Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Albanian Mission/Class

The day after the spring semester ended, four seminarians from St. Vladimir’s drove to Brookline, MA, where we joined seven Holy Cross seminarians for a new, experimental class/practicum, “The Missiology of Archbishop Anastasios,” offered jointly by Holy Cross, OCMC, and the new Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity. We had one week of classes at Holy Cross, during which we learned about the theology and practice of missions. We also read two books about the resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Albania, plus four articles and a collection of seven papers by Abp. Anastasios. We flew to Tirana via Munich on Lufthansa, arriving around noon on Tuesday, May 25. We ate lunch and settled into our rooms at the church’s Mount Tabor Center on the outskirts of Tirana. Here is the view from the balcony of my room, where I spent a lot of time reading and writing. (All of these photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

After the traditional Albanian post-lunch siesta, went into the city. We stopped at the new cathedral, which is still under construction.

Here you can see the cathedral’s bell/clock tower, along with the small chapel next to the cathedral.

My artistic shot of the interior of the chapel.

Then we strolled around Tirana, with a stop for ice cream, before returning to the Tabor Center. That evening we had guests for supper – a number of young Albanians, mostly students. After supper the music started, and the Albanians taught us some traditional dances.

The next morning we returned to Tirana. We learned that in Albania, unlike much of Europe, America is very popular. Albanians are especially proud of the visit of the last U.S. President – so proud that they named a street after him!

Our first stop was Annunciation Cathedral. This was the only church in Tirana to survive the 23-year suppression of religion (1967-1990) under communism. It survived because it was used as a gymnasium during this period. It currently functions as the cathedral while the new cathedral is being built.

We met Fr. Asti, who told us of growing up under communism, when all religious practice was forbidden.

He told us his father would occasionally stand in silence, and he was afraid to ask him what he was doing. Only many years later did he learn that his father had been praying. Our meeting with Fr. Asti was held in the cathedral’s baptistery. The cross-shaped baptismal font, big enough to dunk a large adult, was built into the floor.

Next, we met with Abp. Anastasios himself in his office. This was our chance to ask him firsthand about what we had read about his life, his theology, and the revival of the Albanian church.

We visited a number of the church’s ministries – the Protagonist School, the bookshop, the women’s group, and the youth center. Then we visited the National Archives, where a new exhibition of medieval church manuscripts was just opening. The oldest manuscript in the collection is a copy of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark from the 6th century. This display shows photos of the original documents with scholarly reconstructions of what they would have looked like originally.

Back at the Tabor Center, we had a quiet evening with most of the OCMC’s missionaries in Albania. The following day we met with Nina at Diakonia Agapes, the church’s social outreach ministry.

Later on, we visited the apartment of OCMC missionary Pamela Barksdale, from whose balcony these next two shots were taken.

The second shot shows one of the less attractive features of Albania. They have not yet developed a sense of environmental consciousness, so it is not uncommon to find garbage piled up in out-of-the-way places.

The next day we began a two-day excursion to Shen Vlash Monastery and the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy, just east of the coastal city of Durrës. We met with the seminarians, and we all told our stories.

In the afternoon we walked to a nearby cemetery where OCMC missionary Lynette Hoppe is buried and said prayers at her grave.

The road through the cemetery divides it into Christian and Muslim halves. You can see how Albanians bury their dead in above-ground tombs, and they often leave flowers – or snacks – for the departed.

In the afternoon we visited the Children’s Home of Hope, an orphanage on the grounds of the monastery.

Some of the older girls performed a dance for us.

We divided the kids into two groups, taking one outside for games, including a water balloon fight. The other group stayed inside for a craft – decorating a small wooden cross with paints and beads. Then the two groups traded places and activities.

The next day was a big student conference at the monastery. Students came from all over the country, and they filled the auditorium set up for the conference. Here the students open the event with songs.

The red and black flag is the national flag, and the gold and red flag is the church flag. Both feature the double-headed eagle, a symbol that the Albanians inherited from the Byzantine Empire. After the singing, Fr. Luke gave a talk, and then we divided up into small groups for discussion of passages of scripture on the topic of love. Thanks to my translator Aleksandra, I was able to participate in the discussion in my group. During the break that followed, a couple of girls who wanted to meet Americans talked to some of the seminarians. They invited me to join them for a walk. One of them spoke very good English, which she said she learned mostly by watching American movies and TV shows. On our way back for lunch we stopped to play on the swings.

This is the refectory where everyone from the seminary and monastery eats, packed with students from the conference.

After lunch, Fr. Raphael and I were invited to join an Albanian family enjoying the beautiful afternoon in the shade of a tree.

Later we attended Saturday Vespers at the monastery church, which is built in the traditional Greek style typical of new Albanian churches.

That evening we drove back to the Tabor Center, and on Sunday morning we attended Orthros and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the cathedral. Here is a bird’s eye view of the beginning of the Liturgy, with all the clergy gathered behind the archbishop.

On Monday morning we visited the church-run diagnostic clinic and had a Bible study with the student leaders at the Student Center of the Orthodox Church in Student City.

On Tuesday morning we visited Nazareth Center, which houses several church-related crafts: printing, icon painting and restoration, wood carving, and candle making. Here we see a batch of candles that have just been dipped in molten wax. They will be dipped repeatedly until they reach the desired thickness.

After this we visited the Gypsy camp on the edge of Tirana. The Gypsies in Albania, as in much of Europe, have not assimilated to the majority culture. This is partly a result of discrimination, but traditional Gypsy culture promotes cohesion within the band and independence from non-Gypsies, which creates pressure not to assimilate.

