(Our first trip to Albania)

Dana, Jonathan, and I were invited to visit Albania as guests of the Albanian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, by Archbishop Anastasios Yannopoulos.  This was formerly the most fiercely-atheistic country of all, and having just returned from this whirlwind concert tour, I feel that I have been inside a kaleidoscope.   It's hard to see the pattern of Albanian life amid the whirling colors of cultural, spiritual, and political diversity.

 Considering the shortness of the visit, Dana and I have filled a notebook with impressions.  You certainly don't bring home souvenirs from Albania; the economy is such that nobody thinks much about souvenirs.  They should.  There is much to celebrate in their ancient and very artistic culture. But the Albanians have endured 45 years of the worst kind of Communist dictatorship and their heads are still spinning as they seek to discern their own identity.

 Christianity is making many inroads in Albania, and the Orthodox Church is no exception.   The autocephalous Albanian Orthodox church finds itself at the center of controversy.  Unfairly perceived by some as a political front for Greece, it is, upon closer examination, a courageous Christian flock fighting many odds to reestablish Albania's ancient faith, in a land which is estimated to be 70% Moslem, and which also has a large Roman Catholic population, stemming from days of Italian occupation.  On the plane, in the streets, and in the little downtown "Stephen Center", we met scores of Protestant and Catholic missionaries.  The Orthodox have a very busy mission staff of around fifteen.

 On Thursday, June 1, we touched down on the parqueted landing strip of the Tirana Airport.  As we bumped along the patched runway, I wondered if perhaps we had a flat tire.  I was soon to discover that it was just the way things are in this impoverished nation.

 When it was discovered that we were Americans, we were hurried through customs with great speed.  Several individuals assisted with the baggage to the car and received their tips in dollar bills, because we'd had no chance to change money.  There was no searching of the luggage.  The perception of America has changed greatly; we were welcomed warmly.

 We were met by our very charming and lovely hostess, Presvytera Faith Veronis, the wife of an energetic young Greek Orthodox priest who is assisting the church in Albania, and driven through the verdant and bunker-dotted countryside, to a nicer section of the dilapidated capital city.  Descending from the vehicle, we noticed a blizzard of confetti all over the courtyard.  The children in one of the upstairs apartments had shredded a book, because it referred pleasantly to Enver Hoxha, the former merciless Communist dictator.  It had not occurred to the children to clean up the mess; when Dana suggested it to them later in the week, they said, "Why?  We don't want to." And so it is that trash covers the city, one of the many reactions to the severe regime that punished one for the smallest infraction of the capricious laws.

Hauling our luggage to the fifth-floor walk-up apartment was no small matter, but what a view rewarded our ascent!  The  southern Alps surround Tirana and cover the entire nation.  Some of the more attractive apartment buildings surrounded ours, in the Italian style with red tile roofs.  Everywhere laundries drying in the sun danced in the slight breeze.  Somehow the Veronises had managed to rent the apartment of the Albanian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, so notwithstanding its simplicity, it was very spacious.  There is but one tap (for cold water) in the kitchen.  There is an ancient sit-down toilet in the bathroom, which is a luxury, and, as in all of Tirana, there is no water at all during the night.  One showers (if there is a shower) one foot or hand at a time.  Sometimes in the heat of the summer the water is so scarce that people go to the river and get cholera, and a few cases have already been reported this summer.  There is no central heating for the cold winters, and most Albanians probably have no space heaters, either.  (And when they do, the electricity fails!)  But Fr. Luke and Faith had made the apartment beautiful and clean.

We were greeted by a young Albanian seminarian named John, who speaks excellent English and is a translator for the many religious pamphlets and books which are so very much needed by the church.  We brought many with us from Conciliar Press and he went to work translating them right away.  John is an irrepressibly joyous elf of a young man with black, curly hair and a wonderful grin, and he took us off that very afternoon for a tour of the city--on foot, of course.  We walked faster and farther than we knew we could during the course of our stay, and often felt--as we were--more than twice his age!

 Tirana's streets are enlivened by the sights and sounds of cattle, goats, and sheep, all of whom were grazing upon the soccer field which we passed on our way downtown.  People of all ages vend their wares on the street; Dana noted bathroom scales, attached to their vendors by strings, in the hope that customers would pay to have their weight told.  Amid the motorized traffic, horse- or donkey-drawn carts, some ingeniously made out of old cars, frequently trot nonchalantly by, laden with hay, wood, or produce on the way to market.  One takes one's chances crossing the street.  Horns are liberally used, but we seldom heard a driver get angry at a pedestrian.  We made our way to the University district, also passing impressive embassies and the hideous former Hoxha museum, with the occasional adornments of ugly murals of the Soviet pattern, last remnants of a hated regime.

