photo by Ron Acord

Day 1

This year things have been a bit different, but I’m trying as much as possible to feel like I’m part of the American group. For the first 2 days though I also have some other responsibilities. My ministry team here in Albania, Leader-Led Movements, has a 2-day evangelistic conference called Life Choices. The graciously allowed me to go do Ice and Spice instead, but I still want to help them set up and tear down. It’s also different because I won’t stay at the hotel with the team. So this morning I didn’t see them until we all met at the office for orientation.

Orientation went well! I always enjoy an opportunity to worship in English. Aldo went through the standard intro, which I’ve now seen 4 times. I made a map of all the good coffee spots too, so the team doesn’t always end up taking the students to the same coffee shop. We headed over to Big Bite for lunch, which is kind of tradition now. Matt brought out his candy: gobstoppers, nerds and laffy taffy. He spent the whole lunch reading off laffy taffy jokes, and generally being a goofball. Definitely had us cracking up.

Will with his guitar photo by Ron Acord

We hung out around the coffee shop next to the office until about 4. That’s when the kids started to arrive. We had about 50 the first day, many already are believers. The first couple days will be more get-to-know-you activities. We all got on stage as the American team and introduced ourselves one by one. After the intro session we had several games. Matt and I were on the same team for one, we had to fish some candy out of a bowl of flour using just our mouths! For another we had to pass an egg along from one person to another, holding it only by a plastic spoon between our teeth. The kids loved the games but we didn’t get too much interaction from them. Afterwards we all went to coffee and watched the big Euro Cup match of the day, Italy vs Spain. The boys were all super interested in that. I did talk with a couple of them about sports. I tried to show them a bit about baseball but they weren’t too interested. At halftime the kids mostly went home.

playing the spoon game photo by Ron Acord

We went after that to share fliers and invite more kids. It can be tough to tell who are the high schoolers. A lot of people told us no. Some said they had been before, which I guess is a good sign. It seems that this will be a bit of a slower year. This is the first time we’ve come to open up the camp. In the past we came for the end when things were already in full swing. We will be doing a lot of planting this year, and discipleship with the college students who came to help. We finished the night with a good dinner at Sass cafe, while watching Iceland take out England in the Euro Cup. It was a bit strange to leave my friends at the hotel and go back to my house, but that’s OK. I feel like I’m living in both worlds at the moment.

Day 2

I started the day at the new coffee shop on Elbasan rd, called Mulliri Vjeter. It’s a 2-story self service coffee shop with nice chairs and decent wifi. In the early morning it’s pretty quiet up on the 2nd floor, but the cappucino is not as good as my favorite at Mon Cheri. Pal, Lauren, Danita, Chris and Fatmir joined me after a bit. We hung out and talked about Albania & Tirana. At 10:00 we had to head out. They went to their morning devotional, but I had to go help set up for the conference again. Fortunately they didn’t need me too much so by 10:30 I was able to join the American team.

We talked business for a bit then ended around 11. We didn’t know what to do since the camp wouldn’t start until 4. I tried to message a guy for coffee but he didn’t have time today, so we hung out in the basement playing Jungle Pong for a while. The girls started working on their “Relationships & Sex” talk which they will give later this week. Matt is doing the guys’ side of the sex talk. He was planning to do more prep later, but for now Jungle Pong takes precedence. In my opinion, his priorities are absolutely in the right place.

Jungle Pong is a contact sport photo by Ron Acord

We went for lunch at a Greek place down in the “Block” (Blloku). It had all kinds of different cuisines. Some of the guys got shwarmas. I was craving something kinda american, so I got the “American Pastrami”. It was not that great, but it tasted American. We talked about some of the difficulties that the RPJ staff have had this year. Several of the students have fallen away, caused problems, or generaly not been involved. They asked us to try to spend some good quality time having coffee with believers, hoping to get them to dive deeper into their faith. I think this is a good goal.

