Team photo

Day 1

After an 11 hour overnight flight, a 7 hour layover, and multiple last-minute passport issues, we made it! As it turned out, two of our team members were unable to get their passports or travel documents in time for the flight. But the Lord is sovereign over that too, and He has a reason for everything He does. We are thankful that He allowed 10 of us to get over here!

As we arrived at the hotel after midnight, we all went directly to sleep. Next up, church at 10am tomorrow!

Day 2

Today was a rest and recovery day. We got up in time for church at 10am, and began walking over there after breakfast. On the way we ran into my good friend Adi! He told us that noone was in the church yet, and reminded us that in Albania 10:00 means more like 10:30-10:40. So we sat down with him and his wife Christina for Coffee.

Church was sparse today, as most of the CRU staffers who usually attend church were off doing various projects. I was very glad to see a few people who I haven’t seen in a while, including Jacob Kemp, Alba & Zamir, and Ana who are good friends from the young professionals team back in the day. The pastor preached a sermon about “let the little children come to me”, exhorting us to teach the Word to the children and not simply provide child care. Very appropriate message for the week ahead of us!

We had lunch at Pizzeria Era and then went back to the hotel for a siesta. It was over 100 farenheight today during the hot afternoon. Allye and I did our best to try to cool down in the A/C.

At 6 we met up with the Albanian staff at the office, and they introduced us to a few High School volunteers who would be helping out with the camp this week. I saw Luka, Kaci, Sofi, and some others that I recognized from last year. Enea unfortunately is not participating this year.

We split into teams and headed out to hand out invitations to high school students around the city. Luka came with me and Lucas, and we got to chat a bit. I was glad to see he’s still hanging out with the ministry. He’s taking it easy this year, not trying to stress out too much and do too many things, which is good. We handed out plenty of invitations as we were walking and then headed to Artigiano to have dinner with the team.

Day 3

The alarm woke me up at 8 this morning, I had set it so I wouldn’t miss coffee with Berti. We had a good time hanging out and catching up. He is busy helping his family get ready for his sister’s wedding. This is the first girl in the family to get married so they’re doing it up big! He hasn’t been as involved lately with the young professionals as he’d like to be, but hopefully that will change in the near future. He’s been enjoying his new job, it’s more stable and a good opportunity for him.

Pal joined us for a bit right at the end, then we said bye to Berti and went over to the office. Aldo did the orientation for us, teaching the team about Albanian history and culture. He’s very good at that because he knows enough about American culture to tell us the differences. After orientation we helped get set up in the upstairs room.

For lunch Pal told us about a new cafeteria which has higher quality food, so we took some of the team there while the rest of us went for Sufllaqe. I took Madi, Chris, Patrick, Lucas, and Andrew to Goni’s, my favorite Sufllaqe place. They enjoyed it! We chatted for a bit about Albania and the things I miss from living here. I definitely miss my friends the most, but also the slower pace of things. There’s a lot more just chilling, while back in America everything is on an agenda.

At 3:30 we went over to the office to get prepped for the first meeting. Erin and Kayleigh planned a great 4th of july celebration for us! There were trivia games, karaoke, and plenty of dancing. We split up into 6 groups and spent some time getting to know eachother in our groups.

Allye and I joined Albi’s group, which had 4 girls and 2 guys. We named ourselves the “Minions”. The teams have to work together all week, and there will be a prize for the best team at the end. One of the competitions is a traditional Albanian dance. Each team drew a piece of paper today with the name of the dance on it, and we’ll have to perform it at the end of the week.

The american team did a great job of engaging with the students and inviting them for coffee tomorrow. Every one of them has a coffee set up, and we’re excited to see how the Lord works and what stories come out of those coffees.

Day 4

I got some early time away this morning to get a good quiet time in, which was especially necessary since I was responsible for today’s devotional with the team. I’ve been reading Dane Ortlund’s “Gentle and Lowly”, and spent extended time this morning in the titular verse:

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25-29

The main takeaway I had from that devotional is “rest”. Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, so our task of being fishers of men need not be toilsome. Jesus is reversing the curse of Genesis 3:17. We are here in Albania working, not loafing around or goofing off, but our work is not toilsome. And if it begins to feel toilsome, then we need to rest and remember that it is Jesus who is working to bring about salvation, not us. I encouraged the team to find intentional time to get away this week and rest.

