I have a feeling we’re not in Novosibirsk anymore . . .
“You have palm trees!”
It’s such a touristy thing to say, but I can’t help it. We don’t have palm trees in Novosibirsk, Russia. I’ve just landed at the airport in Tirana, Albania. (Albania lies on the Mediterranean Sea, directly east of Italy’s heel.) Seminarian Nikolla Bishka is picking me up in his Ford Focus for the thirty minute drive to his hometown of Durres.
For the next two weeks “Niko” and I will study Paul’s letter to the Galatians and talk about what it means to serve as a pastor. I’m excited for the new challenge. For the past twenty-one years I have served as a missionary in Siberia. Now I have been asked to do some traveling in order to mentor pastors and seminary students in Russia, Bulgaria, and Albania.
Niko is twenty-six years old, quiet, but friendly. He lives with his parents, Pastor Mikel and Pavlena, and his younger brother Viktor. As we drive along the country’s main highway, Niko tells me how things have changed. The old dictator is gone. Life is better . . . but wages are low and prices are high. Gasoline costs $6.25 a gallon! Students are protesting peacefully in the streets of Tirana demanding improved living conditions. Many people are leaving the country to search for work in Italy or Germany. Religion is allowed. There was a time when all religion was banned. In the 1960s, Christians were imprisoned and even executed for their faith. Now about seventy percent of the population claim to be Muslim, and the rest are nominally Christian. Most of Albanian’s three million souls live in spiritual darkness.
Niko drops me off at my hotel which he carefully chose for its low price and beautiful view overlooking the ruins of an ancient Roman theater. We agree to start our studies the next day at the congregation’s rented facilities. I’m grateful for the chance to rest! The trip from Novosibirsk to Tirana takes a full day – three flights, six time zones, and nine hours in the air.
The Durres church is a storefront located right on the city’s main road. Immediately upon entrance, neatly labeled photographs of church members greet me. Niko points out his picture. Then he points out a picture of the congregation’s first pastor, Missionary Richard Russow, with the church’s founding members (2006). The church is decorated for Advent and Christmas.
With a prayer for God’s blessing, Niko and I dive into our study of Galatians. What a joy! No wonder Martin Luther called this little book his “Katherine von Bora.” Luther loved this letter for its clear comfort: God has saved us by His mercy. There is nothing, NOTHING, we need to add to Christ’s perfect work of rescuing us for life. This freedom lets us love God and people with all our hearts. The people of Albania need to hear this precious message! Something else strikes us as we read Paul’s letter: the apostle dearly loved the people he served. He writes with such emotion as he urges his people to believe God’s truth and to reject Satan’s lies.
May God give Niko and all of us that same love for God’s word and God’s people! Please pray that God would give Niko many years of gospel service. Pray that God will lead many Albanian people to freedom in Christ!
Written by: Rev. Luke Wolfgramm, Missionary in Russia
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