We played some more jungle pong after lunch, and around 5 started the camp. We played a game called “Soularium”, in which we spread a bunch of pictures out on the floor. The students were asked to select pictures that represent how they feel their life looks right now. One of the girls, for example, picked the one with a scale because she feels uncomfortable about her weight. Then Aldo asked them to pick two pictures that describe God. Most of the students picked ones with a light, or beautiful scenery. It gave us an idea where to start with coffee conversations.

Intense basketball photo by Ron Acord

We headed out from there to a park with a Basketball and Volleyball court. My team narrowly lost the championship match in volleyball! Dang. It was fun to bond with some of the students over sports. Will was bonding with a couple others from our group over Basketball. I tried to entice some kids to throw a frisbee with me but no luck. Only Dustyn joined me. He’s a cool guy, 2 years ago he was a stinter first in Ethiopia then in Italy. He’s enjoying being part of a CRU ministry again. Plus he’s enjoying speaking Italian with many of the CRU staff here.

We headed back to the office for a debrief, then Berti and Adelina Berhami took us o dinner at Era. We always have a great time at dinner on these trips and tonight was no exception. Matt told a few more Laffy Taffy jokes, while at the other end of the table Will was having a good discussion with Berti & Adelina. Matt also drank 2 more red bulls. I’ll have to ask his roommate Dustyn in the morning whether there was any sleeping in that room.

Ladies having fun photo by Ron Acord

Day 3

Today was a bit tough, and kinda highlighted my dual role here. In the morning I was unable to join the team for the devotional. Instead I had a planning meeting with the rest of the Young Professionals staff, regarding next week’s YP seminar. We had a lot to plan and do. I’m fortunate to have such a well organized leader in Genti Tupa. He planned everything out very well, I only asked him to allow me and Lauren time for our Albanian lessons. I have to make sure to build that time into the schedule or my lesson times won’t be consistent enough for me to learn.

I grabbed a Byrek më Gjizë (a delicious cheese-filled pastry which I’ve come to love) on the way back to the office. After scarfing down that deliciousness I went for coffee with a believer named Emmanuel. He’s a good kid, he’s just not been coming to RPJ much recently. Turns out he was dating a girl who didn’t want him to go. Now that they’ve broken up he’s coming back. He’s interested in programming, so I showed him some of the parts of my blog where I discuss programming challenges. Incidentally it had an error so I showed him how I kill the server and automatically restart it. I also showed him my blog post detailing the reasons I decided to come to Albania. This led to a discussion about heavenly rewards and investing in the Kingdom of God. He seems to think everyone will be equal in heaven so why bother? As long as his entry is secured he doesn’t care to invest more. We talked about how there will be no jealousy or pride in heaven, but when we do good works here then God allows us to enjoy their fruit for eternity. Ron also talked to him a bit about dating, and gave him good advice for future relationships.

Master Chef photo by Ron Acord

In the afternoon we had a Master Chef competition. The kids each got about $5 to buy fruit and then turn it into some artwork. The kids did a great job! We have a bunch of artists. We finished the meeting off with dancing. After the meeting we went out to do some street evangelism. I paired up with Igli, a volunteer who was a high schooler 2 years ago at Ice and Spice. He helped translate for me while I engaged a couple high schoolers. The first pair was completely apathetic. The guy said he wasn’t afraid to die, he knows that we just end and there’s nothing after death. I asked, “How do you know? What reasons do you have to believe that?” He said he has none, but his mind tells him that’s the truth. He didn’t care to know more. The second pair we talked to were muslims. Very active in the mosque. We started talking about Jesus and they said that we are wrong to say Jesus was God. They are not interested in talking about historical evidence, they are completely convinced by the Qur’an. They quickly left the conversation.

We regrouped at the Pyramid, and while waiting for the rest of the group a few of us climbed to the top. That was the first time I had been up there, it’s a lot of fun to climb it! We were planning to go to Aldo’s house directly from there, Blerina was cooking dinner for us. Unfortunately Emily & Megi were running late. I told the rest of the team to go ahead, and I took a taxi with Emily. It was my first time giving directions in Albanian, and my phone was about to die so I was a bit worried! But we made it no problems.

