because “nobody wins (the race) alone”. We went for lunch to the Sheraton and ate at a small restauraunt in the lobby area. I sat with Avni and Alan, who is an Aggie who splits his time between Houston and Tirana with his wife. We had some great conversation regarding my upcoming stint. Looks like I won’t need a visa to stay up to 364 days. I’ll miss some planning time and a staff conference, but it still works out to arrive the last week of September/first week of October.

After lunch we quickly took a team picture before getting on the bus to Elbasan. On the bus I sat next to a guy who didn’t speak any english. I could hear Patrick and Brittany having good conversations with the people they sat next to, but I didn’t find my opportunity. I’ve been feeling a little ineffective on that front because I’ve yet to have a good evangelistic conversation. Maybe I will and maybe I won’t, it’s up to the Lord. I can content myself with striving to have those conversations, leading well, and trusting God with the rest.

We had dinner with Eri, Ana, Edi, Kela, Hysen and Alda. They cooked some delicious traditional albanian food! The best dishes were the stuffed pepper, the byrek, and something like a potato lasagna. It was Alda’s birthday! We had a cake and ice cream to celebrate. After dinner we walked around the main area and passed out fliers till about 9:30, when all the kids went home. I got to practice my Albanian a little; i’m sure it was terrible. We finished settling in at the hotel, which is in the middle of the old castle in the center of town.

Turns out the hotel is right next to the Via Egnacia, the ancient road which Paul traveled down on some of his missionary journeys. Definitely a neat experience.

Day 5

Today was great! God heard my prayer about feeling ineffective. Brittany invited her bus friend to coffee, and he & I had a great conversation around 11.

We started the day with breakfast at the hotel. Everyone got omelettes because that’s the only thing we understood how to order. I really like the breakfast area, it’s great for bonding with the team over a morning meal. We moved to the top of the tower in the center of Elbasan, which is a floor above the bar that RPJ had rented out for the camp. We had an orientation and a devotional up there, led by Hysen. The devotional was about “the harvest is plenty but the laborers few.” Tomorrow is my turn, I still need to prep tonight.

We moved to the bar (it’s called “Divino”) to see if any students showed up to our open coffee invite. A few did and Coleton immediately took to them. I sat with Candace and Brittany to wait for her bus friend, Volti. He arrived shortly, and the 4 of us talked for a while. Eventually the conversation turned to Jesus. Volti is agnostic, he says he doesn’t know whether God exists or not. We talked about miracles and the historicity of the resurrection. He promised to research it. We’ll become facebook friends and I’ll reach out to him again in October.

We had a great lunch at a crepery, then I napped until the 2:30 bible study. Patrick did a good job talking about the need to stay connected to God as the source of your joy. There were a few students there, mostly the ones who were already believers and helping us out with the camp. After bible study we moved to the bar to begin setting up.

photo by Ron Acord
The students began arriving around 4:15. My group is with Aaron & Eri. Gazi is in our group, I met him back in January when I came to visit. One of the students I met immediately was Aldo, unfortunately he doesn’t speak any english. The games were fun and the discussion was interesting. It was all in Albanian, but I caught a bit of it and was able to ask a relevant question.

For the game time, we had to compete in a fashion show with some construction paper, tape and face paint. Our team dressed a guy up as a superhero, “Red and Black Hero.” The colors of the Albanian flag are Red & Black, so he was kind of like the equivalent of Captain America. We dressed a second guy up as a mummy. We didn’t win but it was fun! We ended the night with dancing.

At dinner I sat with Ron, Kaon, and Genti Belba. Genti is a believer, and he was asking me all about computer programming. He wants to learn how to set up a blog. I’ll try to have coffee with him tomorrow to show him how to set up a blog.

Day 6

We started after breakfast with a devotional that I prepared last night. I talked about 1 Cornthians 7 & related it to the recent supreme court decision legalizing gay “marriage” in all 50 states. We talked about how we as Christians can be countercultural on marriage even in our singleness, by using it as a time devoted to God. Emily summarized it well: “Paul’s saying marriage is good, but singleness is also good.”

During coffee time I sat with Remo, Lyto, and Aldo. We talked for a while just building relationships. Lyto and I asked Aldo about his faith. He said he believes in God and believes Jesus existed, but not specifically in Jesus or Muhammad per se. His parents used to go to the mosque but not anymore. I’ll have coffee with him and Remo, Marsel, & Alirs tomorrow.