John shared his personal history with us on another such walk, this time toward the beautiful city park which is surmounted with the colossal Communist-era statue of "Mother Albania". Not surprisingly, John was very popular with his peers as a youngster and had been a youth leader for the Hoxha Communist Pioneers.  Every morning he was permitted to lead the elementary students in the rallying-cry, "Enver!  We are ready!" with which they were required to start the school day.  His parents were among the privileged of society in their village; his mother is a nurse, and his father a dentist.  They enjoyed the advantages of the elite.

Yet John was dissatisfied.  During the years of his secondary education, he began to be depressed, and his schoolwork and personal ebullience declined so greatly that, he said, "both my parents and my teachers were ashamed of me."  The death-struggle of Communism was underway, although he probably did not know it then.  He struggled vainly to understand his own feelings.  It was at that time that he heard about Christ from evangelists from Europe and received a Bible. After a short resistance, he began to study the Book.  "Wouldn't it be wonderful if this were true?" he thought.  Eventually, he joined a Bible study fellowship and became very happy.  His mother's background is Moslem, and his father's, Orthodox, although under Hohxa they were not allowed any religion.

John soon came in contact with the Orthodox Church and wanted to know about it.  Meeting committed Christians who were enthusiastic about Christ and their Church, he joined four years after his initial conversion to Christ and soon became a seminarian.  He had the opportunity to study at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston for a short time and became a part of the family of Fr. Luke Veronis and Faith when they moved to Albania, living in their home and assisting them with their translation work.  He is seeking the will of God concerning the possibility of becoming a monk someday, at a monastery where he would have a good chance of influencing the many tourists that visit that site.  John overflows with the love of God and goodwill toward others.  (His mother spent hours in the kitchen preparing a sumptuous feast for us when we visited their home; both parents gave up their comfortable bed for us and slept on the floor.  Their home does not have running water, and his mother is exhausted from hauling it from the neighbor's.)

After a very long and informative walk with John the very first day we arrived, we met Fr. Luke and another seminarian, who came over to exercise his artistic talents by painting "I am the Vine, you are the branches" on the kitchen wall, which is charmingly covered with icons and painted grape leaves.

 Jonathan was not only with us, but was able to work on a Boy Scout service project under the supervision of Penny Deligiannis at the Diocesan Offices, where he packed Christian books and pamphlets for distribution throughout the country.  Penny was a great boss and had us over to dinner one evening and for candlelight Scrabble, as the electricity failed and it took us awhile to get the hang of lighting her gas-lamp.  She is a delightful lady from a missionary family.  Jonathan really enjoyed his time in Albania and did lead a song at the last youth group meeting, which was a "first" for him.


Fr. Luke Veronis is a long-term missionary who has had some field experience before in Africa, as has Presvytera Faith.  He is young, gracious and soft-spoken, and filled with enthusiasm about his good Archbishop, the people of Albania, and the Orthodox Faith.  He reflects the ecumenical spirit of his parents but is a firm pastor to his flock, and he has the respect of not only the Orthodox community but the many other Christians who know him as well.  In spite of his great courtesy, I fear we were a bit of a nuisance at times, because of his and Faith's busy schedule.  He is always off somewhere teaching, serving Liturgy, or using his influence to assist in personal problems, when possible.  For example, with the generous help of the Presbyterian Church in Seattle, they are arranging for a little girl with a bad heart to come to America for surgery.  Such an arrangement is extremely difficult and time-consuming, for visas to America are almost impossible to get these days.

He and Faith have a long prayer list for each day, and the three members of the family, including John, light incense and pray each morning and evening before their family altar for each person by name.  We are happy and honored to be on that prayer list.  We are happy to see the care of these young shepherds to begin and end each day at the family altar. 

Now I will tell you honestly that the only difficulty for me in Albania was the kind of illness that can occur when one is not used to a change of water or food.  By the first Sunday morning I was unable to attend church.  The family gathered for prayers of healing, and the strength of those prayers got me through the weeks in Albania in a very special way.  I continued to feel sick, but was graced with an abundance of energy and inner strength which was totally contrary to my physical affliction.  To me, that victory was much more significant than a dramatic healing would have been. "His strength is made perfect in weakness."

Presvytera Faith is such a cute and dear woman.  Early in our visit she found a beggar on the way to church, and treated her like an old friend.  The lady was lying on a little rolling skate, her useless legs tucked under her.  Faith got down to her level and hugged and kissed her, giving her a little something as she did so, and introducing her to me by name.  We met two such individuals who took their stations near the church, and each was treated as an old and dear friend.  When Faith found that it was the birthday of dear old Mary, she asked Dana to sing "Ave Maria" for her, and he did so, right there in the street, while Mary beamed with joy.