Blerina made an awesome spread! Pilaf, Byrek, Fërgesë, macaroni, chicken and potatoes. Everyone loves fërgesë now. For entertainment, Amanda danced the nae-nae for us. She is really good! But it’s really not surprising she’s learned it, it seems to be RPJ’s favorite song. We called it a night about 10:30 since everyone was super tired.

Master Chef winning team photo by Ron Acord

Day 4

Today started off as a bit of a hassle, but by the end it turned out great! In the morning I had to send out several dozen messages trying to coordinate meetings, to make sure everything goes smoothly next week. We couldn’t quite figure it all out, since Will has been so busy. I suggested to him that he try to delegate more of his responsibilities, especially for next week.

We had our team devotion at 11am, then I left with Lauren to go get Wes at the airport. He was excited to arrive, but also a bit tired. We got to the hotel and met the Young Professionals staff in the coffee shop next door while Wes changed and unpacked. We talked through the schedule and there seemed no objections. I had to leave a bit early for a coffee with some students at 3.

I met Silvio, Daniel and Ervin. We talked about sports, school, and relationships. Then I shifted the conversation. I found out Daniel is a believer. He has been with RPJ almost 1 year. Ervin is from a catholic background. We’ll have to talk more to him later. Silvio is a muslim. His dad goes to the mosque and he is keeping Ramadan. We talked a bit about eternal life. Daniel gave a summary of the Gospel, saying that there is no other way to eternal life except through Jesus Christ. I asked Silvio, how does the Koran say you receive eternal life? He said by following the rules.

We went from that coffee to Ice and Spice. Today we had a small group discussion time about the first 2 spiritual laws. One of the students was new today and he was very much a skeptic. His name is Donald. We had some very interesting back and forth, and eventually I asked him to meet me for coffee. I told him that I need his help, because I’ve staked my life on the truth of the resurrection. If that is not true, why shouldn’t I move back to Dallas? He agreed with me, and said that the best thing for me was probably to move back. Finally someone who understands that the Resurrection is the key! We scheduled coffee for 10am tomorrow.

Dancing with Aldo photo by Ron Acord

We danced a while and then had a debrief. It seemed that a lot of the others also had good conversations today. We left to go to dinner, and I suggested we go to the new Arabic restaurant. Unfortunately they only had a limited menu because of Ramadan, a “fasting menu”. I wonder why they are even open? We went instead to Taiwan, which is a big complex in a park near the city center. We had some good italian food and a fun conversation. Matt got another red bull, and they poured it into a wine glass. Will got way too much food, but we pushed him into finishing his pizzaa too. I really enjoyed hanging with them all. I’m gonna miss them a lot when they go back.

After dinner we stopped for Gelato. Matt got the Red Bull flavor. This has become tradition for him, to consume as much red bull as possible right before bed. We walked over to the new pavillion that they’ve constructed in the square. Will pulled out the guitar, he and Matt started singing random songs about Gold Bond & Red Bull. Dustyn engaged some Albanians sitting there. They didn’t speak any English so he tried Italian, and one of them responded! They moved over to take a picture with us, then I started talking to them in Albanian. We invited them to the camp tomorrow. It felt like a divine appointment, I hope they show up! We walked back and I split off from the group to go home. Again it’s almost like I’m back as one of the gang, but not quite.

