Seminarian Reflection: My Missionary Journey to Albania

My journey to Albania began during my second semester of seminary this past winter. O.C.M.C. had decided to award seminarians with a grant and stipend for missionary work through The Louis and Helen Nicozosis Mission Team Endowment.  The requirements were simple in that a seminarian had to write an essay concerning why he felt foreign missions were important and necessary in the Orthodox Church.  If he were chosen, as I thankfully was, O.C.M.C. would then pick a trip they felt he would work well in.

My trip got off to a rough start in that I had over a twenty hour lay over in Dulles airport.  As a seminarian my funds are limited and I thus had to sleep on the marble floor that night.  Upon awakening I got a phone call from Deacon James Nicholas our team leader informing me that he would be arriving three days later and that I must head up the mission until his arrival.  This would be the first of many changes I would experience in working in Albania.

Our mission in Albania was to organize a camp for the children who live at the Home of Hope.  The Home of Hope is a house for orphans and needy children located in a Muslim village outside of Durres.  Upon arrival there from the Tirana airport we were immediately greeted on the front steps by twenty seven joyous children.  They had been anticipating our arrival for weeks and it showed in the happiness in their faces and the hugs we were receiving from them. They walked the mission team into there living room and warmly received us, and, introductions were made.  Several of our team members, including myself, were deeply moved by this hospitality and kindness.

Our initial plan was to take a day of rest and re-cooperate before beginning camp, however the most loving and gracious director of the home Mosuesa (Teacher) Poly told us our work would begin tomorrow.  I was grateful for her strong leadership because it made my job of beginning the mission work easier because Mosuesa Poly always knew what was best for her children in any given moment, and, we were there to serve the children. 

No matter how much planning we did as a team plans would inevitably change.  Living in a foreign culture can be shocking at first because you are outside of your comfort zone and much can be different.  Deacon James had forewarned me that plans would change and that we must be flexible because this was part of our work.  Plans would change often and several different times in a day.  It was so incredible to see how willing our American mission team was to adapt to a “go with the flow” Albanian mentality.  Our team worked so well together that Flora Boardman, our most well seasoned missionary with eleven trips prior said, “This is the best group I’ve ever worked with.”   I believe God had ordained this exact group of people to go on this exact mission trip because it was what was needed.  This group did their  best to synergize their wills with the Holy Spirit in order to accomplish a successful camp experience.

The camp was nine days long and based on the nine fruits of the Spirit.  Every day would begin with breakfast and morning prayers.  Afterwards we would then sing songs in English and Albanian before one of the team members would teach the day’s lesson on the particular fruit of the Spirit.  After this we would break into three different groups based on age and work on our skits which would be performed on the last day of camp.  At eleven there would be a snack and then the children would rotate through crafts and English as a second language classes.  At one thirty would be lunch and then a rest period until four thirty.  At six thirty evening prayer would take place followed by supper and outdoor games or the watching of the World Cup.  In addition to this we were able to see much of the country in the forms of various museums, cultural sites, parishes, and beaches with the children.  Mosuesa Poly made sure that we were able to see these places and take the children along with us.

One of the more memorable aspects of our mission trip was having an audience with His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Albania.  There were over 1,600 church buildings before communism and not one was left standing or un-converted to secular use by its fall in 1989.  The work Archbishop Anastasios has completed in the last twenty years is miraculous. He has finished a seminary, university, orphanage, parishes, cathedrals, a synod, trade school, and various other institutions and social relief organizations and endeavors.  This well accomplished man took over an hour and a half out of his day to meet with the whole team which I think all were appreciative of. 

However for me the most memorable part of the mission trip was the last day of camp when we had our festival because it was the culmination of all the hard work and friendship we shared together.  The days before in camp had helped us to become one with the family in the home.  On this last day we and the children all knew we would soon be leaving and it was once again a very emotional time.  These children are precious vessels of the Holy Spirit.  I would often find myself crucified by their love.  It would chip away at the hardness in my heart, and yet simultaneously this same love would resurrect me to face the next day in working with them.  While I came to minister to them, I must admit that I was ministered to by the children and staff of the Home of Hope.      

- Seminarian Joseph Gingrich