Father Luke and Faith Veronis
Father Luke Veronis arrived in Albania in January 1994. He and Faith married the following August, a few months before his ordination. Both had been drawn to a mission vocation at a time when there were few Orthodox missionaries. Like so many others collaborating with Archbishop Anastasios, their first encounter with Orthodox mission work had been in East Africa. Both grew up in a Greek Orthodox parish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Luke's father is pastor. Archbishop Anastasios ordained Luke to the priesthood soon after his arrival in Tirana. He is now co-rector of the Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy near Durres, Orthodox chaplain at the University of Tirana, one of the spiritual advisor for the youth movement of the Church, an assistant to Archbishop Anastasios, and often serves at the cathedral. Faith has been active with the Church's pre-school program, catechism department, English language program, youth ministries, an abandoned babies program, and the women's groups with its many projects of service to people in need. Both speak fluent Albanian. They have two children, Paul and Theodora.
"My husband often jokes that he took me to Albania for our honeymoon," Faith told me, "and seven years later we're still here! Not many people have a honeymoon that long."
"My life changed during my last year of university," Father Luke told me. "It was then that I went to East Africa on a short-term mission for the first time. God touched me in a dramatic way through the people of Kenya, the faith and love I witnessed while I was there, and the example of several missionaries, especially Archbishop Anastasios. That experience led me to change my life's direction from being a math teacher to studying theology and committing my life to serve in the mission field. My later studies at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and then Fuller's School of World Mission opened my eyes to understand this call in a deeper way. Twenty-six percent of the world's people have never even heard the Gospel. What are we doing about this? I realized indifference to missions is a denial of Orthodoxy and a denial of Christ. This is what made us ask Archbishop Anastasios if we could help in Albania.
"Faith and I have been fortunate. I won't say that we haven't had to face difficulties -- lack of water and electricity shortages, mud everywhere in the winter and dust in the summer, political crises in Albania every few years -- but the blessings have far outweighed any negative experience. We truly feel as if Albania has been our special home these past seven years.
"Now we have a nice apartment on the ground floor with a garden, but before this we lived in a cold-water flat five flights up. But the location was good, only a 15-minute walk to the cathedral. Of course the roads I had to walk along weren't in great shape -- I would sometimes arrive at the church in a very muddy state! -- but at least the church wasn't far away."
"We have had some times of testing in the seven years since we arrived. The death of a parent, two miscarriages, being evacuated by the U.S. Marines in 1997 when the country fell into total anarchy and having to be apart from Luke for several months," said Faith. "But these are so small compared to what others face. At the time the Kosovo War broke out, I was involved in an abandoned babies program at the local maternity hospital. I saw firsthand the plight of pregnant refugees and their newborns. These women had nothing when they arrived at the hospitals. I responded by gathering clothing from friends. Then, our Church began offering clothing and supplies, as well as necessary medical and emergency assistance. By the end, we helped more than 300 women and babies. Some of my visits turned into special friendships, which even continue today. From these women, I witnessed another side of motherhood -- a painful, uncertain, yet courageous side. I will never forget these women.
"Paul was born in 1998 and then last year we were blessed with Theodora. I was carrying here during the time of the Kosovo War.
Motherhood deepened my bonds with many women from our church. I have developed a great respect for the Albanian mother -- she is strong, sacrificial, protective, loving and caring.
"For us, being missionaries hasn't been a great sacrifice. The hardest aspect for us is simply being far from our families. Yet I remind myself that such sacrifices can never compare with the crosses borne by early missionaries.
"Some people think that we sacrifice our children by living in Albania. True, our children do not have all the material possessions that many American children have, but they live in a unique setting, learning about life in a developing country, appreciating a new culture, and being surrounded by an abundantly loving Albanian and missionary community. I appreciate the simplicity of life here. It reminds me of my mother's stories of village life in Greece. Such forced asceticism makes it easier to lead a spiritual life -- with less distractions and temptations."