After lunch we gathered with the believing students in the basement, and Lucas & Madi taught them some theology. The subject was, “times have changed but God stays the same”. It was heavy stuff but I think good for them to hear, especially how God’s kindness and love for His people has not changed from the Old Testament to the New.

Unfortunately, this morning Madi began to develop some issues with her left eye. There was no pain but by the afternoon she was not able to see out of it. We made a 6pm appointment with a doctor, who referred us to another doctor in the morning. She also contacted her doctor back home, who told her that even in the worst case it’s correctable, but to be safe she should head home as soon as possible. So we all agreed that she should go out on the next possible flight, which was Wednesday evening.

The rest of us continued with the afternoon high school meeting in Tirana. We had a lot of fun and plenty of games to play! We started with a Sudoku puzzle that we had to solve as fast as possible as a team, our team ran into an error very late in the puzzle which was impossible to backtrack from. Afterwards there was a number of trivia questions to solve together as a team. Our team got a point from the Sports section, because Albi is a huge football fan. I complained that there were no American Football questions, I wasn’t able to help with any of the soccer questions!

For dinner we went out to Zgarra Korcare, which is one of my favorite restaurants. We ordered meatballs, sausages, and a mixed meats plate for the table, with grilled chicken, steak, and lamb. Everyone really enjoyed it and said that it was their favorite meal so far. There’s a reason why I had my 30th birthday party here! Unfortunately Allye and Madi couldn’t join because they were still talking to the doctor, so we picked up some food to go from Era on the way back. It was a late night for all of us and we went directly to sleeep.

Day 5

This morning the majority of the group left for the Lighthouse camp in Tale, while Pal took Madi, Allye, and myself to the hospital to get her checked out by the specialist. After waiting & seeing multiple specialists at a couple of different hospitals, we were finally referred to get an MRI scan. We counseled Madi to get it because she could give it to her doctor on Friday to speed up the process of diagnosis, and also because the total cost here in Albania would be less than her co-pay if she got it done in America! We also called the travel insurance company, who guaranteed that they would reimburse us for all medical costs in Albania. So we finally got the MRI done at around 4pm.

This was a hard time for all of us, but especially for Madi. It’s definitely difficult in a situation like this to trust the Lord in what He’s doing. She’s also very sad that she has to leave the team early to go home. We are all hoping that she can come back next year and be able to stay for the full week!

Her parents were also very anxious, and even though she was updating them constantly they were worried about each step. We had been in communication with Watermark as well, and they got the opportunity to love her parents well. Alli Wulfert called her mom and brother, and got to pray with the two of them over the phone. That touched Madi’s heart and made her feel well cared for.

We got her checked in for her flight and said goodbye to her at the airport, then Pal, Allye, and I left for Tale. We arrived at about 10pm dead tired. Allye and I fortunately had asked for a room at the nearby hotel. Before we excused ourselves to go sleep, we did get a chance to update the American team on how Madi is doing, as well as play a bit with some of the students. They had turned the lights out at the campsite and were dancing with glowsticks. I threw a light up frisbee with Endri for a bit. Allye got a s’more to go, then we walked over to the hotel.

Day 6

We walked back over to the camp about 10am, most everyone was out for coffee. We had missed the discussion time last night. The group had watched a film called “The father’s love” about a baker who bakes a beautiful, 5 star cake with excellent presentation, sets the plate on the table, and immediately a tiny hand smashes the cake. The camera pans out and we see the chef grinning ear to ear at his little daughter, who is playing with her food. This represents God’s love for us, even and especially when we smash the good things He has created for us.

Most of the American team was having individual coffees with various Albanian high schoolers. Allye and I found Pal and Ylli Doci having coffee together so we sat with them. Ylli is one of the elders of the church we went to on Sunday, Cornerstone church. He has been thinking about clarifying the leadership structure of the church to bring clarity to different elders’ roles. He asked about Watermark and I had the opportunity to share about our recent leadership transition, and how encouraging it has been for me to see our elders truly able to move forward in unity.

I got to throw a frisbee for a bit with Endri and Chris in the afternoon. As we were finishing, Endri asked me why I came to Albania. I shared that it’s our love for our Albanian friends that keeps us coming back, plus our desire to share with you about what Christ did for each of us on the cross. Christ changed my life 10 years ago, and He changed Chris’ life only 2 years ago. I encouraged Endri to ask Chris about his story. Later I saw the two of them get coffee together. Endri said he is new here, but he is learning about Jesus.