We had thought to bring two instruments with us to Albania, one to bring home (my autoharp) and the other to leave there (a small Casio keyboard).  We had no idea what kind of instruments would be available to us.  And there were times when each came in handy.  Faith took me to her kindergarten class, which she is teaching English.  I brought the keyboard and allowed each child to try it.  They seemed very excited about it.  One little girl was obviously taking piano lessons and performed a scale for us with accuracy and determination.  It is extremely rare to find a child in Albania who knows how to play the piano, because pianos are scarce and in extremely bad condition, and lessons are rather an unheard-of luxury.  But the children are very musical and the ones who have studied are nothing short of astonishing.  And to have a class as attentive and eager as the little ones in Presvytera Faith's kindergarten would make many an American teacher green with envy.


 Our first concert was in Durres, a beautiful (and rather hair-raising) drive away from Tirana.  Everywhere is a hair-raising drive away from the city, because of the condition of the roads and the combination of motor traffic and foot, mule, and donkey traffic which can appear unexpectedly around a bend.  It is extremely disquieting to see tiny children, some below school age and some who ought to be in school, driving herds of cows or sheep or flocks of geese down the road, or on the side of a mountain so steep they must exercise special care not to slide down the deep canyons.  Dana scribbled a few notes the way:  "Barefoot peasant pushing his shovel into the ground.  Wooden plows with people pulling them.  Women with huge loads of hay on their backs.  Donkeys, cows everywhere."  On the way to Durres, we visited the site of the future seminary, which is on a hilltop up a ridiculous excuse of a road past a pathetically filthy gypsy colony.  The seminary is on a spot sacred to the Orthodox people and a lady was prayerfully kindling a candle on the site while workers slowly erected a chapel.  John pointed out that everywhere you see tall cyprus trees, there was at one time a church.  How often we passed such a site, with the church destroyed.  But there is great hope in the hearts of the people, because many such churches are going up again, thanks to generous mission gifts. To see the way the churches have been razed gives one insight into the senseless cruelty of the former Communist regime under the mad dictator, Enver Hoxha.  One magnificent church was burned so that a film might be made of its burning--in other words, it was used as a stage property.  And, of course, the countryside is still dotted with tens of thousands of bunkers--concrete and lead constructions, most of them too little to be good for anything.  Such was the paranoical fear of the fanatic atheist Hoxha that it was estimated that 40% of the entire population had spent jail time as "enemies of the people".  Almost everyone we met had either personally spent years in jail, or knew someone who had.

 Imagine, if you will, what a peculiar phenomenon we were in Albania--two people who perform a variety of Christian, classical, and folk music.  I had a sensation of being scrutinized rather carefully by Father Petro, the host of our first concert, who nonetheless met us with the characteristic Albanian courtesy.  His wife soon appeared with pieces of wrapped candy and Turkish delight, followed by drinks of several kinds.  Our concert was in a small performing arts center.  We waited nearly an hour to begin so as to include the Mayor and City Council members, who were quite late in arriving.  What sets this concert apart in my memory is the extraordinary reception given the composition "Hagios o Theos" ("Holy God") by the Greek American composer Christopher Kypros.  After Dana sang it through, someone roared, "Sing it again!" (in Italian, their second language, which we also understand) and for a third go-'round the people demanded to sing along, first in Greek and then in Albanian. It was as if old memories were stirred in the hearts of the entire townspeople, many of whom are at least nominally Moslem.  It was a thrilling and unforgettable moment to me to hear them sing so fervently, and to bow together while Dana sang the Lord's Prayer.  When the concert was over, a talented older amateur joined Dana in singing the Italian songs so loved by the people, as refreshments of bananas and cherries and, of course, drinks were served.  One gentleman on the City Council of Moslem background had objected strongly to the rebuilding of the church.  I had the pleasure of sitting next to him at refreshments and we had a very cordial talk.  We also fell in love with Father Petro, who joined us at another concert later.  Beneath the formal attire and the fluffy beard of the Orthodox priests we met beat the warm hearts of brothers in Christ.


 Our next concert was in Tirana at the Orthodox cathedral.  Somehow when I was told I would have "organs" to play in the churches, I visualized ancient pipe organs, doubtless in poor repair, such as had graced the churches in Italy.  How wrong I was.  The Orthodox Church in Tirana uses both Byzantine Chant (in Albanian) and the Slavic-style music, which in America is unaccompanied, but not in Albania.  Upon seeing the wreck of the ancient electronic "organ" (minus footboard, and having only four working octaves) I actually considered bringing the Casio, with its miniature keys--at least I could get five octaves to sound.  But the conductor, who also conducts at the Conservatory and is very professional, had managed to get a small Yamaha synthesizer (minus pedals, and not touch-sensitive) which had several rather useable settings.  Somebody with Yamahas must have visited Albania because I was to play on another at Korce.  Being doubtful of its usefulness as a solo instrument, and because the choir was going to sing that evening, I chose to omit a solo on that program.