"Visitors who come here are sometimes shocked about what they refer to as Albania's 'low standard of living'," Fr. Luke said. "The Albanians may be poor in economic terms but in certain ways they are richer than people living in wealthy societies. I don't know if you will ever be among people who are more hospitable. When refugees were flooding into Albania from Kosovo, an Albanian family with three rooms might take in as many eight or even twelve refugees. Roughly half the refugees were received into Albanian homes.
"I have learned so much from Albanians about courage and perseverance in the face of persecution and also what it means to live a eucharistic life. I recall a 98-year-old woman who heard there was a priest who would be celebrating the Liturgy. Despite her age, she fasted for two days so that she could receive communion for the first time in 30 years. It happened that we saw her coming to the church. She fell down and could not continue. We told her to return to her house and said we would bring communion to her after the Liturgy. I will never forget the joyful tears with which she received communion. She died within a year.
"Especially younger Albanians are ready to believe in God and are open to the Gospel. I have witnessed so many conversions. In my seven years as a priest, I have presided at more than a thousand baptisms, almost all young people and adults -- sometimes thirty at a time. Every sort of person from every ethnic background and every condition of life, including beggars. In one case, we got to know a group of beggars when our youth arranged a special lunch for people begging outside our church. Through this outreach, we came to know them as friends, people we knew by name. We began visiting their homes and eventually performed some of our most moving baptisms with them.
"Although the Kosovo War was a terrible tragedy for many people, in fact it was a unique opportunity for our Church. The students at the Academy learned to see these mostly Muslim refugees as Christ in disguise. We visited their camps, volunteered help, gave aid to thousands housed in the village around the seminary. Our students began with fear and uncertainty toward Kosovars, but they discovered love and joy in newfound relationships. Some very special relationships formed. There was one Muslim family that was so grateful for the help the Orthodox Church gave that a week after returning to Kosovo, the father, Ramadan, came back to Tirana to give me an oil painting as a sign of gratitude for all the church had done for him. He said, 'Through your work, I have come to understand what a Christian truly is.
"Another Moslem family of refugees allowed their daughters to go to the Orthodox summer camp so that they could be away from the refugee camp. These girls were afraid the first day of camp when they saw campers making the sign of the Cross. They had never interacted much with Christians and had a biased view against Orthodox from their experience in Kosovo. After two weeks, these girls cried as they departed. They told their parents, 'We have never met people like this before." Their father even told me, 'Our contact with you have given us hope for the future of humanity. Muslims and Christians, even Albanians and Serbs, can live together, if people practice a faith like we witnessed here."
I asked what is at the heart of being a missionary.
"To follow God means going where God calls you, no matter what the sacrifice, and that's where you will find the greatest peace. This is what's lacking in our comfortable western Christianity. We don't like the Gospel message, 'Sacrifice everything!' we should never forget that the majority of saints lived lives of struggle, persecution, and self-denial, not of comfort and a pursuit of pleasure and happiness.
"Not everyone drawn to missionary service is able to adjust to culture shock, but for us it hasn't been difficult. It has been a challenge, an adventure, full of blessings. What you need is humility and love. We can't have the attitude that we are the savior, ready to help the poor people. Instead, we must see ourselves as co-sojourners in the walk of life. Let us go hand in hand, helping one another. Therefore, we must have a readiness to learn from the others. You need a readiness to adapt, respect for the people, a willingness to accept everything good in the culture. If your house burns down, you adapt. If you get robbed, you adapt."
Indeed, while I was in Tirana, Father Luke was robbed by a pickpocket and his house was badly damaged in a fire caused by a defective transformer.
"Albania is not just where we live. It is home to us. What would be difficult for us would not be staying here but leaving.
"We have been asked to help at the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in Florida and are thinking about whether this is God's will. We love Albania and its people. They are an integral part of our family. It's a hard decision. Faith and I worry that if we go back to America the temptation will be so strong to simply adapt to the consumer life. The pressures are so powerful. Are we strong enough? We want to return only when we believe that we are strong enough to live a life based on our understanding of the Gospel, no matter how different or crazy it may appear to others. In some ways, it is easier to be a Christian in Albania."
Extract from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania by Jim Forest, published in 2002 by the World Council of Churches. Do not reprint without the author's permission.