The in-between

I had a full week in between the Shkoder project and the YP project. I spent half of it working remote and the rest just catching up with friends. I found a really good coffee shop to work from. with a wonderful view.

Coffee shop in Tirana

Day 1

Today my first responsibility was going to get everyone from the airport. Back on the receiving end! I enjoy hosting and it was fun to be able to welcome everyone and get them settled in. First thing we did was go to the hotel, where Joanne went straight in to take a nap. Smart choice. The rest of us got up and went out for lunch. We had Suflaqe across the street, and near the end of lunch a couple people who thought they were OK ended up just being done. So they headed back to the hotel while the rest of us walked around and exchanged leke, bought water, and took care of whatever needs we could think of.

At about 5pm we all woke up in order to get a walk in before dinner. Even though it was hot it was good for us to get up and moving. It’s really the best medicine against jetlag. We walked up to the Qender, got ice cream at Mango, and then had a coffee at Taiwan center. I shared a bit about Albanian history while we were walking.

We met up with the Albanian team (including Lauren) at 7. It was the first time I’d seen Erjona & Gesi since being back in Tirana, which was nice! The others I’d already had the opportunity to say hi to when I was around the office last week. We had a good meal and everyone got to know each-other, and then from there went straight back to the hotel to get to sleep early.

Day 2

You never know if a travel-recovery day is a success unless everyone wakes up on-time the next morning! Well, we all got up with time to spare, even though we did joke a bit with Brian about his sleeping habits. We made it down to the office at 10:30 for orientation. We started with a big meeting with all the team and Berti & Adelina Berhami, the national directors. We also got to meet a couple from Granbury, TX which has been partnering with CRU in the Ukraine and is looking to partner with CRU again in Albania.

Berti showing us the ministry timeline

Berti & Adelina took us upstairs to teach us about the history of CRU Albania, showing us their timeline wall which they got to commemorate the 20th anniversary of CRU in Albania back in 2012. Then we went into the partnerships office and put pins in the map to mark where we are from. I stuck a pin into Washington, DC because my parents who live there support some Albanian staff members.

After the cultural orientation we hopped in some taxis to the Teleferik (cable-car), which took us up the side of Mount Dajti. From the top you could see the entire city. We had lunch at Ballkoni Dajtit, a restaurant overlooking the city. The air was nice and clean, and the food was really good! You could barely make out Tirana though in the mid-summer haze.

Tirana from Mount Dajti The view from Mount Dajti

We had a prayer time there, praying over the project and the city, that the city would come to know the Lord. I enjoyed praying over the city from up high, being able to take it all in at once. After praying we built a little monument with stones that we found lying around. The stones represent our faith that God will move in this city this week.

At 6pm we went to an evening prayer meeting organized to give our Albanian non-staff partners a chance to meet us and get an idea of how the week will look. I got to see a whole bunch of friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, including Enerik, Anida, Ana, Anila, Kristiana, and Mira.

Brian gave a short devotional on Numbers 13 and 14. The Israelites, even though they had seen God moving to save them before, lost faith when they saw the obstacles God had placed in the Promised Land. They said things like, “If only we had never left Egypt!“. God wanted them to have faith in Him, that He would defeat their enemies, but because they didn’t believe in Him, He caused them to wander the desert and miss out on the fruits, milk, and honey that was available. Just so with us, maybe asking our co-worker to come to the meeting feels like a giant obstacle. But God is asking us to have faith.

After the devotional we had some extended prayer time. We prayed over the speakers, and the retreat, and the coffees that we would be setting up. We also prayed for the political situation in Albania. That evening was to be a protest in the center of the city. We prayed for peace and a calm resolution to the political grievances that people are feeling.

When the prayer meeting wrapped up, we all felt ready to take on the week! But we could also hear the protest getting started. So we ended up going out to eat at a spot decently far away from the protest, and then taking the long way back to our hotel so as to avoid getting swept up in it. It definitely seemed like a lot of people taking part. Pray that it doesn’t end up causing issues for the seminars this week.

Day 3

Today the team took a sightseeing trip to Kruja. Gesi and his two kids took them on a tour of the castle where Skenderbeg used to live. It was good bonding time where the team got to know Gesi a little better. However, since I’ve been to Kruja several times and also know Gesi pretty well, I decided it was better to go meet up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while who were in the city today.

