A Visit to Kosova
As Femi preaches on Acts and Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, the Albanian church will be confronted by Pauls testimony on every page. It will take huge grace for the church to grasp and to apply Pauls words.
by Stephen Rees, Grace Baptist Church, Stockport, Manchester.
It was 4 am when we left the house one Monday morning in March and headed for the airport. There I met up with David Young (director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission) and Colin Jones (minister in Cardiff and Mr Welsh-Outdoor-Camps for many years). They were to be my constant companions for the next week in Kosova (Im following Davids lead in calling it Kosova rather than Kosovo).
For those who want to know something about the work of the gospel in Kosova, Id recommend Davids little book ‘We Came to Kosova’ (Christian Focus). It tells the story of the past twenty-five years of evangelical experience in Kosova. The last two chapters are harrowing. Chapter 7 tells the story of the Cleansing of Kosova: the civil war of 1998, and the Serbian attempt to drive out the majority Albanian population from the country. Chapter 8 brings the story up to the year 2000, and gives a glimpse of the aftermath of the war: the burnt-out villages, the traumatised people, the reprisals against the small number of Serbs who have remained in the country. And alongside those things, the growth of evangelical witness. "Christianity Today" estimated before the war that the evangelical church community in Kosovo comprises less than .01% of Kosovo-Albanians and numbers no more than 200. Today there are probably around 600 professing believers actively involved in evangelical churches in Kosova. The Evangelical Movement of Kosova (in Albanian, the LUK: equivalent to the Evangelical Alliance here) lists twenty-six member churches. The majority of those have been planted since the war.
I knew a little about Kosova through the Kosovar exiles whom we visit locally. They had told me something of the nightmare situations they had survived before escaping in 1998. They had described the conditions in which the relatives they left behind still lived. I had also seen in them something of the Kosovar character – volatile, generous, hospitable, impulsive, singleminded in love to friends and hatred to enemies, passionately proud of language and homeland. I had learned from them to leave my shoes at the threshold; to accept the place of honour furthest from the door; to drink Russian tea from small glasses, and to lay my spoon across the top of the glass when I could really drink no more. I knew a few words of Albanian – enough to say hello and goodbye and thankyou. I added a few more in the course of the week.
From the moment you land at the airport outside Pristina, you are aware that this is a country still in pain. United Nations peace-keeping troops guard the airport. You drive through villages where the burnt out houses are only now being rebuilt. You arrive in a city where the electricity supply is on four hours, off two and water supplies are more unpredictable. Telephone land-lines are virtually non-existent.
Kosova is not like Albania. Theres not the same sense of decay, disintegration, hopelessness. Pristina is a vibrant city, full of life and activity. Market stalls are piled high with an awesome variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Restaurants and fast-food outlets offer a wide range of excellent food at very reasonable prices. Advertising hoardings shout out the availability of all the hi-tech Western toys. Local TV stations offer a non-stop stream of national song and dance, vigorous political debate, talent competitions and sport. The people of Kosova are rebuilding. But theyre doing so against enormous odds. There are few settled jobs to be had. The infra-structure of the country has been damaged. The Serbian exodus has left a huge vacuum in leadership and administration. Having been the under-dogs for so long, the Albanians confess that they simply do not know how to run things efficiently.
The majority (around 90%) of Kosovar Albanians are Muslim. For many – especially the young – this is, no doubt, nominal. I watched the men leaving one of the mosques after a service. Few if any were under fifty years old. The remainder of the population is mostly Roman Catholic. But within Pristina there are three Protestant – broadly evangelical – churches. Theres a Pentecostal church, a Baptist church and the Bashkësia Ungillore e Mesisë (BUM = Messiah Evangelical Fellowship). I know also of two church-planting works, one Presbyterian, one linked with the Calvary Chapel movement.
Our visit was planned in conjunction with the BUM (unfortunate initials!). Colin and I stayed in the home of the pastor, Femi Cakolli, in his four- roomed flat on the top floor of a decaying three-storey concrete apartment-block. Femi, his wife Belkize, and their ten-month old baby girl share one room. Femis sister Afërdita has another. Colin and I shared a third. That left the living room/kitchen – a steady stream of guests in turn occupied the sofa there. The flat was very cold, especially when the electricity went off. Bathroom facilities were primitive, the only washbasin stationed in the entrance hall. Ownerless dogs scavenge the rubbish heaps on the waste ground to the rear of the building.