 Dana, however, sang a variety of selections.  Judging by the people's response, our efforts were well received.  The choir sang beautifully, accompanied by the poor little organ, which was just fine for playing along with what was meant to be a cappella music.  Dana praised the beautiful choir generously and justly, and sang along with them on "Hagios o Theos".  It was a joyous and rather historical event, for they had never had a concert like that in the cathedral.  Besides several Orthodox selections, Dana sang many of the American Christian songs that he performs on our concerts everywhere.  The young people know these by heart and in Albanian and English, especially "Amazing Grace."  One elderly lady demanded "Silent Night," which is very important to the Albanians because it was used to protest the severity of the regime against the Church. The whole crowd sang it together, not only in Albanian, but in English. (The Albanians are a very singing people; John is constantly humming like a bumblebee, and on the way to concerts in the van we enjoyed many Christian songs and choruses together.) Since we performed at the invitation of Archbishop Anastasios, Fr. Luke never failed to acknowledge him and thank him for his guidance, and warm applause followed this acknowledgment in every community.

 Our concert pattern in Albania was very similar to what it is here.  We told about our visits to Russia and the heroes of the Faith we met and heard of in that country, where faith had also suffered such severe repression.  We shared the stories of the music we were about to sing or play.  When a piano was available, I usually played the "Hebrew Medley" and the "Great Gates of Kiev", and once or twice, at less formal occasions, a medley of George Gershwin selections.  Dana sang "Hagios o Theos", the Bortniansky "Cherubic Hymn", which they knew and loved, "Ave Maria," the "Lord's Prayer", a Russian folk song, and several Italian songs, the overwhelming favorite being "O Sole Mio."  On one concert, we had three volunteers who expected to be included, one baritone and two little violinists.  As I sight read the music for them, I observed that almost all the music I saw in Albania was painstakingly hand-copied.  So much of culture and learning had been destroyed and discouraged!  Milto, the choir director at the Cathedral, had spent seven years in prison for performing the opera Madama Butterfly all the way through.  It seems he was instructed to have Pinkerton, the American who, with dishonest intention, marries Butterfly, show NO remorse at the end of the opera, because "Americans do not show remorse for their evil deeds."  Since he disregarded these instructions, Milto spent seven years in prison.


 I will not inflict upon you a blow-by-blow description of every concert we gave in Albania!  Briefly, we visited the cities of Durres, Tirana, Berat, and Vlora, as well as a wonderful monastery near John's home, appearing six or seven times, including the time we spent at the Music Conservatory in Tirana.  In each case, the Lord provided a "character" in the audience with whom Dana related personally, to the delight of the Albanians, or a performer or performers so that the concert seemed a "family affair".  At Korce, things began to warm up when the Lord sent a powerful thunderstorm, and rain began to fall on the piano through the leaking roof--a humorous situation which "broke the ice".  Before that concert was over, Dana was singing with a local talent, and a young lady who was a fine pianist played two selections.

 At the Cathedral in Tirana, we watched Fr. Luke baptize fourteen young people.  Several of the ladies and children were terrified of the water and it dawned on us that perhaps they had never had the opportunity to even be in a bathtub.  But it was a thrilling service and the daughter of Korce's iman, or Moslem minister, was there, watching her friend become a baptized Christian.  She cried, never having seen such a service, and exclaimed over Fr. Luke's gentleness and kindness.  "My father reads the Bible as well as the Koran," she said, inviting us to her mosque.  Unfortunately, we could not fit that visit into our schedule.  (We heard a cute story about the Korce mosque from John, who told us that it was from that minaret that, one morning at 4 a.m., had issued forth a Beatle song instead of the pre-recorded Call to Prayer.)  We invited her and her sister to the Sunday Youth meeting when we would sing and play with the Orthodox youth of the Cathedral, and her sister was able to be with us at that time.

 In Vlora, we met and heard the Christian testimony of a great hero of the Faith, Fr. Kosma.  This is his fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  Here is his story, as translated by another capable young friend and translator, Nina.

 "When the churches were closed in 1967 we were forced to take off our priestly garb, but they could not take away our love for Christ.  They forced priests to go away and work hard.  At night I would get up and celebrate Liturgy in different towns from two to five A.M., for 24 years.  We were forced to stop other religious duties.  The hand of God helped us at that time, and Jesus Christ always wins, so truly the Day of the Lord came.  The light has triumphed, and will triumph over darkness and evil.  The freedom that we preach and pray like all the brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world will come.  Our brothers and sisters helped us and will always help us in so many things.

 "As the atheists were thinking that religion was really dead, they lived to themselves. Now it is known by history, the truth of the saying 'On this rock I will build my Church', and we saw this in our lives.  You can imagine what it was like during those years. We always suffered and were terrified.  But the prayer of the faithful is that everybody will come to the knowledge of the truth.  It is the compass in our lives, our fixed destiny.  The war against the Church will never end, but the victory is also without end, and the Lord permits the war so that we can see the victory.

