Theological education — Albania
In Easter 2000 I taught for a term at the Orthodox Seminary at Shen Vlash, Albania. I was to teach missiology and mission history, and began teaching the day after arriving in Albania. There were about 60 students, two-thirds male and one third female. I taught the same basic material to the first, second and third-year students. But because I find it difficult to teach people I don’t know, and whose background I am unfamiliar with, I began by asking the students to tell me about themselves and their home churches. When did the church first start in the place where they came from? How did it get there? How many churches are there now?
Typical answers were that there were six churches, three were destroyed by the Turks, the other three by the communists, and one has now been restored and is functioning. One student, from Durres, the main port, a few kilometres west of Shen Vlash, said that the tomb of St Asti, the first Albanian bishop, was in the town, and that they stood outside it on his feast day, holding candles, and if passers-by asked them why, they would tell them about St Asti. He wasn’t the first bishop, he was the first Albanian one. His predecessor was Jewish, and had come with St Paul. So the church in Albania was very old, yet also very new.
The church was revived under the ministry of Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, who established the seminary, first using a hotel, and later raising money for the buildings at Shen Vlash. During the term I taught there the Dean of the Seminary was Fr Luke Veronis, from the USA. There were some other foreign teachers there, from Wales, Greece and the USA. I taught my classes in English, and they were translated by Joana Malaj, who was a full-time translator.
During my time there there was also a student conference, for students from the seminary and the university, and an end-of-year outing to Korçë, in southern Albania, which was the only clean city I saw in the whole country — so much so that when a lorry came past to empty the rubbish bins I rushed outside to take a photo of it, it was such an unusual sight. Everywhere else, town and country, at least along the main roads, it was all over plastic bags and plastic bottles, and the rivers were full of old cars, junked applianjces etc. That was one of the three things that probably made the biggest impression on foreign visitors, the other two being dordolec, dolls fixed to unfinished buildings (of which there were many) to ward off the evil eye, and the ubiquitous concrete bunkers, relics and reminders of Enver Hoxha’s war psychosis.
At the end of my course, I gave a summary and made some observations on mission in Albania. Here’s what I wrote in my diary:
29 May 2000Went out to the seminary in the minivan, and did the first three classes, starting with the second years. I summarised the ground we had covered in the last few weeks, and asked if they had any questions. Kristo Kume was the only one who asked significant questions. I closed with a summary of three mission problems I thought needed to be dealt with in Albania – seeing that not everyone was Christian, even if they claimed to be “Orthodox” as opposed to Muslim, the question of ecology and care for the environment, and nationalism. I explained that it was difficult for me, as a South African, to understand the desire for revision of national boundaries, and ethnic nationalism and described how the ethnic Tswanas in South Africa showed little desire to be incorporated into Botswana, nor did Botswana desire to enlarge its territory to incorporate them.
I did much the same thing with the third years. Konstandin Agolli asked a question about the sects that proselytised in Albania and showed a concern with family values, such as the Mormons. I said their idea of marriage and family life was not all that different from the Orthodox one, though their doctrine of the trinity was a lot further from Orthodoxy than most Protestants. I also asked how many of the students had both parents who were Christian now, and suggested that those who did not could begin evangelism in their own families. I then talked about the same things as with the second year, but did not reach the question of nationalism before the bell rang. Concerning ecology, I asked them to sing one of the songs they had sung on the bus, “Dua mëngjeset e majit, kur këndon bilbili fushës”, which was all about loving the natural beauty of Albania, and above all loving freedom, and asked where it spoke of the cars and plastic bottles in the rivers. I said that the image of hell in the New Testament was Gehenna, the Jerusalem rubbish dump, and that as Christians our task was to make the world we live in the image of the kingdom of God, and not the image of hell.
The first years were more responsive. One student, Robert, asked me about myself, and I told them that I did not have a Christian upbringing, and that my father had read me bedtime stories from a biology textbook, and at the age of four I could tell people a lot about the intestinal parasites of sheep. I asked if their parents had told them stories, and they said that it was their grandparents, and that they usually told stories about animals, like the fox. They did not tell Christian stories, because it was prohibited in that time. I suggested that those whose parents had been Christians 20 years ago should ask them how their parents had lived the Christian faith at that time, and record it for future generations.
And now, ten years later, I look back on that, and wonder where those students are today.
One of the amazing things about Albania was the revival of the Christian faith after it has been suppressed under the Enver Hoxha regime, but this had also brought several difficulties for mission and evangelism. One was the tendency, common in the Balkans, to assume that people were Christians because their grandparents were. Onone occasion I visited the village cemetery in Shen Vlash with some of the students, and as we walked down the path the students told me that the Orthodox were buried on the left, and the Muslims on the right. When we came to the end of the path I asked where the atheists were buried, and they did not understand the question. I said that for 27 years Albania had been the first and only atheist country in the world — hadn’t anyone died in that time? Oh yes, the Orthodox atheists were buried on the left, and the Muslim atheists on the right.
The same thing came up at an Orthodox mission conference in Athens, just before I came to teach in Albania. I attended some of the sessions. Fr Luke Veronis read a paper on Orthodox mission and its problems at the end of the 20th century — complacency, nationalism, ethnocentrism and triumphalism. In the responses and questions someone said that Fr Luke had done wrong to describe the work in Albania as mission, as it was pastoral work, since mission was among people who had not known Orthodoxy. Fr Luke responded that in a country where over 60% of the people regarded themselves as Muslim, it was definitely a mission situation, to which he could have added that since Albania had been the first and only atheist state in the world, it was even mission among people who regarded themselves as historically Orthodox, since most of them had not been baptised.
I encouraged the students whose parents had been Christian during the Hoxha era to encourage their parents (and others they knew) to tell the stories, and record them — that was a kind of assignment, to learn mission history by recording it. The students themselves would have been about 10-12 years old when the communist regime fell, and freedom of religion was restored. The current generation of students will have had no personal experience of the communist era at all.
One thing that I found interesting was that at the student conference people read papers, but though there was a question time afterwards, the questions were directed to the speaker, and the speaker tried to answer them. As a student in South Africa in the 1960s I had attended several student conferences, but there was a slightly different procedure. The speakers would prepare some questions, and the audience would be asked to discuss them in small groups of perhaps 6-8 people. The small groups would report back to a plenary session, and if there were any questions to the speaker, they would be asked then, though most of the questions would have been asked in the group discussions. It seemed to me that the group discussion method allowed for more audience participation, and I suggested that it be used, especially after my paper. Others seemed to find it strange, and were sceptical about whether it would work. We tried it, however, and it seemed to work quite well.
For more see Balkan Spring II.