Femi is a remarkable man: thirty-four years old, mop of dark hair, sparkling eyes, sizzling with energy. His Muslim father wanted him to become a hoxha (priest). Rejecting Islam, he drifted into atheism. He became aware of Christ as a university student reading world literature. The course included the gospels; he read Matthew, Mark and Luke in 1990 and knew he was reading truth. He accepted Christ two years later, on the 15th March 1992, as he read the gospel of John. He joined a Pentecostal church, was appointed as elder after four months, youth-pastor a month later. I read his own account of the years that followed: Opposition came and continues to come today, from people of different groups. I remember when I was invited by some Serbian police inspectors to discuss my faith. They mocked me saying, You were born a Muslim and that is how you should die. Why would Christ be interested in you? He belongs to us, you belong to the Turks, to the Arabs. Listen to your father. All Albanians are Muslims. The Serbian police interrogated me a few times, watched my home thinking I was a spy for the CIA together with all evangelicals in Pristina… A book was written about us, in two volumes called, "Kill Your Neighbor." In 1995, after having heard about this, some Albanian politicians invited me to come and talk to them. They were also convinced that we were working with the CIA.
Femis parents both found Christ through his witness before they died. Today five of his eight brothers are evangelical Christians, as are both his sisters. Femi married Belkize three and a half years ago. Together they make a strikingly attractive couple. (If you read the AEM magazine, youll see their photo on the back page of the current issue). She too was converted in 1992 and has seen brothers and sisters coming to faith.
Unconvinced of the distinctive doctrines of Pentecostalism, Femi, with two other students, began BUM in October 1994. Since then he has seen around 170 people profess faith. Some of those no longer show any serious commitment to Christ; some have moved away from Pristina or to other churches. But Femi can list 84 who have attended at least once during the past year. Fifty of those would come regularly. On any Sunday morning, he would expect perhaps 35 to be present. They are mostly young; skimming through his list, I reckon the average age might be thirty. Few of them have regular employment – many are listed as students. Among them, there are seven couples in regular attendance – three of these couples have young children.
At present they meet in a rented shop on a main road in the centre of the city. From the street you step into the church bookshop, selling a good range of Albanian titles, and to my surprise, a wide selection of English titles too, many from Banner: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Romans and Ephesians, sundry Puritans, a row of Geneva commentaries. Behind the shop you find the church office, the kitchen, the small hall where the church meets. I guess you might squeeze in fifty folk.
Femis preaching ministry is unique in the Albanian speaking world. He believes passionately in consecutive bible exposition. But who taught you to preach in this way? I ask. The answer is no-one. But he read commentaries – largely in English. And he had his background in literature. To him it seemed obvious that this is the way to read Scripture – on its own terms, working through each book as a whole, developing its theme and argument. Currently hes taking a birds eye view of the Bible, preaching right through in the course of a year. Before I arrived, he e- mailed me to warn me that he had reached Leviticus, and would expect me to preach through chs 10-22 on Sunday morning. I declined. How much harder to do that than to preach through nine verses from Isaiah in an hour!
Femi and the church, with the support of AEM, have launched their own publishing house: "Tenda". They started in a small way, publishing four booklets in July 1997. They have now published 34 books. They include commentaries, works of apologetics, responses to Islam, works on the historical background to Scripture and a book of worship songs (more on that later..). But thats not enough. Femi also edits a thrice-yearly Christian magazine – "Living Letter", aimed at believers and unbelievers alike. Its an attractive, well-illustrated, highly-professional publication with a circulation of around 5000. Then he writes for five secular newspapers. His testimony was published in one earlier this year. Since then, furious debate about the rival claims of Christianity and Islam has raged in the papers columns. He is editing a new translation of the New Testament into contemporary Albanian. He is chairman of the LUK.
The church is as active as its pastor. Childrens work on a Saturday with anything between thirty and ninety children attending. A discussion group for teenagers on Sunday afternoons: twenty-odd turn up to that. Outreach into schools, opportunities on the radio, church-planting works in the neighbouring towns of Gjilan and Komoran: these are just a few of the ongoing activities.
The conference at which I was to speak spanned three days. Each morning I was to address church leaders; the evening sessions were open to all. I had chosen to take three chunks from 2 Timothy in the morning – together they spanned most of the book. In the evening, I took three sections from the Sermon on the Mount. More John Stott than Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Preparation was hard work. (When Im preaching through an interpreter, I like to write everything in advance – basic English, no sentence more than fifteen words, no subordinate clauses, no passive verbs, street vocabulary. John Murray should have tried the exercise.) But it was worth it. Folk listened well. I had several different interpreters. I found it easier to work with some than with others but they all seemed to understand my English. I warmed especially to Besim, a tall quiet young man, who leads the church in Prisren. Besim is Belkizes (my hostesss) brother. David Young recounts in his book that six of their relatives were killed in the massacres of 1998: three were burnt alive.