 "The Communist security offices allowed some of us priests to exist because they didn't think they'd have any trouble from us. But they asked us if we performed religious services.  I said, 'You know how many spoons we have in our house.  Don't you know the answer to that?'"  (In that way he avoided a direct answer.) 

 "From 1967, any services had to be in our homes, because the churches were closed.  Even Communists would sometimes call me and ask for Holy Communion, but many were scared to come.  There was no bishop."

 Here a friend interjected, "Fr. Kosma is a second St. Kosma.  Always during the hard times he carried his books in his jacket.  When he carried his bag (containing his Bible and Christian materials) the Lord closed the eyes of the military police so they could not see it."

 Fr. Kosma went on, "If the hand of the Lord had not been with me, I would not have been saved.  During the day I worked hard, harder than the others, digging."  (It was exhausting for him to do heavy menial labor during the day and then spend half the night as a priest.)

 During the interview with Fr. Kosma, an older lady came in with an interesting story.

 "I am from Berat," she said.  "The suffering of Albania could fill many, many books.  There were 45 churches in Berat. The big churches were destroyed, but the castle churches were not destroyed and the people never lost their faith.  At the ruined Church of St. Theodore, they brought a deaf and dumb boy and he received his speech and hearing.

 "In the 18th century lived a Saint named Nikodim the Tailor.  He was a Christian, but he made the mistake of falling in love with a Moslem woman.  To make a long story short, he married her and was convicted by the Holy Spirit of having sinned against the Lord.

 "He decided to go for three years to the Holy Mountain (Athos).  There he ate only bread and water.  One day a light appeared in his cell.  It was the Holy Theotokos.  'I prayed to my Son and He forgave you,' she said.   In the vision, she gave him Holy Communion from a Chalice she held.  'Now go back to your home and preach Christ.'  Well, he didn't want to go, but he did go.  When he reappeared in his town, this time as a cleric, he was offered riches to return to his Moslem wife, and when he refused, he was beaten and kicked.  Finally, he was beheaded.  But the faithful took his head and buried him in the Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

 "In 1941, this church was burned.  So the relics of the Saint were kept in the Church of St. Michael.  The body disappeared, but the skull has been in Berat since July 10, 1714.  During the years of religious persecution, my father put it in a wall.  Now every July 10th, he puts it in the church and God does miracles through the intercession of St. Nikodim the Tailor.

 "Although fifty years passed, we kept the Faith very pure, very clean.  You know that the Orthodox Faith is the Faith from which all the other Christian groups started.  When I was in high school, I would go to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, secretly, and light a candle there every night.  At last the Lord heard our prayers and came to us there." 


 It really paid off to have studied even a page of "Shqip" expressions and to know Italian, even though we used translators for the most part.  One man at Berat announced to the public that I had introduced myself in Shqip to him before the concert, and another was overcome by Dana's ability to ask for the bathroom in Albanian!  "I know Americans who have been here for four years," he said, "and still do not know a word of Shqip."  The language seems strange, but is definitely a part of the Indo-European language family, with some words and sentence construction which do have a familiar feel.  However, it is quite difficult.  Probably the familiar words come from the invading nations; they say "Shqip" (pronounced "sheep") may share roots with Celtic.  The "national hero" is Skanderbeg, a man who is portrayed in a Viking-like helmet.  Many centuries ago, he was brought up by the Turks, and was ordered to war against the Albanians by his Turkish captors.  But he deserted them in the heat of the battle and led an attack against them, finally holding off their invasion for forty years.  At the monastery we visited, there is an ancient church in which Skanderbeg was married.  That monastery church is one of the few which survived the Hohxa regime, and its extraordinary carved iconostasis and magnificent frescoes and icons give one an excellent idea of both the cultural excellence which Christian civilization encouraged in the talented Albanians and of the tremendous loss which was suffered when hundreds of such monasteries and churches were razed to the ground. Thousands of intellectuals were murdered by the totalitarian government--about 180,000, in fact.

 We prayed in two museums and the government-held monastery.  One of the museums (at Korce) has been returned to the Church; one has not, and warehouses 50,000 priceless icons, besides those relatively few which are on display. Perhaps someone could bring those icons to light, through an international exhibition, and then make them available once again for the inspiration of the Albanian people.  Here we see a case of political interference, for the government makes it difficult for the minority religion to have the opportunity to regain its rightful possessions.  In Albania, one can see very clearly the difference between true faith and political maneuverings.  As one Moslem gentleman said to us, in reference to  politicized religion, "True Christians and true Moslems don't act like that."


