By Rajmund Dabrowski
“Can you pack your bags and be ready for a trip to Albania next week?” was the invitation I wanted but never expected to get. “What do you mean?” I asked Robert Manchin, a Hungarian friend who worked for the European section of Gallup. My question was not without hesitation. It was just before Easter of 1991 and Albania was still pretty much closed to the external world.
For decades after WWII, Albania worked hard to be isolated, and its infamy was that it banned the practice of religion, making it constitutionally illegal. Churches tried to get in, but even if a visit could happen, visitors were closely monitored and exposed to the “wonder of atheism” and saw religious structures that had been turned into warehouses and cinemas. What they also saw were bunkers aimed at protecting the state dotting the mountain sides. Enver Hoxa statues were everywhere you turned your head. He was an iron-fisted infamous Albanian dictator, loved by a handful, hated by most.
But I dreamed about such a trip. The call came quite early in the morning, but when I heard the words, “Tirana, Albania,” I was quite awake.
On Sunday afternoon, April 15, 1991, the Swiss Air plane from Zurich landed at Rinas airport outside of Tirana, the capital. Stepping on the tarmac, I felt like kissing the ground. I was in Albania, the European secret. John Arthur, ADRA director of the Trans-European Division, followed me. Ours was a “mission possible” for the church again.
Naturally I wondered how we would be able to meet with anyone who could take us to discover our fellow believers. We had skimpy information about a family living in Korçë, in the south of the country—a city where Daniel Lewis, an Albanian from Boston, Massachusetts, established a pharmacy after responding to a call from the General Conference and becoming a missionary to Albania in the 1930s. Lewis reported five converts in 1939. His missionary activities landed him in prison, sentenced to 20 years, but four and a half years later he died in inhuman conditions. His Italian wife, Flora, was also imprisoned, and later moved back to live with her daughter, Esther. We received Flora’s address from the church in Italy and it led us to their home.
Thus began a series of emotional meetings, where we discovered that a group in Korçë, and the Gjika family in Tirana were waiting for someone to come from abroad, conduct Bible studies, and baptize several of them!
I met Meropi Gjika, who was 87 then, on my second visit to Albania a few months later, and this became perhaps the most inspirational moment for me. “The Lord sent you to us,” Meropi whispered adding to a hug which even today makes me well up and get goose bumps.
I learned how she hid a Greek Bible, which she read from Genesis to Revelation once a year. She translated it into Albanian and made sure her three children, Thanas, Victor, and Marherita, read the Scriptures, too. Her translations were meticulously written in a series of journals.
Meropi’s son, Thanas, a historian of Albanian literature at the Albanian Academy of Science, shared that she would often stop him as he left for work and ask, “Have you read your Bible text today?” Then he added, “Only when I said ‘yes’ could I go to work!”
Meropi’s granddaughter, Esther Pocari, who was soon to be employed as a secretary in the newly re-established Albanian Adventist mission, explained, “My grandma used to distribute pieces of paper with messages translated from the Bible. She gave them to everyone she met. I remember that whenever I visited her, she used to give me one to take with me. She put them in my pocket.”
One of Meropi’s greatest desires, when I visited with her, was to be relieved of the burden of keeping her tithe hidden. “What must I do with my tithe, which I have saved all these years?” she asked me. “Can you take it?” Meropi’s two sons explained that their mother would not keep the money in a bank because she didn’t trust the authorities.
Agreeing to return her tithe to the church, Meropi brought out a plastic bag from under her bed. In it was a carton full of Albanian leke and a few American dollars. For more that 20 years she had been on a $4.00 per month pension, yet she put aside her tithe and offerings. When we opened the carton, we found 24,629 leke and $41.00 in US funds. All told, she had saved the equivalent of US$533.89.
A few weeks later, Meropi was delighted to hand over the tithe to Pastor David Currie, a missionary-evangelist and a colleague of mine from the Trans-European Division office. After meeting Meropi, David returned to his hotel room that evening to count her tithe money. He told me later that he felt as if he was touching a sacred package. “I could not help but get on my knees and thank God for the faith of this vibrant Christian.” A total of US$533.89 was placed in a bank account of the revived Albanian Mission. In another emotionally-rich experience, I had the privilege of studying the Bible and praying with Meropi, her family and a few ready-to-be-baptized Albanian Christians. On April 18, 1992, a wonderful entry was written in the annals of Adventist history. It was on that Easter Sabbath afternoon that Meropi’s dream to be baptized came true. She was joined by her daughter, Marherita, granddaughter Esther, and five other believers. Together with Flora Sabbatino-Lewis, they became charter members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Albania.
Today, the church is not only present in this once-atheistic country, but has established several congregations and is a vibrant contributor to what Meropi was dreaming about—building a church in her country. She waited four decades to see her dream come true.
After my last visit with Meropi and her family ended and we bid farewell in her tiny one-bedroom flat, our eyes met but we did not need to say a word. As the family gathered on the balcony of their apartment block and we waved goodbye to each other, sister Meropi raised her hand, pointing heavenward. She nodded in the same direction. Words were not needed. We all knew—the Lord is coming back and we shall meet again, for eternity.
–Rajmund Dabrowski is RMC communication director and editor of Mountain Views. Email him at: [email protected]