The Gypsies subsist by begging, working at short-term unskilled jobs, and exploiting Tirana’s trash. Some of them repair junk and re-sell it, while others collect recyclables. This Gypsy crushes aluminum cans to be recycled. I wonder how much worse the trash problem in Tirana would be if the Gypsies were not picking up all the recyclables.

Back at the Tabor Center, we joined the closing lunch of a clergy conference, and then we heard from Papa Jani, an important figure in the Church’s revival, over frappés.

Then we immediately packed up for a three-day visit to the southeastern city of Korça, a traditional Orthodox stronghold. We had a long drive through the mountains with a lot of breathtaking scenery.

We stopped at Shen Naum, on the shore of Lake Ochrid, for a delicious supper of koran, a local fish.

The décor of the restaurant featured three stuffed bears. Here Jason earns his nickname, the bear whisperer.

We spent the night at the Metropoly. In the morning, after fortifying ourselves with a round of Greek coffee, we met with Metropolitan John in his office.

We then had the rest of the morning free for sightseeing in Korça. We visited three of the city’s Orthodox churches, but we only found one of them open. A few of us walked up a long crumbling staircase to the top of a hill on the edge of town, not knowing what we would find at the top. It turned out to be a cemetery and war memorial. Here, Ryan poses in front of the socialist-realist memorial statue.

Looking the other direction gave us a dramatic view of the whole city and a snow-capped mountain in the distance.

We could also see the next church on our itinerary.

There seem to be a lot of bridal shops in Albania, and everything American is popular. But I’m not sure what Mickey Mouse has to do with wedding gowns.

As I was saying, America is popular.

Our group nearly entered this restaurant’s outdoor seating area, but then opinion quickly divided about what we wanted, and a critical mass of the group drifted across the street to a place that served beer and meat – despite the fact that it was a Wednesday in a fasting season. I knew what I wanted – Turkish coffee – so I persuaded Ryan to join me, and we returned to Restaurant Amerika for coffee. Eventually, everyone else drifted back across the street to join us.

That afternoon we traveled to the Monastery of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, near Voskopoja.

The facilities were . . . primitive. After Vespers and supper, we gathered around a campfire with Metropolitan John for a couple of hours. The next morning we loaded our bags on a mule and commenced a 20-kilometer hike through the mountains to the Monastery of Ss. Peter & Paul, near Vithkuq. In this next picture, we went off the trail to avoid an area where the army was destroying excess ammunition.

Here you can see two of the one-man bunkers that became ubiquitous in Albania during the communist period. Placed in strategic locations all over the country, they are deep enough for a man to stand in (and shoot from) and made of concrete a foot and a half thick.

On our way out of Korça, we drove up to the big cross overlooking the city for our morning prayers. On our way up the hill we saw this cement truck that fell off the road two years ago and has been stuck there ever since.

Here, Logan approaches the cross.

And here is the view across the valley.

On the way home, we stopped in Pogradec and Elbasan. In the former, we met Papa Todi, who took us out to this restaurant, formerly a favorite retreat of the dictator Enver Hoxha, where I had the best Turkish coffee ever – and the raki wasn’t bad either.

On Saturday morning we took the orphans to the beach at Durrës. Most of the kids started out playing soccer.

Then we had some races.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like anyone took a picture of the awesome sand castle. After we returned the kids to the orphanage, we headed for the historical city of Kruja. Here you can see the dramatic cliffs above the city.

We had lunch at this little restaurant while a storm came and went.

After shopping for souvenirs, we visited the Skanderbeg Museum. Skanderbeg was the medieval military leader who held the Turks at bay for a generation to maintain Albania’s independence. Our hero strikes a profound pose at the entrance to his museum.

Socialist realism projected back into the 14th century! The first exhibition room showed some artifacts of the Illyrians, the people who occupied the Adriatic coast in the Roman era, and who are sometimes claimed as the ancestors of the Albanians. This is a model of an Illyrian ship.

On Sunday evening we held a big farewell party, with the OCMC missionaries and many of our Albanian friends.

(You will probably have noticed that I did not include many shots of icons and church interiors. I decided to hold those for a second post at a later time. If I had tried to include them here, they could easily have displaced the narrative and dominated the whole post.)


Roland said...

Fr. Paisius posted this video of our time in Korca on YouTube. It runs 3:23.

Anonymous God-blogger said...

Great photos and descriptions; thank you, Roland!

Is that the same Lake Ochrid of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic?

liz said...

Wow! This looks like a really interesting trip. I enjoyed seeing the early bible. Mountains, beaches, city - something for everyone.

Roland said...

Is that the same Lake Ochrid of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic?

Yes! The lake forms part of the border between Macedonia and Albania. I think Bp. Nikolai would have been writing from the Macedonian side.

Sara K. said...

Wow! Wow! Wow! What an amazing trip/class/mission! Thanks for sharing it with us!

Anonymous said...

Hi i read your Orthodox Albanian mission trip blog, and must say found only a few photos interesting,
Besides that your interpretations, explanations,description and typing skills made you sound like a person not with the mission of god, faith or even with the intention of showing the beauty of your purpose, only getting a free holiday.You should of gone the library in USA.
First time I have left a comment on a blog.I promise.
Go figure where your at.

Please Publish real comments like this and not only your friends.

P.S Hope you get better at this, or else the church can do with out you, and putting people off.
There is still people who really believe in God and would die right now in his name, if need be!!!

Put-Off-Bad, Sydney Australia

Arimathean said...

My typing skills??

If most of the comments here were posted by my friends, that is just a reflection of who reads my blog. About the only things I censor are spam and off-topic comments.

While I certainly enjoyed Albania, this was far from a holiday. It was a graduate-level class, and not an easy one. After I returned, I had to turn in my daily journal from the trip, along with three papers, including a final paper of about 20 pages. You will probably be disappointed to learn that I got an A.