We went for lunch with Berti & his wife, who had come to Elbasan to see how the camp was going. I asked him more about his goals for RPJ and LLM (the ministry team that I’ll be a part of). I wanted to hear about the big picture. He says alumni are a big part of their plans and he’d love to have me reaching out to them. They have a focus on education and want to retain their graduates. He really enjoyed getting to know the team, at least those who were at the lunch. Afterward we all got a picture together.

We walked up to the bible study to find Coleton playing Texas Hold ‘em with the kids, betting with Starbursts. Gazi won the big pot with his pocket 3’s, he hit trips on the flop. When the bible study started, Patrick continued his teaching on 1st John, then we went downstairs to start the show. I was glad most of the kids were still there, we even added a few girls. The guys Aaron had been talking with didn’t show up until after discussion time but at least they showed. Tonight’s discussion was on man’s separation from God. One question they asked the kids was “why do people die?” I thought that is a good question to get them thinking about sin and death.

When it came time to schedule coffee, I went outside to find Marsel smoking with some older boys. One of them kept asking if I’d ever tried cigarettes, then jokingly asked if I wanted to buy some weed. I’m glad he’s here. The Gospel has power to save him too, and I am glad he’s here to listen to the message. I may seek him out later to have a 1 on 1 coffee.

After dancing we went to an outdoor Qofte restauraunt. The kernacka korçe was fantastic! Our table ate over 15 of them, plus some french fries and yogurt sauce. The bacon wrapped chicken kebabwas also good. I sat with Remo. He’s a believer but I’m not sure he quite gets why we’re here. I’m hoping he’ll see tomorrow when I have him help me evangelize to the boys.

The team spent a bit of time back at the hotel planning Texas night. I think we’re good and ready to go. Coleton and Emily are going to set up a surprise over Joseph’s door, since tomorrow’s his birthday! When he opens it, a bunch of baloons wil drop.

Day 7

Today was the best day yet! God is really working in Elbasan. It started with a devotional led by Emily. She did a great job sharing about Romans 10:14-15. We had lots of great discussion that definitely encouraged us to go share the Gospel. And that’s what we did! But before we went to coffee, we surprised Joseph with a birthday cake. He said it’s the best birthday he’s ever celebrated. I’m glad he came on the trip with us. We also found out that Mark fractured his leg in Tirana yesterday. He was playing soccer and somehow just fractured it. He’s going to need surgery, so they’re trying to fly him home early tomorrow. Will definitely be praying for him. So, a bit of good and a bit of bad today.

At least the coffee was good! I met with Marsel and Alirs in Bar Rosvelt, which is on the 2nd floor of the tower. Eri and Remo came to help translate. We joked around for a while then asked what they want to do with their lives. They couldn’t think of any purpose beyond just making money and having a family. I asked Remo to share his testimony. He told them about the joy and hope he has in Christ. We asked if they want that same joy, and they said yes. So we drew out the bridge illustration in Albanian. I wish I had kept it, or taken a picture. We challenged them, “do you want to accept Jesus right now?” and they said yes! So Remo led them in prayer. They feel the hope & joy now! They excused themselves a minute, and when they came back they gave us gifts. They were little chocolate filled crossaints that I assume they bought at a shop around here somewhere. I definitely appreciated the gift. We stayed for a while and chatted about what it means to be an adopted child of God.

photo by Ron Acord

After that I had coffee with Genti, who is a believer. He wants to learn programming so I showed him some Albanian programming tutorials for HTML and JavaScript. We spent the rest of the time just chatting. Afterwards I took a nap back at the hotel, then went to the tower and found Coleton chatting with a few guys up on the roof. I sat down and met Mario, Erald and Roden. Roden spoke the most english so we mostly engaged with him. He’s also the guy who jokingly offered me weed yesterday. He believe we’re all sinners and he believes in God, but not specifically christian or muslim. He thinks when we die that’s it, we’re just gone. It was an interesting conversation but in the end it didn’t go anywhere. But it was good to get to know those guys.

During discussion time Roden and his friends were paying attention, but Roden was a bit disruptive. He was asking some controversial questions and was not satisfied with the answers, and was monopolizing the discussion, so Eri asked him to leave for a bit. I followed him outside and sat with him. He was visibly upset about being asked to leave. He plays the outcast king in front of his friends but in reality I think he doesn’t like being that guy. Now, one on one, we had a good conversation. He was paying attention when I told him about Jesus being God. We read Mark 14:62 together and I could tell he was puzzling over why Jesus would claim to be God. I shared my testimony with him, and when I talked about being convinced by the evidence for the Resurrection he asked, “there’s a lot of evidence?” genuinely and sincerely. I think he wants to believe, but God has not yet given him the faith he needs.