 The magnificent road between Tirana and Korce, constructed years ago by the Italians, winds through such mountain heights that one can easily see why the Albanians gave their country the name "The Land of the Eagle."  A little more than midway on the approach to Korce a deep valley is blighted by an unusually hideous Communist construction which is now largely in disuse, a factory which one sees proudly stamped on the "lec", or monetary units, of the era.  Ancient olive trees grow on the sides of mountains so steep that one wonders how it is possible to harvest the oil, which is sold by the side of the road.  Goats and sheep are tended by herders standing almost vertically against the ground on the tremendous slopes. 

 Korce is the heart of Orthodox Albania, although of course it, like every major town, has a new mosque presented by the neighboring Moslem states.  It was in Korce that we met several outstanding Christians whom I would like you to meet as well.

 Our concert was attended by the local Catholic priest-missionary from Illinois.  ("If I had known sooner," he added, "I would have invited my entire church.")  This dedicated young man seemed a little homesick and mouthed the words of almost all the songs along with Dana.  He told me afterwards that "I am the Bread of Life" had meant a great deal to him, because it had been sung at his father's funeral.  Although the Albanian Orthodox are not thrilled with the expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in an historically Orthodox country (first the Moslems in the invaded and then the Catholics came with the Italians), the several faiths try to maintain cordial relationships, and so an Orthodox leading priest had invited his American Catholic counterpart to the concert.

 "Papa Gjani", or "Papa Johnny", as we would say, is a big bear of a man with a heart to match his size.  He isn't quite as big as Dana, so we began to call our "three Johns" (John Dana, Papa John, and little translator/seminarian John) Big, Medium, and Little John.  He and his gracious wife had Fr. Luke and Jonathan stay in their home.  (We extended Fr. Thomas Hopko's greeting and words of support to him, and he recalled with joy and some amusement the day when the two of them had gone to represent the Orthodox at a Papal visit.  "Please remind Fr. Thomas of this, and give him my warm greetings," he said.)  I noticed right away that he wanted to make Jonathan feel welcome and alluded several times to his own son, who is thirteen and in Greece. (It seems that the reflex reaction to the appointment of a Greek Bishop to head the autocephalous Orthodox Church in Albania was very negative, and played up to the hilt by the government-controlled press.  Papa Gjani was actually approached by the government and offered the headship of the Church, and when he refused and expressed loyalty to the appointed Archbishop, he was threatened and had to send his children out of the country for safety.) During the years of "Emperor" Enver Hohxa, Papa Gjani was a factory worker.  He made metal crosses secretly and in his spare time, and then he would slip them, for encouragement, into the homes of known Christians, who had no idea where they came from until after the oppression ended.  He and his family would go for picnics in the country in the old days, and secretly visit the desecrated holy places and pray for the forthcoming victory of Christ.

 There are about fifty young people in the very vital and active Orthodox youth group in Korce.  Their leaders begged us, "Please help us find someone to teach us the Bible.  We'd like to know about that even more than about the history of the Church and the stories of the Saints.  We get together to try to study the Bible on our own three times a week.  Fr. Luke used to come once a week to help us, but he's so busy that he can't be quite as regular now."  They really want to understand the Bible in the context of their faith, and we were thrilled by their enthusiasm.  Incidentally, they related to us that their moral standards are a little different than those in America.  The young people do not date anyone except the person they plan to marry, and they are considered engaged after the first date.  There is not so much arrangement of marriages as there used to be, but parents are very strict.  After the engagement, which is more like a betrothal, young people are free to engage in sexual relations, probably because it might take years to save up for marriage (I do not know).  They were very shocked to think that Orthodox priests like Fr. Luke would "wait until marriage".  "But how is that possible?"  they asked. 

 Fr. Luke took this youth group, with Jonathan, to spend some time with him at a church in another part of town while Dana and I went with John to the downtown church.

 Dana was asked to sing the Cherubic Hymn and the Lord's Prayer, which he did.  We received Communion at the end of the service, which is very irregular, but that is the way it is done there.  Two priests there are in their nineties.  The choir director told us that the main celebrant had thought he was going to die at 85, but he revived to serve the Lord for at least five more years...The service, understandably, was a bit quavery and less dynamic than usual on the part of the clergy, but beautiful in that they were able to serve the Lord at their venerable ages.  A young lay preacher gave a rather excited sermon; it was the Feast of Pentecost, and I could only imagine that he must have been ardently anticipating the coming of the Holy Spirit.

 At Korce, we also met three very remarkable elderly ladies.   Two of these are blood sisters, and one a sister in Christ.  During the times of trouble, the ladies would serve forty-day prayers.  One stood guard, one slept, and one prayed for forty days at a time.  At this time, the sisters are in their mid-eighties and they are missionaries to the Moslem villages.  Bright little apple-cheeked ladies, neat as pins, they have a tireless zeal and joy in Christ.  One had just been alone for two and a half weeks preaching the Gospel and preparing forty Moslems for Baptism.  Here is Dana's interview with these little "street evangelists":

 Dana:  Do you see the return of Moslems to Orthodoxy?