I didnt count but I suppose we averaged fifteen or so each morning, twenty-five maybe in the evenings. Apart from the BUM folk, there were friends from three churches in Pristina (the Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches, and from Calvary Chapel) and from three towns further afield Gjilan, Metrovica, Prisren. Including interpretation time, I guess I spoke for a bit more than an hour and a half in each session – but gave them a ten minute break in the middle. And then there were questions – mostly good, serious, probing questions. Some of the things I said will have been unfamiliar; some could have been controversial, but the questions made it obvious that they werent looking to pick holes. They wanted to learn, apply, obey the Word. I was grateful to Mark, the tall young American from Calvary Chapel. At lots of points – my cessationism, my polemic against musical evangelism – the messages will have cut across Calvary Chapel distinctives. But that clearly didnt matter to him – he was simply thrilled by the emphasis on expository preaching and on the centrality of the gospel. Of all the men there, he was the most eager to encourage me.
The liveliest question-time followed an evening session on Giving, Praying, Fasting. Should we keep our giving secret even from our marriage partners? What about unanswered prayers? How many days should we fast for? Should we interrupt a fast to eat the Lords Supper (the Holy Meal?). Some of the questions were naive. But how ashamed I felt. Here were Christians giving themselves singlemindedly to prayer and fasting. They viewed me as the expert. But they knew so much more than I..
There was only one difficult moment in a question session. Speaking on the authority of Scripture from 2 Timothy 3, I had made reference almost in passing to Pauls forbidding women to teach the church. One lady missionary was present. She was evidently shocked and hurt. In her words she was grieved in her spirit. If God gives women gifts, who am I to forbid them to exercise their God-given ministries? I am relegating 50% of Gods people to an inferior role. I am crushing them. I am forcing my interpretation on Scripture and trampling on the sensitivities of millions of godly women.
Her grief was evident. And then I spoke about mine. When I sit through a meeting where a woman leads or preaches, I too am grieved in my spirit. I find it painful. I am hurt by the disregard of the apostle, and therefore of the Master who sent the apostle. The feminists do not have a monopoly on feeling.
The question of womens leadership emerged in discussion at the conference. It emerged in practice on the Sunday morning. I had opted to preach on Luke 23:34, Father forgive them. But before I preached I endured forty-five minutes of worship – ie soft-rock songs, sung over and over again from the OHP. Some I recognised – translations of Graham Kendrick and Noel Richards. Others were written by Albanians for Albanians (theyre all in the Tenda songbook). Even I could translate some of them. It doesnt take a master-linguist to translate a song that consists largely of Thank you – thank you – thank you – God, sung a dozen times.
The singing was led by one man and one woman with guitars, plus three other young women, two of them shaking tambourines. They did it well. The soft slow numbers (eyes closed, sway from side to side in ecstasy) reduced me to soft goo. The lively numbers set our feet tapping and left us exultant. At intervals, the worship-leader – one of the girls – punctuated the songs with a verse from Scripture while the guitar strummed quietly in the background. Or members of the congregation called out a sentence of praise in turn. It was attractive, skilful and highly effective.
This is the model of worship thats been imported via western missionaries. This is the only model of evangelical worship these young Christians have known. And I was sad to see it.
I dont think Im being parochial. Im not contending for our nonconformist worship to be imposed on Kosova, complete with long metre hymns, Victorian tunes and pipe organ. There is such a thing as Albanian music. Albanian people love it. But thats been sidelined in favour of this debased, commercial Coca-Cola music from Britain and the States. And principles of male leadership are equally relevant in all cultures.
That wasnt the only point at which I became sadly aware of some of the more unhelpful emphases that have been imported via the missionaries. Femis statistical summary of his congregation bothered me. Dozens of people have accepted Christ over the years – now they show no interest in joining with believers, even once a year. But that would be par for the course. I heard estimates of 2000 evangelical believers in Kosova today. The majority, by all accounts, show no sign of any continuing commitment. Yet no-one doubts that they are saved. Decisionism is endemic in Kosova as it is here.
I was saddened by the unquestioning anomianism of these young believers. Yes, they were anxious for me to give them detailed rules for fasting and prayer (how long? how often? where? when?) But none of them had any awareness of the value of a Lords Day set aside for the Lord. The Sunday morning meeting over, they scatter to spend the rest of the day watching television, in the market, at the restaurant. Again theyve heard no testimony from older believers to the freedom found in the royal law.