We went back to the group while Aaron was sharing his testimony. In the end Roden asked Aaron, “Why did Jesus tell the high priest that He was God?” Aaron responded, “Because it’s true.” Amen. I think God is going to save Roden. I’m praying for that.

We had a dance competition after discussion, and Group Fire won! It was our first team victory. After some good free dancing we went to dinner, where we heard a few more good stories. Apparently right next to us in Bar Rosvelt, 2 other boys also accepted Christ! God is moving. We had a great dinner; Edi taught me an Albanian tongue twister:

Kupa me kapak, kupa pa kapak

Say that 10 times fast! I left dinner pregnant with a food baby. Fortunately the walk helped me digest. Tomorrow I have an 11am coffee with Marsel, Alirs and Aldo. I want Marsel and Alirs to share the gospel with him. Later at 3 I’m meeting Roden with Coleton. I pray that goes well. Then it’s Texas Night! I’m ready to administer the hot sauce competition. We taste-tested them tonight and figured out the ranking, from mildest to hottest.

Day 8

Texas night! What a great day! We started with a devotion led by Ron on the parable of the sower. Got us thinking about how we don’t know which kids will take root and grow, we just need to trust God. I had coffee at 11 with Aldo, Eri and Remo. I gave them all Team Albania T-Shirts. When Remo put his on I realized why I like him so much - he looks just like my brother Dan!

photo by Ron Acord

After chatting for a while I asked Aldo about his future plans. Like most kids in Albania he wants to go to America. I asked him why he thinks America is better than Albania. His response was mostly that he can have a much better job there, and a better life. I asked him, if America is so much better than Albania, why would I want to move to Albania for a year? He couldn’t answer that. I got to explain to him that I have a mission and a purpose more valuable than friends, family or money. I asked if he also wanted a purpose, & the joy that comes with it. He said yes. With Eri’s help I led him through the bridge illustration. I took a picture this time:

He understood and he prayed to receive Jesus! So now all 3 of Remo’s friends at the camp have become believers!

We went to lunch at the hotel (Real Scampis) and I took a short nap before dressing for Texas Night. I also took some time to pray for Roden. We were supposed to have coffee at 3 but he didn’t show until after Texas Night had started. During the Texas Night discussion time he was being disruptive again so Aaron pulled him aside. The 3 of us ended up talking for a while and I gave him a copy of “God, Liar, Lunatic”, which is the Albanian translation of Josh McDowell’s “More than a Carpenter”. We scheduled a coffee for 2pm tomorrow, just me and him.

Texas night was a blast! Coleton was the MC, he had on this outlandish cowboy outfit and his antics made the evening. The hot sauce competition was good, we had 4 winners but at least the kids had fun. I’m impressed with their fortitude. All the games were a blast. Joseph shared the 4 spiritual laws, and most of the kids were paying attention. Then Aaron shared his testimony. Both of them did a great job. We had some discussion time, but I spent most of it doealing with rowdy kids. Outside where some boys were smoking there was almost a fight. I’m kind of happy about that, because it means that even those boys are coming to hear the Gospel. God chose to challenge us by bringing the difficult kids, who need the Gospel as much as anyone. And it was definitely a challenge.

photo by Ron Acord

After discussion we taught the kids the Copperhead Road dance. Some picked it up better than others. I scheduled an 11am coffee with Alirs, I want to do some discipleship with him. We went to the Panorama resort for dinner. It’s on the side of the mountain and has a great view of the city. We had a good time as a team playing the camping game, which has to do with understanding the spelling of English words. Edi was surprisingly good at it. His english is impressive!

Tomorrow’s the last day of hard work. I pray that God will bless our coffee times.

Day 9

Last day, last coffees. In the morning I got to sleep in a bit, while some of the team had coffee with the staff members. I spent a bit of the time praying for my final 2 coffees with students.