First off John and I took some time in the morning to go to a coffee shop and have a quiet time. This is something that is still fairly unusual in Albania - but we’d like to help them build more of a habit of opening their bible at their morning coffee. We had a good hour and a half before the bus came. I’ve been reading Psalms & thinking more about Justice, how the population longs for the Justice that the Lord brings.

MAGA Coffee The Bartender saw we were Americans

I also had scheduled a haircut for 10am at Gedis’ favorite barber. I told him I need to look professional for my presentation tomorrow, and that I trust him. In the end it looked pretty great! But it’s definitely the shortest I’ve ever gotten it cut.

Since I was in the area I thought I’d stop by the co-working space that I worked at last year and see if they were there. Unfortunately they’d apparently moved. I was unable to find them on Google Maps. This was a bummer as I was looking forward to talking to Edison again.

I got coffee with Egli at 1:30, and since Rivelino happened to be in the area he and Ari joined us for a bit. We had a nice long conversation, ranging from studies to Egli’s business plan, and touching on dating & how to ask girls out. After Rivelino and Ari left, Egli and I walked around a bit and he showed me the new free co-working space that the city of Tirana has put together. It was pretty nice looking but didn’t seem very quiet. We chatted also about conflict resolution while we were there and I had the opportunity to pray for him as well, right next to the ping-pong table of the co-working space. This was definitely the right decision to not go to kruja.

We all arrived back at the hotel about 3:30, and then at 4:30 Joanne and I went over to the office. She spent some time working with the translater going over what she’d say tonight, and I got the opportunity to go over my presentation with Fabi. He had some really good suggestions that I’ll incorporate tomorrow. I’m feeling a lot more confident about it now, even though I’m still a bit anxious. Once it’s over I’ll feel a lot better about the rest of the week.

The meeting felt like a normal Sotmeria meeting, with the normal activities & drinks and everyone who I remember being involved as a partner/volunteer from before. I enjoyed it, especially not being so directly involved in all the planning and organization of it. Joanne did a great job with her presentation. She talked about principles of success in business and wisdom for life. She spoke especially powerfully to the women in the audience, who are looking for someone to look up to. After the meeting she already had about 8 coffees lined up with various people!

I was a bit overwhelmed by all the coffees since I’ve been tasked together with Mira Bita to keep track of Joanne’s schedule. So I was messaging some people who gave her their phone number to confirm appointments. Fortunately Brian took command of organizing the post-meeting plans. He and John also did a great job of meeting all the guys who were at the meeting, so we should have plenty of opportunity for them to have coffees with people.

We went to dinner at the chinese restaurant up the street, and invited both Mira and Berti. It was a nice relaxed dinner, with a lot of just laughing and enjoying eachother’s company. We’ve been joking that Brian should get an Albanian two- headed eagle shaved into the side of his head at the barber. I told him that if he wanted to do that I would do it too, and I’d even go first. He’s not quite ready to say yes to that, but we’re still working on him!

Day 4

We all got together this morning at the office at 10am to debrief from the meeting last night. Priscilla did a good job with the devotional, talking about 2 Corinthians 12 and the need to boast about our weaknesses. We also had a bit of an evaluation of the meeting last night and what things we can improve going forward.

We spent a lot of time after that going through the comment cards from last night and figuring out Joanne’s schedule. So many people want to meet with her that it’s difficult to fit everyone in. We filled up her schedule and then began to send out more messages to people to see if they wanted to have coffee with any of us. Most of the people on my contacts list now have left the country. I messaged one guy who’s in America and another guy who happened to be in London.

Since John, Brian, and I didn’t have any immediate coffees, we went out for lunch at the Crepe place nearby. I think it was Brian’s first lunch crepe, but he seemed to enjoy it! We went with Fabi and Genti, and talked about the big storm that was hitting our Team Elbasan friends at the beach resort in Tale. Apparently the storm reached it’s peak in the middle of the night and they had to evacuate all the kids out of the tents and into the hotel! Some pretty nasty stuff, but it led to good time of sharing about Jesus with the kids.

After lunch we took Brian to get a haircut, and then I went to have a coffee with Pal & Ueda. I always enjoy having coffee with them and am looking forward to their visit to the States in October. John and Brian came by the coffe shop afterwards and hung out for a while. I also messaged another friend to stop by but he was too far away and I needed to get back and get changed for the meeting.