The television is never off – except when the electricity fails. And what a sad example missionaries have set here too. Theres a centre in Pristina established for the use of missionaries from all groupings. I attended a prayer-meeting in the library there. There was more space given over to videos than to books. I scanned the shelves and recognised many of the titles. These are the popular Hollywood movies of the day with all their foul language, the advocacy of immoral lifestyles, and the prostitution of the actors. Films like "My Best Friends Wedding" which normalise and glamorise homosexual lifestyle. (Ive not seen the film; I have read the reviews). The missionaries who bought in these videos are shaping the outlook of a first-generation Kosovar church.
So yes, amid all that was encouraging, I saw these disturbing tendencies. But I reminded myself, the remedy is already at hand. Femi – and others who follow his lead – is preaching the Bible. And the Bible will do its own work. I have to believe what I myself preached. I spoke on 2 Timothy 3: All Scripture is.. useful for teaching, rebuke, correction, training in righteousness. Churches which are exposed to the whole of Scripture will be taught and rebuked and corrected and trained in righteousness. Where Scripture is being expounded faithfully, surely we can say with Paul, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you..
Kosova is still a country racked by racial and political tensions. We drove to Metrovica. The town is cut in two by a river which has become the unofficial frontier between Albanian and Serbian enclaves. The river is spanned by a bridge guarded by French KFOR troops. Were told that any Albanian who crosses the bridge does so at risk of his life. On the way back from Metrovica to Pristina, we stopped at the Field of Blackbirds. Here more than 600 years ago, a Serbian army fought and repelled the Turkish invader. The place is marked now by a stone tower bearing an inscription: Whoever is Serb and born of Serbs that dare not shed blood for Kosova, let nothing be born from his hand, let him be without son or daughter, without white wine or bread, and may his descendants be cursed for ever. The monument is a mute witness to the grip that history has on the minds of Serb and Albanian alike. For many Serbs, Kosova can never be relinquished – it was bought with blood.
Few doubt that if the United Nations peacekeepers withdrew, Kosova would be plunged into bloodshed again. While we were there, the news came through that the Serbian prime-minister had been assassinated. He had been seen as a moderate, ready to negotiate with the Albanian majority. Hard-line Serbian nationalists, still looking to Milosevic as their inspiration, could not tolerate that stance. So a peacemaker died and Kosova trembles again.
The gospel is the only message that can bridge the gap between Serb and Albanian. Sadly, theres little evidence that its doing so – at least within Kosova. I asked Femi the question. If a Serb from one of the Serbian villages accepted Christ and wished to join your church, would he be welcomed? There was a long pause. For believers there would be no problem. We would welcome him in Christ. But unbelievers would not understand. They would think it is political. I do not think it would be possible for him to join us now. Perhaps in five years.
Living in the UK, its easy to say that in Christ there is – and there must be – neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free. All must sit together at the same Lords table, one in Christ. Pauls persecutions came not because he preached the deity of Christ but because he refused to negotiate on that principle. As Femi preaches on Acts and Romans and Galatians and Ephesians, the Albanian church will be confronted by Pauls testimony on every page. It will take huge grace for the church to grasp and to apply Pauls words. For Albanians to go to Serbs with the gospel, to offer forgiveness in the name of Christ, to welcome believing Serbs into the churches, to risk persecution at the hands of their own people: these things will not happen apart from the supernatural power of the Spirit. But when they do, the world will see an extraordinary display of Christs glory in the Church.
Of all the Kosovar asylum-seekers who live around our home, theres one couple, Sami and Zehra with whom we have a steady friendship. While I was in Kosova, I took the opportunity to visit Samis family. They live in a village half an hours drive from Pristina, called Maxhunaj. That village was virtually destroyed by the Serbian army, the houses bulldozed by tanks and gutted. I sat with Samis brother, sister, father, niece in their rebuilt home. (Samis mother died a few years back). They spoke no English. I spoke no Albanian. David had come with me to interpret. Samis brother annexed him while Samis sister bustled around serving us with the inevitable Russian tea. Samis father looked at me appealingly. Such a little old man, with patient, hurting eyes looking out from a worn face. My heart ached for him. He wanted to know about Sami – has he recovered from his operation? Is he working? How are the children? When we said goodbye, I shook hands with the others. But Samis father pulled me to him to embrace me and to touch cheeks. I left each of them with a little paperback New Testament in Albanian.
Our prayer is that one day Sami and Zehra will go back to Kosova as ambassadors for Christ, taking the gospel to their own families and friends. Sami has never yet been willing to come to church. He is a Muslim, though he admits it means nothing to him. Hes been praying that our baby will be born safe and well. And he says, when the baby is born, I will come to your church to give thanks with you.
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