Go forth: stories of mission and resurrection in Albania (book review)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Father Luke Veronis, from Pennsylvania in the USA, was a missionary in Albania for a little over ten years, from 1994-2004, and this is the story of his experience in that time. He was married to Faith, who joined him there and their three older children also lived there.
Since the Second World War Albania had been ruled by the communist dictator Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodja), who in 1967 decided that Albania was to the the world’s first officially atheist country, with no religion at all being allowed. So for 24 years, until 1991, no religion was allowed. Every church, jammi and tekke was closed, and either demolished or converted to secular uses.
In 1991 religious freedom was restored, but the Orthodox Church was in a bad way. Most of the clergy had been killed or imprisoned. Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos was sent there to try to reestablish the life of the church. There could not have been a better choice; he was the most outstanding Orthodox missiologist of the 20th century.
Luke Veronis met Bishop Anastasios when on a short-term mission trip to Kenya, and this sparked his missionary vocation. He returned to America, where he studied missiology, and then returned a second time to East Africa for a longer stint. Over the next few years he led several short-term mission teams to East Africa while studying theology at Holy Chross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts.
After he had been in Albania for a while, Luke Veronis returned to America, where he married Faith and was ordained as a deacon, and together they returned to Albania, where he was later ordained priest by Archbishop Anastasios.
During their time in Albania there were two huge upheavals. The first was in 1997, when most of the people in the country lost all their savings in the collapse of a pyramid scheme, in which many, unused to the capitalist system, had unwisely invested their life savings. The scheme was publicly endorsed by some prominent government leaders. When the scheme collapsed there was widespread chaos and looting, and people broke into military arsenals and stole guns. Hundreds were killed in the enusing fighting, not a few by bullets fired into the air by exuberant rioters.
The second upheaval was the influx of over a million refugees from Kosovo, who fled after the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. Father Luke describes the church’s ministry to the refugees, and how some close personal relationships were forged with them, which continued even after they had returned, or had moved on to other countries.
This book is is not a formal treatise on mission or mission history, but a kind of expanded missionary journal, with a description of Fr Luke’s work, and impressions of it, and reflection on the nature of mission and the motivation of missionaries. In that sense it is more inspirational than informational, and more missional than missiological. That also, in a sense, makes me the wrong person to review the book, because part of Father Luke’s story is also part of my story, since he arranged for me to go to Albania to lecture on missiology to students of the seminary at Shen Vlash, where he was the Dean, and I also met Archbishop Anastasios, and several of the people he mentions in the book.
Archbishop Anastasios asked Fr Luke to concentrate his ministry especially among the youth, and so he was dean of the seminary at Shen Vlash, which had about 60-70 students for a three year course of study. He also met students at the universoty, and had a weekly celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the university, and there were also study groups. When we were in Albania we went to some of these. There were also summer camps for young people and students, and in the book Father Luke notes that a number of those who had participated in thes groups were now judges in Albania.
The book also gives some personal glimpses of Archbishop Anastasios, which are also very useful, and one can see something of what drives him. The outstanding thing seems to be the heart of the Gospel, the good newsd of the love of God, and Archbishop Anastasios himself comes across as someone filled with the love of God and the desire to share that love with others.
Many know Archbishop Anastasios as a missiologist, but his writings and actions are filled with a missional spirit. Father Luke gives an example from a conference of Orthodox theological schools in 2001:
When one theologian tried to say that the authentic type of Orthodox missions was simply to stay where we are and shine a light so that others come to us, Archbishop Anastasios warned him that “we are in danger of creating spiritual ghettos only for ourselves and no one else. This has nothing to do with the ‘apostolic, catholic’ spirit of our forebears. If our theology is authentic and sincere, then it must spur us on toward missions. Orthodox theology and missiology are not separate. Our theology motivates us for mission.”
Father Luke also describes some of the difficulties and personal opposition faced by Archbishop Anastasios, and in some ways they are obstacles to Orthodox mission everywhere. When Archbishop Athanasios first went to Albania in 1991 he was regarded with hostility by the Albanian government, because he was Greek. Albanian nationalists in America spoke against him at every opportunity. On the other hand, Greek nationalists criticised him for not being Greek enough, and for re-establishing an Albanian Church rather than a Greek one.
A Romanian metropolitan tried to establish a diocese for the Vlach-speaking people, and a Greek metropolitan claimed that parts of southern Albania fell under his jurisdiction.
But Archbishop Anastasios said that where people spoke Greek (as they did in the south of Albania) they could have Greek services, where they spoke Albanian, they would have Albanian services, and where the people were Vlach, they too could have services in their own language. He inisted that there was only one Orthodox Church in Albania:
Do you think the forest is more beautiful if there is only one kind of tree? All the various trees must grow freely under the rays of the sun. The key to proper development is love and freedom…
Father Luke describes some of the ways in which evangelism takes place. One of the seminarians, Daniel, who is from a Muslim background, visited Luljeta, a woman who had been in hospital for seven years with muscular dystrophy, who was also from a Muslim background. Eventually she came to faith in Christ and Father Luke baptised her, and visited her regularly in hospital to take her Holy Communion. In her hospital room, she bears witness to Christ among her non-Christian friends who come to visit her.
As I said, I am probably not the best person to review this book, because one reason I enjoyed reading it was that I knew some of the people and places mentioned in it. It was good to be reminded of them again.
I was also reminded of some other things, not mentioned in the book, but which help to illuminate some of the things in the book.
Just before we went to Albania we were in Athens, and there was a mission conference at which Father Luke read a paper on Orthodox mission and its problems at then end of the 20th century: complacency, nationalism, ethnocentrism and triumphalism.
In the questions and discussion that followed his paper one person remarked that Father Luke was wrong to describe the work in Albania as mission. It was pastoral work, he said, since mission was among people who had not known Orthodoxy. Father Luke responded that in a country in which 60% of the people regarded themselves as Muslim, it was definitely a mission situation. He might have added that that in the atheist period, which lasted 24 years, no one, and especially not children born during that time, would have known Orthodoxy, and even in the 20 years that preceded it, all religion was suppressed and restricted.
The outlook of the questioner represents one of the biggest problems of Orthodox mission. Even in countries where religion is not forcibly suppressed, as it was in Albania before 1991, there is a problem of nominal Christians who see Orthodoxy as part of an ethnic heritage. There is, in a sense, the need to evangelise the baptised. In Albania, it was easier, since most weere not baptised.
As a missiologist, I would also like to see another kind of book, a book that tells the full story, or at least more of the story, of the resurrection of Christianity in Albania. Father Luke’s book is, inevitably, the story as seen through one person’s eyes. It gives an important part of the story, but one always wants to know more. I hope someone will write that book too.
The kinds of questions that I hope such a book might answer are:
- What did Archbishop Anastasios do in his first three months in Albania?
- How did he establish the seminary? When did it start?
- Who were the first students? The first teachers?
- Where did the first students come from, and how were they recruited?
- What did the students do subsequently, and where are they now?
- How were monasteries re-established? When, and where did the monastics come from?
- Where did the money to establish the seminary and similar places come from?
- What motivated people to give money for them?
Those are just a few of the questions.
In some ways the situation in Albania from 1991 to 2011 was unique. Chrsitianity was both very old and very new. Things that worked in Albania will not necessarily work in other places, yet there are still important lessons to be learned — lessons that will be lost if more of the history is not recorded now.