I went back to the hotel and got ready by about 5:15, but then the thunderstorm started rolling in here in Tirana as well. We ended up walking all the way to the office in the rain. Fortunately I had remembered to pack my raincoat. We arrived at the office about quarter till 6, so I had time to calm down a bit and prepare myself mentally for the task ahead. I was still feeling a bit nervous about speaking in front of the whole group of people.

When it finally came time for me to go up there, I was definitely still nervous, but that left me as soon as I started speaking! I think just that there were enough people praying for me that God empowered me to speak clearly and without getting stuck, even as I spoke in Albanian. I was very thankful afterwards that God chose to give me eloquence, and not to humble me by having me make a fool out of myself.

After the meeting I heard that five people had written on their comment cards that they accepted Jesus! We got to celebrate this good news over dinner, or at least most of us did. Joanne and Brian had left immediately after the meeting to have a coffee with Marin.

Marin seems very interested in Jesus, but he’s a very intellectual guy and is not going to make any rash decisions. He’s slowly considering giving his life over to Jesus. I think this is very wise on his part - it shows he understands exactly what it will mean for him. It sounds like Joanne and Brian did a great job of clarifying that and figuring out what is still keeping him from Christ. I hope that he comes tomorrow to the dinner, and will be praying that the Lord opens his eyes to everything he has to gain in Christ.

Day 5

Coffee day! I started with an early morning coffe with a friend named Xhentil. He’s a believer who works as a software developer doing website design. He and his wife own their own business together. It’s difficult in Albania and they end up working long hours but are hoping to be more active at church in the future.

From there I went to the office, where we chilled out for a while and sent people off to various coffee appointments. I had one with Afrim and Marsel to talk about digital strategies and future opportunities for helping CRU Albania integrate websites with their follow-up workflow. A very productive partnership meeting.

There was also an opportunity for a conflict resolution conversation at lunch. This is another area where we hope to be able to serve well and build relationships. Rather than allowing percieved conflict to fester we are seeking to deepen our relationships with staff and eachother by bringing it out into the open. It was a very good conversation and we all ended up on the same side trying to figure out how to best care for a girl who is not yet ready to accept Christ.

After lunch I had a couple more coffees, and then we got ready for the dinner. We had invited a number of people who were not yet believers to dinner, in order to hear John and Joanne share their testimonies. The dinner was very good, I got to know several new Albanian young professionals whom I had not met before. We played a game where we took turns asking each other interesting questions.

John and Joanne then got up and each shared their testimonies. It was very good. Joanne ran long, and unfortunately some Albanians had to go, but on the whole I think the story affected them. I’m praying it will cause some to stop and consider who is this Jesus that can change such a life. I hope they will also learn from her story that their problems are not solved if they just move to America.

I had the opportunity to dig deeper with the young man seated next to me, who is a lawyer. He and I talked for a good while about what God’s purpose was in causing the holy books (Bible, Quran, etc.) to be written. I told him there’s a higher purpose than simply laying down rules for humans to follow in order to be civilized. I got the opportunity to share the four spiritual laws and challenged him to read the Gospel of John. He promised that he would, and even began to download the Bible app on his phone.

After he left, I looked around and noticed that many of the Albanians were still there at dinner. There were several small groups of people gathered around talking till very late about Jesus. I was very glad and said a prayer of thanks to God that He caused so many Albanians to want to hang out till so late. Marin also stayed late and continued to talk to John & Joanne. Continue praying for him that he would actually come to a point of decision instead of simply “buffering” in his words.

By the time dinner was over, several of us were so tired that we went straight to bed. The coffee days are always the most exhausting, and also the most rewarding. I think this might have been one of the best opportunities we’ve had with the young professionals to share with so many people personally about Jesus.

Day 6

Travel day to Divjakë! The morning for me was very restful. I got away for a bit to the Stephen Center, one of the few christian-run businesses in Tirana, for my morning coffee. I didn’t have any meetings until noon so it was a good opportunity to just relax and read the psalms for a bit.

At noon Joanne and I joined Afrim and his wife Lavdi for lunch at Zgara Korçare, one of my favorite places to eat in Albania! They especially wanted to meet Joanne to talk to her about digital strategy. There’s still a lot of beginning stuff that we have to deal with before we even get into Joanne’s realm of strategic thinking, but she gave Afrim a great pep-talk, challenging him to stand up and change the way the organization thinks. We need now to translate some of that into tactics that will work, to convince the rest of the organization of the value in leveraging the digital realm. But in the meanwhile Afrim is now convinced that he needs to develop a strategy that does not rely on the rest of the organization getting on board.