 Sister:  They're ready!  We're going to be Godparents to the catechumens.

 Dana:  How many are ready for Baptism?

 Sister:  40 will be baptized.

 Fr. Luke:  These are the first three missionaries in hundreds of years to these Moslem villages.

 Dana:  How do you explain the Christian Faith to a Moslem?

 Sister:  We give them the Lord's Prayer, with a written explanation. 

 Dana:  Some of the people we've met say, 'We'd like to know about the Church, but our background is Moslem, so we can't be Orthodox.'  How do you relate to them?

 Sister:  It's only prayer that wins them.  You need tolerance and love, and you need to go to the families of those who are interested to express that tolerance and love.  The children, of course, love St. Nicholas, and he brings them!

 President of the Korce Society of Intellectuals:  We need to explain to them that they are 'Christians under the skin'--it was just that the Ottoman Empire won them to Islam by force, making them afraid.  So we need  positive 'propaganda' so that they will again become Christians.  We must tell them of their Christian heritage.  You know, there is a great deal of ignorance.  One of the main jobs of our Archbishop is to educate seminarians so that there will be a group of priests who are educated."

 We met the cousin of the Financial Officer at St. Vladimir's Seminary, Mr. Albert Fundos, who had shared a tape of Albanian music with us so that we would be familiar with some of their folk culture.  This gentleman recalled his trip to the United States and to Mr. Fundos with fondness and asked us to be guests in his home the next time we stay in Korce.  Obviously this is a very special opportunity, because he is part of the very intelligent and godly "force" of people in Korce who are trying to elevate their people and recall them to the dignity of their ancient traditions, while taking their place in the modern world.  "Albania had turned to the East, taking its cue from the Communism of Russia and China," he said.  "Now we need to turn Westward, to seek our future with Europe, and as such we need to be a Christian nation."


 Because of our classical music background, we made contacts with the two main music schools in Albania:  one at the University at Tirana, and the other a school for younger musicians at Korce.  We have never heard more talented musicians than we heard at those two schools, which, I imagine, are very competitive. 

 First, at the Conservatory, we were moved to tears by the beautiful voices of several female singers.  First was a beautiful Moslem girl who really needs to be heard by the world; she is a young Maria Callas in appearance, and her voice is very promising.  Understandably, she needs stage experience and to deepen her emotional grasp of the music--and to understand what to audition with in this country, and Dana offered some suggestions along those lines which were well received.  Another fine young singer has been invited to audition at the Juilliard, and should have a very good career as well. Apparently Katia Riciarelli, the famous opera singer, also heard these singers and said she had not heard better in the world, last year.  But they are still struggling with the rotten conditions left over from Communism.  They have no books in music theory, solfege, or music history, and most of their scores are hand-copied (there are few, if any, computers, and no decent synthesizers--first, they would appreciate even one piano that works).  The outstanding teacher of these sopranos sang for us; she had been taught in Romania.  A pretty and very gifted lady, it is obviously too late for her to have a performing career, but she prepares her students very well.

 From the one grand piano, which needs much technical work, poured powerful, beautiful music from the several piano students I heard.  They played Bach beautifully but rather uncharacteristically; when I asked them who he was, they hadn't a clue. On the other hand, their interpretations of Liszt and Chopin were remarkable.  One young lady will compete internationally this month in Romania.  I made a few suggestions about tempi (usually "relax it a little"--they were typical young racehorses!!) and watching for the climaxes so that the pieces built to somewhere--but what could I say about their superb technic and general grasp of the pieces?  I hope they will also be heard internationally.  As I told them, there are perhaps four students their age in America--for all our wonderful pianos--who are capable of such powerful, dazzling work.  Again, tears came to my eyes as I watched such deserving students pulling magnificent music out of a harsh and discordant instrument.

 I had a long talk with the teacher, Nora, afterwards, over coffee in the beautiful courtyard cafe.  As we discussed the arts in general and the needs of Albanian artists in particular, she spoke about her husband, who is a film-writer doing the first international production with film  makers from France, Germany, and Poland. "The film," she said, "is called 'The Bunkerization of Albania.'"  Anyone who has been to Albania and seen bunkers everywhere and of all descriptions will smile at this title.  "It tells about a man living a double life--on the one hand, that of a fanatical Communist, and on the other hand, someone who has married a Polish Catholic and lives by different beliefs."  She is a convert to Catholicism from her Moslem background.  I reluctantly add that she said, "I hate Moslems."  "What?"  I said, wondering if I had heard correctly.  It turned out that she didn't hate Moslems but thought the religion was stupid, especially "bowing down like that, towards Mecca."  I told her that we had been a tiny bit annoyed at being roused at 4 a.m. each day with a call to prayer, but Fr. Luke told us it was a good opportunity to pray for the Moslems when we heard the minaret "go off."  She invited us to meet her well-known husband, but we missed connections, to our keen embarassment.  Still, I hope we will continue our relationship; I have packaged up some musical scores and books in the hope that her students might have use for them.

