Pre-trip team photo

Day 1

We arrived in Tirana around noon and met Pal at the airport. Glad to be back in country! It’s been almost a year since I was here last - too long. We went with Pal to pick up Wes and Daniel at Hotel Sokrat. While there we met with Aldo for a bit. It was nice to catch up with him too! He’s tranisitioning to a new role with partnerships, and Pal & Ueda next year will be taking over for him as leader of the Tirana high school ministry.

After our first Albanian coffee, we started the two hour drive to Shkodër. On the way we decided to have lunch at Mrizi Zanave, which is a really nice restaurant tucked away in the hills. They call it “agro-tourism” because people drive a long way around to eat there. It’s on a farm and has a lot of fresh cheese & fruits. They kept bringing out more food, when we thought we were all finished then they brought out the main course of roasted goat! It was delicious and tender, and we were all stuffed by the end. Made it hard to stay awake the rest of the way to Shkoder.

Upon arriving, we checked into the hotel and met Pal’s team. Other than his wife Ueda, there was Kujtim & his wife Mariana, and Anila. A small but effective team! We had coffee with the team at the hotel, and then they invited us to a prayer meeting and dinner. I wasn’t feeling well so I stayed in and worked on my presentation for tomorrow. The other three apparently had a good time, but I was jet-lagged and fell asleep by 9pm!

Day 2

We got up really early today to go share invitations at the various university buildings around the city. I paired up with Vitjona, a student who volunteers with the ministry here. She’s studying nursing, and has been involved with IJR for three years but only last year accepted Christ. She’s been doing a great job of being faithful with the ministry so far!

After sharing invitations, we had a short prayer meeting and then an introduction to Albania and Shkoder. Daniel found it informative, though the rest of us had seen it before. Afterwards we got the meeting room all set up for American night! We put up streamers and blew up balloons, and set up a few things for a photo booth (which it turns out noone used!)

We got finished setting up about 1, and didn’t need to be back till 4pm for the meeting at 5. So we got lunch and went back to the hotel to rest. I went down to the coffee shop and worked on my presentation, I still didn’t feel quite comfortable doing it in Albanian but prayed over it and tried to run through it once in my mind. Eventually I felt prepared enough to go over to the office and begin welcoming students.

The meeting got started about 5:20 pm with some introductions and games. There was a trivia game about America, and a short video, then it was my turn to talk. I ran through my material quicker than I thought, it ended up being about 20 minutes. I talked about the importance of controlling your thoughts, and “getting on the right bus” with your thoughts. Don’t let them go un-controlled, but examine them to take the right bus to where you want to go. I then shared the four spiritual laws, to explain that the right bus is the one that takes you to The Truth, and only Jesus is the way to get there.

I had an interesting conversation afterwards with a guy named Mario, he’s feeling hopeless cause he doesn’t see any job opportunities in Albania. He is constantly thinking about the American lottery or other opportunities to get to western Europe. We’re going to have coffee tomorrow, I’m hoping to persuade him to consider Jesus as a source of hope and something worth pursuing even here in Albania.

Once the meeting was finished we went to Pal & Ueda’s house for dinner. I had a nice suprise in that Berti Nikolli came to visit! Ueda makes a good pilaf and byrek, and we had a good meal and good conversation for a couple hours before heading back to the hotel. I really enjoyed the evening, it was nice being back in town with my good friends. Looking forward to tomorrow, I’m going to get up early to have a coffee with Pal & Berti.

Day 3

I started this morning at 7am with Pal & Berti for a coffee. We had a great time discussing all the things that have happened with our friends over the past year. Some have gotten married, some have been growing more in their faith. It was a good time with two good friends.

Our next meeting was at 10am, where we reviewed the event yesterday and went over our plans for the picnic today. We had a chance also just to pray for our coffees this afternoon and to encourage each-other. I had a coffee scheduled with Mario at 1:30, so after this meeting I went back to take a short nap.

About 1pm I was out drinking coffee and uploading our team’s prayer calendars to the website, when Mario texted me that he wasn’t going to be able to make our coffee and that we should just meet at the picnic instead. So I texted the group and Daniel invited me to join his coffee with Risi, Edona & Kujtim. We started out just making small-talk, and then Daniel dove in straight ahead to ask them about their faith. It opened up a great discussion on the differences between the Koran and the Bible, and how they teach different things.

Risi is your typical Albanian muslim, he follows Islam but doesn’t really know the Koran. He goes to the Mosque and listens to what the Imam says. He believes that the Bible and the Koran basically say the same thing, that they are just roadmaps for how to live. He says he keeps to Ramadan and doesn’t eat pork, and that he’s about 70% sure that he’ll go to Paradise when he dies. We encouraged him to read the Bible for himself, because it really doesn’t say the same thing as the Koran. He seems to be in basically the same spot that Nabeel Qureshi was in before he came to know Jesus, as described in his biography seeking Allah finding Jesus. Pray that he’d begin to really investigate these things for himself rather than just accept what the Imam says.