Day 5

Today was the culmination of the first half of the camp, and it was awesome! To make plenty of time for afternoon coffee we planned to start the Texas Event about 11:30. But first I had an appointment with Donald, the skeptic from yesterday. I’ve begun to use an approach where I ask the skeptic to prove to me that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I showed Donald the passage in 1 Corinthians 15, where the Bible directly tells you how it’s claims can be shown to be false. He was more interested in making emotional arguments grounded in his psych 101 class. We talked about my Ego vs Id problem, how my Id wants to go back Dallas and I should let it because we are all just animals anyways. I explained to him that I’m investing my life here, how I’m looking for it to pay dividends in eternity. He seemed surprised that I’d use economics terms in relation to faith, but that seems natural to me. Economics is a study of rational human interactions with eachother and the world. Eventually we got to the real crux of the issue. He didn’t have any new info to challenge that Jesus rose from the dead. He doesn’t believe it because he enjoys drinking, smoking, gambling, and fornicating. He thinks he has joy in that; I told him he’s never experienced joy like I have in Christ. I hope someday, when he realizes his life is empty, he’ll remember the guy who told him to invest it instead of spend it.

The massive candy table! photo by Ron Acord

After that I went back to the office for the Texas Event. The guys were not messing around, they really did bring boxes full of candy! I think we contributed to future dental problems for all these kids. We had a bunch of games, including a farkle. They narrowed it down to 8 potential losers, then they showed a video of the last time that I lost a farkle - the time I got peanut butter slathered on my face, and they let the dog in to lick it off. The potential losers were starting to get anxious! In the end though all they had to do was get up on stage and dance We No Speak Americano, then they got a prize. We also taught them 2-stepping. They enjoyed that much more than the group from 2 years ago did.

The baloon popping game photo by Ron Acord

After all the dancing was finished, we sat them down so that Dustyn could share the Gospel. Then Wes shared his testimony. I’m interested to ask some of the kids what they thought about his testimony, because generally Albanians aren’t open to talk about sexual issues. A lot of what Wes brought up is a fairly taboo subject here. I’m sure that’s the first time any of those kids heard anyone talk about those kind of issues. But I think God will use it. Who knows? Maybe some of those kids were struggling with similar things.

Listening to the Gospel photo by Ron Acord

We had a debrief and talked about what we are thankful for this week. I said I’m thankful that, even though noone I talked to accepted Jesus this week, I still had several opportunities to share the Gospel. It’s good to remind myself that these opportunities are worth thanking God for even if we don’t see anything come of it.

In the afternoon, I had a chance to talk with Aldo a bit about finances for next week, the Young Professionals camp. It’s interesting that I now get to see behind the scenes a bit, to see how CRU manages money and efforts and coordinates everything. It’s given me a new appreciation for everything that they’ve done for us in past years.

For dinner we walked to a Mexican restaurant. It was actually really good! I didn’t know they had good mexican food here in Tirana. The tortillas left something to be desired but the chimichanga was great! Everyone had a lot of fun and the Americans decided to treat the Albanians by covering the meal. This unfortunately made a few of the Albanians uncomfortable. Pal and I talked about it on the way back. One point we discussed was that it’s easier to be generous when it’s not your money, and in fact Aldo had given each of the Americans an envelope full of cash to use for expenses here in Albania. It occurred to me that my bank account is just as much “not my money” as that envelope. In reality it belongs to God and I should steward it in order to bless others.

Day 6

Today was a free day. Some of the team had coffee with kids, but for the rest today we went touring and bought souvenirs. At about 10am we started it off by going to the Italian chocolate restaurant. They literally sell glasses full of melted chocolate, as well as delicious crepes and other super fattening stuff! Everyone was extremely satisfied. We went from there to Sky Tower, while some of us split off to have coffees with kids. Everyone loved the view from there, and Lauren tried to get herself better oriented to the city. I’m not sure how successful she was. They are building a giant new mosque and we could see the construction. The plan is for everyone to come back next year so we can see the completed building. We went over to “souvenir row” so they could shop, but the veterans were less interested in that. We headed down to the Stephen Center and I introduced Ron & Lauren to “Çai Mali”, Albanian mountain tea. They agree with me that it’s pretty tasty.