At 11 I went to Bar Rosvelt with Alirs and Marsel. Peki came to translate. I asked them about the 4 spiritual laws. They didn’t know them, but after Peki explained they realized that they did understand the 4 spiritual laws, they just didn’t know the name. Then I asked them to present the Gospel to me, as though I were an unbeliever. They did a good job! I was convinced to place my faith in Jesus :)

We talked about whether God will forgive us if we continue to sin. Initially, one of them said yes and the other no. I pointed them to 1 John 1:9, and Romans 6. I explained how they have a new life, that the old life was sinful but the new life is sanctified. At this point I asked Peki to share his testimony, which was very powerful. Alirs had a good question on comparing the Qur’an to the Bible. Which is correct? I told him they differ in what they say about Jesus. For instance, the Qur’an says Jesus did not die on the cross, and that He never claimed to be God. I pointed them to Mark 14:62 and explained his 3 claims to be God in that one verse.

Afterwards we played pool at a local billiards hall. Peki and I won both games; Peki is a pretty good shot! Coleton also took a bunch of boys there. We played till lunch, then we went back to the Qofte place fur lunch. Aaron and I ate quickly because we had coffee at 2.

We headed up to Divino and met Roden there. I was surprised that he came by himself. Aaron excused himself so we could talk one on one. Roden told me more of his story, how he had a very difficult time recently with his father’s illness and how he just wants to get out of his bad neighborhood. He wants a better life. I told him that he can go anywhere but he can only find a better life in Jesus. I pleaded with him to believe it, but he just doesn’t have the faith (yet). We went to the roof and he pointed out some landmarks to me, telling me of his favorite places in the city. He gave me a gift, an old communist pistol bullet he found in the hills. I’ll definitely keep it on my desk, to remind me to pray for him.

photo by Ron Acord

Tonight’s program was an Albanian celebration. We sang a very patriotic song, “Kuq e Zi”, which the kids loved. The staff gave us some Albanian flag t-shirts as gifts, and we each got a turn on the mic to share what our best memories were from the camp. Mine was meeting my new brothers in Christ.

We said our goodbyes and went to dinner. We shared about all the students who came to Christ and the wonderful memories we had. The Albanian staff had very kind words for us. They emphasized how well we had used scripture as a tool during evangelism. Thank you Watermark for equipping us. We’re all excited for the faith party tomorrow, and some of us are even already planning how to come back next year.

Day 10

Today was the faith party! We loaded up the bus together with the Elbasan kids and headed to Tirana. We all arrived at the CRU office and headed upstairs to the main auditorium. It was good to see the Tirana team after nearly a week. I also got to hang out with some Albanian staff I hadn’t seen in a while.

The party started with some worship led by Billy. He’s not too bad on the guitar. Then Rodney gave a quick sermon. Rodney came to Tirana with his son Josh independently from us, they’re from Virginia. His sermon was on the book of Numbers, where Joshua and Caleb were the only two to give a good report about the land. They were the only two to remain faithful. He challenged us to be the 2. He even taught us to throw up 2 fingers as a “gang sign” about being the 2. He was definitely preaching hard, it was awesome.

photo by Ron Acord

After the sermon we had dancing, then pizza, then more dancing! We did a bunch of traditional Albanian dances. The Elbasan kids know some traditional dances that are different from the ones that the Tirana kids know. The two groups didn’t really mix too well, maybe we could do a better job of helping them get acquainted.

The party ended at 3, and the leaders went for coffee with Berti and his wife. We talked a lot about how we can make the camp better. Some ideas were to have a day of rest, and to make more things optional for the team. That way they can go rest when they need to, or schedule coffees that run later or whatever. On the way out we met up with Aldo who was leading the team on a sightseeing trip for the remainder of our afternoon. Lauren and I went to drop stuff off at the office, then we couldn’t find the group. I figured maybe they went to sky tower, so we headed up there. We got to the top and looked out the windows, and I spotted Matt walking down the street towards the city center with the rest of the group. I got my bearings and we caught up with them at the old mosque.

We went sightseeing and souvenir shopping for a while, then Matt and Jeff went to big bite to meet some students. I followed them after stopping by the hotel, while the rest of the team went to have coffee at sky tower. At big bite I sat with Genti Doçai & Pal Hila, 2 staff members who are good friends. We chatted about Greece, 911, and Islam. It was a fun conversation. We also talked about the possibility of me roomming with Pal. He and another new staff member are moving into a new place in August and are looking for a third roommate. It could be a really good living situation for me; it would definitely help me learn Albanian.

We went to dinner around 8 and had more good conversation. After dinner we moved to the hotel. On the way I picked up some Raki. We had another meeting with Aldo at the hotel. More good suggestions came up which we will likely implement as we plan next year’s trip.

That’s it I guess. We fly out in a couple hours. Here’s to an interesting next 12 months!