I had to leave a bit early (1:45) to meet my friend Teodor, whom I met through Egli. We had a good conversation at coffee near the hotel. He’s looking for opportunities to apply to graduate school in the US, but wondering if it’s worth the money. I totally understand his perspective in wanting to leave Albania, but at the same time I feel bad that so many young people have this desire. I asked him how he’s doing spiritually, and he told me that he’d like to get involved in Sotmeria again but just hasn’t made that commitment recently. I told him I’ll connect him with Genti Tupa so that they can meet and he can get involved in Sotmeria again, in order to work on his spiritual needs.

At 4 we loaded up to go to the office and meet the bus. We rented a big bus for the 25ish albanians plus americans to get to the retreat. It was about a two hour drive before we arrived in Divjakë, but we got there safe and sound even though we felt a couple times like we were about to roll over! After check-in I went to a coffee with Brian, John, and Ryan. Ryan is the speaker this weekend. He’s the director of the Institute of Biblical Studies in Budapest, which sends seminary-trained CRU staff to do seminary level courses in various CRU offices around eastern europe. He’ll be leading the teaching from the Bible this weekend and I’m looking forward to hearing from him!

Dinner was from 7-8, which turned into 7:30-8:30, which is unfortunate because that’s right when the sun sets here! I managed to sneak out and snap a couple pictures, but I’m going to have to make sure I can do the same tomorrow during dinner. The sunset is so beautiful out here.

Retreat sunset

After sunset we had the first session. Ryan is speaking on “The cost (and benefits) of Discipleship”. He made reference to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his book of a similar name. Bonhoeffer lived the costs of discipleship. What were the benefits? When God calls us to give something up, are we having a correct cost/benefit analysis in our minds? Or do we only see the cost?

In Luke 9, Jesus asks Peter “who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then goes on to tell the disciples how he will be given over to suffer and be executed, with a kind of implicit “who’s with me?”. That’s a high cost to pay to follow Jesus. Tonight Ryan talked more about the costs, and I’m sure he’ll discuss more of the benefits tomorrow.

Our group discussion time ended about 10:30 pm, and most of the Albanians went upstairs to play Jenga and Uno. I played one round of Jenga but felt I needed to go to sleep. I’ve recently decided that I can no longer stay up late both nights of a weekend retreat like this, so if I’m going to stay up late the second night I need to go to sleep on time the first night!

Day 7

Today I started off by taking my bible up to the coffee shop at the resort hotel. I was hoping to be a little early to get some good time in the word before everyone got up, but Berti and Genti were already there having a coffee. I figured why not, sat down with them and got a chance to really have some good time with a couple good friends.

We talked about life, what we’re learing from God, and also a bit about girls. The situation in Albania is that guys often feel they can’t ask out girls around the church, for fear that if it doesn’t go well then they will end up ostracized or judged for it. There’s a lot of expectation once it gets out there that you’re dating someone. It’s really unfortunate cause the girls that are part of Sotmeria would be an amazing catch for any one of our guys.

We had the first session of the day, and continued talking about the cost of discipleship. Ryan told us about the life of Jim Elliot, how he counted the cost and chose to live a full life rather than a long one. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Ryan then suggested four key meanings of “taking up your cross daily”: * Opposition * Shame * Suffering * Death

Of those four I think the one Albanians have the hardest time dealing with is shame. Often they are judged by non-believers for believing in “fairy tales”. Other times they are judged even inside the church for not living up to the “standard”. So they put on masks. We discussed in our small group afterwards how we can start to bear our cross in the shame aspect, even in church, in order to live in obedience to Christ.

After our coffee break, the second session we split up the guys and gals. John excellently presented the 6 community core values to the guys and challenged them to find a group of brothers with whom they can practice confession & holding each-other accountable. There’s a general consensus that they want something like this, but it’s hard to put it into practice. Someone has to go first.

The rest of the day was for fun and hanging out together. I went out to the beach with Ryan to try to get some Albanians to come play Spikeball. But it seemed noone was interested, so after a half-hour I went back and hung out by the pool where most of my friends were. I had a nice half-nap poolside, which was very refreshing. I was very glad to have that free time in the middle of the day. This project has been pretty tiring and I’ll honestly be glad when I can go home and rest.