Picnic at Shkodra castle

At 4:30, we went up to the castle for the picnic. It was still really hot in the late afternoon, but we persevered and played volleyball and frisbee for a long while! Ueda and Anita cooked sausages and Qofte for us on the grill while the boys and girls played. We hung out there till about 8:30 just having fun and talking. Unfortunately I couldn’t play any volleyball due to my knee injury, but I had fun just the same!

I ended up connecting with a couple of guys to have coffee with them tomorrow. Mario didn’t show up but I messaged him, we’ll also try to get coffee tomorrow, so it’ll be a full day!

Day 4

Today started like the others, I had a good quiet time in the morning and then headed to the office at 10am for a quick team meeting. We messaged several guys to see if they wanted to have coffee, and waited a while for their response. Unfortunately everyone was busy today, some were studying and one guy was sick. We learned a bit about what a normal ministry schedule looks like - often people are flaky.

Pal, Wes, and I took a look at the financials of the project for a bit while the girls went out for a coffe with Vitjona. We were fortunately able to raise enough with this project to almost cover the outstanding debt that the Shkoder team has accrued with the CRU office. Even in Albania it can cost a lot of money to run a ministry.

We met up with Jenn and Ueda for lunch at an italian pasta restaurant and had a good time just talking about ministry and fun things in general. Afterwards I went to coffee just with Pal. I was glad for the opportunity to catch up with and pray for my brother in Christ. He’s been having struggles recently with expectations placed on him by his family, and so we got to talk through that and pray about it together. We also chatted about their plans to return to Tirana next year, and how Watermark can help the church more broadly in the future.

Meeting with Believers

Around 5 we met up for the evening meeting, which was just for the believers who have been involved with the ministry as volunteers. There were about 7 or 8 girls and one guy who showed up. Wes, Daniel, and Jenn each gave a short talk about various topics and it seemed like the students really appreciated it!

We ordered pizza and ate together with the students, while thanking the American team and the CRU staff for their service during this project. There was a special time to thank Pal and Ueda, since they are leaving for Tirana now that the school year is finished. A lot of the students spoke up about how much they appreciated Pal & Ueda. It seems that they’ve had a great impact here in Shkoder even though it’s been a really short time.

Day 5

Today was beach day! The project being officially over, we went to the beach with the rest of the CRU staff. Mariana & Kujtim, Pal & Ueda, Anita, and Angie Nikolli who joined us just because she’s on vacation. We went out to the beach at Shengjin, near Rane e Hedhun. Rane e Hedhun is a big pile of blown sand pushed up against the side of the hills overlooking the beach. It’s a fun thing to climb up, and Pal & Ueda took Daniel and Jenn climbing almost all the way to the top.

We relaxed a while, even setting up Spikeball and playing that till just after 7pm when we left for dinner. Dinner was at a nice restaurant named Rapsodia (Rhapsody). It was a full 7-plate experience for a grand total of under $20 each! While at dinner we also had a debrief and project evaluation.

The primary thing that I highlighed at dinner was that I think this project was a success. I had identified two objectives for the trip before we went:

  1. 2 Chronicles 16:9 says “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”
    When Pal & Ueda invited us to come on this project, we saw it as an opportunity to join God in strongly supporting some people whose hearts are fully committed to Him. We accomplished that objective through the devotionals and one-on-one coffees we had with the staff, while also being a draw for them to attract students.
  2. To help Wes & Daniel get a feel for doing Albanian ministry together, have a story to tell their churches back in Tenessee, and cast a vision for them to lead a group of people back to Albania next year. God accomplished this objective even before we left on the trip. Wes was sharing with us all week about all the cool conversations he’s having with senior members of his church talking about Albania, having Gedis & Celi come to visit him in Nashville, and the perfect timing of the way God is positioning his church with respect to missions work. I’m confident that we’ll be able to help Wes & Daniel launch a short-term discipleship trip next year.

Beyond accomplishing our objectives, this fits in with our mission statement as well. Our new mission statement is:

We are building deep relationships in and beyond Albania through mutual discipleship and partnering in evangelism for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

We’ve deepened our relationships with Pal & Ueda. We’ve built new ones with Kujtim, Mariana, and Anita. We’ve also helped forge relationships between Wes, Daniel, and the same Albanian staff. This strengthening of their support network is going to pay dividends in the years to come, enabling the Albanian team in Shkoder to make a greater impact in and beyond Albania.