Memories of Albania
As our two weeks in Albania draw to a close, the following are my memories to share.
Along Side Ministries
Mark and Ruthie have achieved amazing things in their 15+ years in Albania. The church in Erseke is a great center for people to worship and is well attended on Sundays by a good cross section of the Erseke community. During the week the church is a center for youth activities including various games for children of various ages and volleyball for the older children. The camp in Erseke is also a great achievement and has become a destination for religious and non- religious groups to spend a week or two for their programs. In addition Along Side Ministries has a mountain property that is currently used as a camping area for religious and non-religious groups. I believe everyone of the PCLG group that traveled to Erseke (the "Group") has helped Mark and Ruthie further their mission in Albania. I know that I personally had a great time and grew from the experience.
The Country and its history and religious background
For several decades Albania, a country with over three million inhabitants, was closed to the outside world under a communist dictator who seemed to have a fear of the outside and a paranoia that the outside world would invade Albania. During this time over 700,000 bunkers ("pill boxesD) of terribly ugly design and various sizes and appearance were built throughout the country. This had to take several hundred millions of dollars out of the economy. Now the younger people say "Why was this not put into roads and infrastructure that would help us be a great tourist designation for Europeans?" Eventually communism fell and the country opened up, and the communist party became the socialist party so the old leadership continued for a time. Then in the mid 1990s a series of pyramid investment schemes started up and about three years later imploded. A couple years of lawlessness followed with random killings before a more conservative government took over.
During the communist era all religion was banned and all churches were destroyed except for a few churches or mosques of architectural significance. These were converted and used for governmental purposes, but were converted back to religious use some time after communism fell. During the decades of communist rule most people with a religious training died out so when communism fell, there was a religious vacuum. Today the country has most religions represented at least to some extent. Generally there are Protestant, Orthodox, Catho lic and Moslem religions in the country, although the Moslems are of a sect that other Shiite or Sunni Moslems oppose and persecute.
Today the living standard varies from subsistence farming in much of the countryside to a fairly good standard of living for those few people with their own business or those working for the government.
I can only say that the Albanian people that I met were some of the most friendly, wholesome people I have ever met in my numerous travels. Of course the people in the Erseke church were friendly and open, and when they spoke some English, wonderful to talk to and they gave much of what I am putting in this file. I took numerous walks (at least a couple every day), and the people on the street were very friendly and open – we were only separated by my inability to speak Albanian and their inability most often to speak English. I had picked up enough Albanian to say good morning or good day and this almost always was greeted with a friendly reply and a smile.
I developed sympathy for the elderly as they were victims of the fall of communism. They were either born into the communist system or spent most of their life under the system, so when communism fell they lost whatever entitlements they h ad under the system. That coupled with the pyramid schemes that enticed them to risk their minimal assets often left them with minimal resources to live on.
This is a pleasant, totally safe community near the Albanian - Greek border. It is small even by Albanian standards with a delightful rolling countryside and view of the mountains. It is what I would call a bucolic setting and a great place to raise a family. Also the weather was wonderfully mild, and especially a welcomed relief from the much hotter and uncomfortable weather of Greece. There is a beautiful red poppy that grows in the countryside along with some other flowering plants.
There are some negatives: People do litter and one can see much evidence of this traveling around the country. Also grafitti is alive and well in Erseke, and often appears to be done during political campaigns.