We left a bit early from camp because a big protest rally had been planned by the opposition party in Tirana. They were protesting the current government and calling for the prime minister to step down. We decided it’s best not to get caught up in that, so we went to a restaurant decently far from the city center. Albi and Jonida joined us, so we got to have some good conversation getting to know them better. We stopped at a dessert shop on the way back. I got some baklava, while Andrew and Kayleight got Oreo crepes. Everything was delicious, and we all got to hang out in the hotel until about 10pm chatting with the hotel owner Edmond, and his wife. Fun times!

Day 7

After the morning devotional today, several of us had coffees scheduled. Since I didn’t have any plans I invited Brian to come hang out with me next door at the Shisha Room. We didn’t have an agenda, but it was a good chance to catch up and talk over some things that had been bothering him back in the states.

At 12:30, those of us who didn’t have coffees scheduled headed back to the hotel. As we were eating breakfast this morning, the owner of the hotel had invited us to share a meal with him. Since we had already made plans for dinner, we decided on lunch today as the best option. It ended up being all the guys, including Pal, while the girls had made coffee plans already.

Edmond, the hotel owner, made us a delicious meal of sausage and pasta. He didn’t understand at first why we weren’t also drinking beer with him. After we explained that we were fasting from alcohol for the duration of the project, he poured us some cold Coca Cola in 0.5 liter beer glasses so we could toast with him. We had a good and wide ranging discussion, which eventually led to Lucas sharing the three circles with him and Pal inviting him to church. He was very amicable about all of it, but said he doesn’t want to change. He likes his life as it is.

We excused ourselves at 2 to go to the second equipping training. Erin stepped in to help Lucas lead the discussion since Madi had to go back to the states. The topic was the LGBTQ+ community, and how we as Christians should respond. Many of the students have friends who have joined this community and wonder how they can share their faith without losing friends. It was more of a circular “discussion group” style, and we got a lot of good questions from the students. When Pal asked the group, “how can we protect ourselves from lies?” one of the students responded immediately: “By the Holy Spirit and spending time in the Word”. We were impressed by her understanding, especially given she only became a believer this past year.

The 4pm meeting didn’t get started till more like 5, as per usual. In the meantime, I was able to have a coffee with Blerim, who had just gotten back to Tirana and wanted to catch me before I went back to the states. We had a great conversation, focusing especially on his experience with re:gen this year. He’s learned a lot especially through the inventory process. He wants to go through the program again next year, and lead a group in the process. He’ll be great at that. He’s a very compassionate and caring friend who can empathize well with people.

I got back to my small group just in time for the meeting to start. Today we watched a video called “Mr Nice Guy”, in which an animated character thinks of himself as a “good person”, while the narrator points out how we have all fallen short of God’s law. There is noone who does good, not even one. We all need a savior to make a way for us to be restored to God, and that is Jesus.

During the discussion time, one of the students who comes from a Catholic background was really processing what was being said. He agreed that we are all sinners, and the standard that we should measure ourselves against is not other people but God’s standard. His idea though was that God will just forgive us for these little sins, and we’ll still go to heaven. We got deep into the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, explaining how a just judge must punish sin and that punishment fell on Jesus. Finally, I offered him a dollar bill from my wallet. I told him that I’m offering this free gift to him, but he must reach out and accept it. Only when he does so is it truly credited to him. It’s not effective if he refuses it. I think that example really resonated with him.

We spent some extended time after the discussion practicing our dancing for the dance competition tomorrow. Each team was assigned a traditional Albanian dance to perform. We decided for our team to not add too many crazy things that we couldn’t do, especially since one or two of them didn’t really have the base dance down pat. After feeling like we got it “good enough”, I left for dinner with the American team.

One of Chris and Patrick’s good friends, Jonathan, has been spending the summer traveling all over Europe. His plans happened to take him to Rome the same time we were in Albania, so he had contacted me several weeks ago to arrange to come visit. He flew in tonight and was able to join us at dinner. Chris and Patrick were excited to see him and tell him everything about Albania and how the trip is going. He’ll stay through tomorrow and leave on Monday.