Dancing at the Retreat

The evening was for dancing and games. Unfortunatly a storm rolled in so we had to do it inside, but honestly I think that made it better cause everyone was forced into closer proximity with each-other. We did a bunch of Albanian dances, but unfortunately I couldn’t dance the Valle e Kukesit (my favorite one) because of my knee. Valle e Kukesit is very fast and involves jumping and landing on your right leg, which is the one that I tore my ACL playing ultimate.

I watched most of the dances and participated in some of the slow ones (with my knee brace on of course). It was a lot of fun as always. We danced till almost midnight, and Rexhep went through two different shirts getting them completely drenched in sweat. This is always one of my favorite parts of the trip.

Since everyone was completely exhausted from the dancing we all went to bed, no Uno or Jenga tonight.

Day 8

The final day of the retreat (and of our trip!) started early. I was up at 7:30 to go have some quiet time before everything started, but apparently that was not early enough! I was halfway through when at about 10 till 8 a big group of Albanians came up to the coffee shop at the resort, and invited me to sit with them. They were gracious enough to allow me to finish my quiet time before joining them.

The coffee went as normal coffees do, we chatted about random things and then Genti tupa asked each of us what we have been reading in the Bible. Nice touch, Genti. A couple of us have been reading in the psalms, and I got to share how I have had difficulty connecting emotionally with the psalms in the past. Even today I have to put in real effort to understand the emotions of the author.

The morning session, after we had breakfast, was about the benefits of being a disciple. Ryan began by showing us a video about Joni Eareckson Tada, whom God is using to display how He satisfies our desires even when we don’t have anything that our flesh might consider “the good life”. I think that was very powerful. He talked a lot about treasures in heaven, bringing up 1 Timothy 6 and Matthew 6:19-21. I hope the Albanians will begin to truly think long-term and consider the benefits when they are thinking about the costs of following Jesus.

Our discussion time was also very good. We talked about counting our blessings, one girl suggested that she’d like to start writing down instances where she sees God bringing blessings into her life. Practicing gratitude is a good way to become aware of God’s blessings, and to begin seeing the benefits of following Christ. I brought up Psalms 34:8 and Malachi 3:10, and asked the group to test God in this - whether He will not reward them for being faithful. Be faithful in a little, and then practice gratitude and discover how faithful God is in return.

After our coffee break, Ryan gave a session on bible study methods. He had some really interesting points about observation. He showed us some illustrations, using videos like this one to make a point about opening our eyes to see more.

< gorilla video here >

He made the point that we should also pray that God open our eyes to see more of what He has to say in the Bible. This is the point of one of David’s psalms.

And with that the retreat was over. We hung out for a while at lunch, and the bus wasn’t coming till 4, but the rest was free time. I spent it hanging out at the pool. I would have liked to have had a coffee with Genti, but being the servant that he is, he was driving people to and from a boating excursion the entire time.

I did fortunately get to spend some more time with Berti. I really enjoy hanging out with him, he’s one of my best friends in Albania. I’d like to be able to move back here someday, not just to spend time with him, but especially to be part of his life and others’ lives. But for now God is sending some pretty clear signals that I should be in Dallas for a while longer.

We got back into Tirana at about 7:15 PM, and the Americans said goodbye to the Albanians who were on the bus. We then went out for dinner at Era, one of our favorite restaurants. We had an evaluation of the project there, since Lauren joined us and could relay the evaluation back to the Albanian staff. On the whole we had more positive things than negative things. Looking forward to next year and seeing how things change.

On the point of evaluation, we’ve also been considering what role we should play as the American team. We no longer want to just be the people who come and do whatever project the Albanian team lays out for us to do. We’re considering how we can serve the Albanians in a deeper way. Perhaps that includes more discipleship opportunities, perhaps some admonishment and having harder conversations. We feel now that we have the relational capital to begin being the “friend who is closer than a brother”. I think this may also entail turning this into a year-round ministry project, rather than a 6 month ramp-up to summer projects. We discussed all of this late into the night with Lauren.

After dinner we went out to dessert and met up with Afrim, Gedis, and Çeli. It was nice having them send us off. We had a fun time catching up and discussing when it will be possible to get back to Albania. For me, the sooner the better.

Till next time,

YP Team Airport