 The uncle of Mirjam, the talented soprano who reminds us of Callas, asked us to dinner at their home.  Mirjam was orphaned at the age of two and brought up by her uncle, who works at the American Embassy.  We hope to help house her while she auditions for the American Opera Center at Juilliard. She is engaged to a Moslem who is very prosperous and they make a very handsome couple.  Her uncle has converted to Catholicism, and hoped we would not find it offensive that a Moslem such as himself would have become a Christian.  It was at this home that I began to understand a little better some of the fears of the Albanian Moslems and their misgivings about the Orthodox Church.

 It is understandable that with Serbia on one side, Bulgaria close by, and Greece underneath, the predominant Moslem population of Albania would be nervous about a supposed "conspiracy" by the Orthodox and was anxious to prevent that by teaming up with the neighboring Islamic states.  Sergio explained his feelings in a very straightforward manner.  "I'm not so much afraid of Serbia," he confessed, "but Greece scares me.  Those people have bought up so much of the south of Albania.  Why do their bishops always have so much to say about politics?"  I explained to him that Fr. Luke and Archbishop Anastasios were not like that.  "Oh, then Fr. Luke is really an American, more than a Greek," he pondered.  It was difficult for him to see people rather than the stereotypes so often presented by the very slanted Albanian press.  "And as far as the Archbishop is concerned," I added, "he loves Albania very much, and wants the Church to be Albanian.  He has said that even if he is deposed, he wants to live and die a monk here, and be buried in Albanian soil."  The Greek Orthodox in America in particular have done so much for Albania, in helping rebuild churches and monasteries.  With the World Council of Churches, they have done a beautiful job of assisting Albanian Orthodoxy.  I am sure they would be very puzzled by the attitude of Sergio, but perhaps reporting what he said might help them to understand a popular misconception that the prevailing political party would like the Albanian Moslems to share.  There are many missionaries sent in by the more aggressive Moslem countries, and these people actually pay the few Albanians who are willing to wear the veil and dress like more traditional Moslems (who look exactly the same as their neighbors).  We can only hope that by listening and responding to fears such as Sergio expressed, we can help people to understand each other. It is only natural that the forces of evil are on the attack when so many people are coming to Christ.  In many ways, Albania is like Russia in that respect.

 I want to add another comment to that of Sergio.  I happened to strike up a conversation on the plane with an Albanian lady who was going to visit her son on Long Island.  She said, "It was a political disaster to appoint a Greek Archbishop in Albania.  The people didn't want him because he was Greek--but now they want him because he is such an honest man."  What a testimony, and coming from a non-Orthodox source.  "Now please tell me, from your perspective," I asked, "what can we do, with very little money, but goodwill and desire, to help rebuild Albania?"  Her answer was swift.  "Help our schools."  I told her we would do what we could to let people know of Albania's needs and also that we would try to find schools who would be willing to donate textbooks and musical scores.  "Even English would be okay," she said.  "Our medical school only has one textbook per classroom."


 We came home from Albania full of thankfulness--thankful for the good hot bath we enjoyed in Rome, and for God's blessings on our trip.  He allowed us to have extraordinary adventures in an emerging country; He allowed us to meet many of His saints, and perhaps to understand a little bit of the difficulties of His children in Albania, so that we might pray and pass that information along to others.

 If you can help with school textbooks--if you can voluteer for a mission (and Fr. Luke says medical missionaries are welcome for any length of time, but others should consider, if possible, a prolonged stay just to get to know the people and the culture, which takes time)--if you can send musical instruments or other articles to Albania, or money so that the Church can preach the Gospel--we can tell you that you are well represented by very committed Christians there--please be in touch with a representative of your Missions Board.  You will receive wonderful care and excellent advice when you place yourself under the authority of the local Albanian church. 

 Fr. Luke is happy to have contact with the university and with the public schools.  Our assistance to them can be an excellent witness and a sign of respect for their tremendous efforts under the kind of government pressure they hope we will never experience.  You may send musical scores, instruments, and so on directly to Korce, if you like; they have asked specifically for theory books on Byzantine music (and this is a public, not a Christian, school), piano scores, and vocal scores.  They'd also like good Broadway musicals, and hope to put on the entire "Liturgy of Peace" by Christopher Kypros, as well as Handel's "Messiah."  Music School correspondence may be addressed to:

             Drejtor Thoma Gaqi             Fr. Luke Veronis

            Shkolla E Muzikes     or to:   Kisha Orthodhokse Autoqefale

            Korce, Albania                        e Shqiperise

                                                               Kisha E Ungillezimit


This is near the main Square in Downtown Tirana.  While the boys play soccer, someone has let their cow out to graze.  Imagine living in a city with your livestock downtown!