Day 8

The last day in Albania is always packed. I had scheduled an 8am coffe, a 9:30am coffe, and a 4pm coffee. On my way to my 8am I ran into Chris and Erin returning to the hotel from their walk, together with Edmond the hotel owner. They had walked together something like 4 or 5 miles this morning for exercise. I love the way our team has all been investing in that relationship!

My 8am coffe was with Afrim. He and his wife had been planning to come to Dallas, and should have already been there, but lots of things had been going wrong with their tickets. So, he’s still in Albania for a bit and we can have coffee together. We discussed the project and this year’s team, as well as how re:gen is going, and how Afrim’s church is doing. It would be good to be able to support their building project for a community center in Albania. When he comes to Dallas I’ll try to get him a coffee together with Tobin.

At 9:30 Allye and I went over to the Shisha Room to meet Zamir and Alba. They were part of the young professionals ministry that I was working with 5 years ago. Now they are married and run a marketing business together. I love getting to hang out with them, and was glad they got a chance to know Allye better. Things are going well for them and their business, as well as their relationship. They are very well connected at church as part of a cell group, and in the church’s new ministry to young professionals. They are doing something kind of independent, and kind of connected to what Cru is doing under Genti Tupa’s leadership. It was unfortunate that I wasn’t able to connect with Genti this year to learn more about what they’re doing.

The final meeting with the high school students went great! We had several games and lots of candy, then took our seats for Andrew’s testimony. He shared a number of things that the kids really can identify with, like feeling alone and being bullied, as well as coming from a divorced family. While divorce is less common in Albania, there’s still plenty of kids who come from broken homes. His testimony really pointed them to Christ in a relateable way.

After Andrew’s testimony, Patrick got up to recap the first two spiritual laws that we learned about. He knocked it out of the park! A solid Gospel presentation from beginning to end, connected to the videos we had watched earlier this week. It really reinforced everything we had been saying in our discussion group.

We moved the chairs out of the way after Patrick was done because it was time for the dance competition! Our team went first, which was good because we were definitely the least prepared group. We did a basic traditional Albanian dance, incorporating a couple choreographed spins that we did not execute very well. At least we weren’t last, but only by default because one team didn’t participate!

The winning team ended up being Kayleigh and Lucas’ team. They did a choreographed routine starting with the traditional dance, but then it got remixed into a number of other songs. The killer part was “all the single ladies”. I think that’s what won it for them.

We had intentionally reserved some time after the meeting was over to go get lunch or coffee with the students one last time, so many people left to do that. Allye and I went with Kayleigh, Kaci and Arba to D’Angelo. Kaci is a believer. We asked Kaci about her plans for the coming year, and learned that she and her entire family are moving to Germany for work and opportunities. To immigrate to Germany, everyone in the family is having to learn German. So she’s spending a lot of time studying for that, and won’t be able to attend as much of the summer camp as she’d like. Allye and Kayleigh are going to keep up with her over instagram.

We said goodbye to the students, and then most of our team went to coffee with the CRU staff individually. I went to my 4:00 coffee with Dana, a man that I had connected with while he was still in Dallas. He’s since sold his house and everything he has and moved to Albania to work with Leader Impact. I love his conviction to follow where the Lord leads! He’s an older gentleman with grown kids, and doesn’t want to waste the remainder of his life.

We discussed some things we had both noticed about Albanian culture that are not exactly helpful towards trying to lead a life of open and honest dependence on Christ. He is frustrated by some of these things, but understands the importance of being patient. I shared about our mission statement, that we are “building deep relationships through mutual discipleship”. I also pointed out that it took 7 years of relationship building before we had a chance to share about re:gen with them. Patience is important, but also humility. We need to seek out and correct the things about our own American culture that also present obstacles to running our race; at least as it impacts each of us individually.

After we prayed for eachother, I excused myself and met up with Allye and Pal to go to dinner. The CRU team had invited all of us over for a cookout at Pal & Ueda’s house. We sat outside and enjoyed the evening, laughing and eating together. These are always my favorite times in Albania, enjoying a good dinner together with friends after a successful project. We discussed some things we could do better, and I made a list for us to reference next year. Lots of things to think about when we get started, but that’ll be a while. There’s lots of things for Allye and I to look forward to in between now and then :)

With the flight being at 6:30 AM tomorrow, we said goodbye around 11 and headed back to the hotel. Leaving is always the hardest part, but it’s easier knowing we’ll be back often.