A cup full of Italian chocolate photo by Ron Acord

I left them there to go run some errands and clean my old house. Several of them wanted to come see where I had been living. I cleaned up quite a bit, then ran into Pal on my way to meet up with them. He told me to stall another 30 minutes so he could clean up a bit more (I hadn’t cleaned his room). I found some of Team Elbasan there at Mon Cheri and heard a bit about how their week went. Turns out Patrick enjoys being goofy & drawing attention (who knew?). They apparently had several kids accept Christ this week!

We went up to my house which was now super clean. We sat around and chatted for 30 minutes, drinking some of my homemade lemonade. Some of them enjoyed the sunset from my balcony. Then we headed down to dinner. Dinner was at Floga, a great restaurant where we’ve been before. Our party was about 30 people, which put some stress on the staff & owner. It was more difficult to find out who had which dish because many of the Americans ordered off the English version of the menu, and didn’t understand when the waiters called out the Albanian names of the dishes. But everyone got their food and it turned out OK. Someone who didn’t want to be named generously paid for the whole dinner, about $300. Some of the Albanians have been feeling uncomfortable by the generosity of the American team. Maybe we can discuss this more with the Albanians and talk about it before the next trip.

Of course we couldn’t miss the Euro cup match between Germany and Italy! Half the Albanians love Germany and the other half love Italy. We went to an outdoor coffee shop with a big projector to see it. Italy fell on the 9th penatly kick. Gedis was sad. Pal didn’t care because he’s rooting for Wales. I got back to my house about 12pm and went right to sleep.

Day 7

Today was the last day that I’d get to spend with most of my friends for a long while. But it was a great and full day. We went to church at Cornerstone church (Guri i Themelit) and heard a good sermon from Alan over 2 Corinthians 3. Alan is another Texan who works for a church in Houston, and splits his time there and in Albania. After church we took a picture together upstairs. I can’t wait to see all of Ron’s photos from the trip.

The guys having fun at the beachfront carnival photo by Ron Acord

We went to the restaurant in the nearby Sheraton hotel for lunch with the elders of the church. I got a chance to talk to Brandy & Michele a bit, who were part of the Elbasan team. They were really glad to have a chance to come on this trip, and to meet all the awesome people here. I’m really glad they enjoyed it. From there we all loaded up the bus to Durres. Will brought out his guitar, he and Ermal did a smash up of American freestyle with Albanian traditional vocals. It was pretty hillarious.

We unloaded at the beach and got a spot at a beachfront coffee shop. Pal and I rented a paddle boat and had fun on that for a while. When we paddled back in a bunch of the guys got on at the same time, and almost sank it! It was fun horsing around with them. Back at the coffee shop we saw several Gypsy children begging for money. Unfortunately, directly giving them money is more likely to hurt than help. The parents don’t send the children to school because they are good beggars. Really the best way to help is donate to an organization like Pioneers, which works to help the Roma and other communities like them. Chris made a nice gesture and bought the kids some Fanta Exotic, but he had to argue with them because they at first told him they didn’t want anything but money.

We moved over to the pier to have dinner at the seafood restaurant at the end. I sat with Gedis, Lauren, Chris & Danita, Erin, and Ermal. Ermal got fish by the kilogram, which still had heads attached. That freaked Danita out a bit, so we had to put up a barrier made of a napkin & a couple water bottles. Gedis and I got Tavë Karkalec, which is a creamy shrimp casserole. Definitely the best thing on the menu, delicious but super rich. Matt got some prawns, turns out one of them was Sebastian’s cousin. In total, the bill for all that seafood was only about $11.50/person. Not bad!

Will made a good toast to this year’s efforts. He challenged each of us to think about our ongoing involvement in Albania, even to the point of considering quitting our jobs to move here. I hope some more people will take up the challenge. I got to hang out with the team at the hotel until late, but I was exhausted so I didn’t stay up with them too late. So I said goodbye and went home. I’m definitely gonna miss all of them. It’s been a great week, but there’s another one ahead of us.

Sunset over Durres photo by Ron Acord