by Jim Forest
While in Tirana several years ago to research a book on the Orthodox Church in Albania, one of the remarkable people I met was Raimonda Shqeva. Since 1995 she has worked full-time with the Service of Love Women's Group, which has its office in a small building adjacent to the Annunciation Cathedral in Tirana. Here is a chapter from The Resurrection of the Church in Albania that concerns Raimonda and her work.
A woman in her late thirties, Raimonda Shqeva has black hair and large brown eyes that communicate immense sensitivity. She immediately made me a cup of coffee. As I drank it, she showed me photos of some of the group's activities: women bringing clothes and money to orphans in Elbasan, assisting at the summer girls' camp at the Monastery of St. John Vladimir, visiting people at an old age home who have no family to assist them.
"Here we are with street children and beggars. We found about 40 children who had no parents. Now they have a place to live and a family. And here is a photo of a group baptism - 27 people!"
I asked what led her to the Church and to such activity.
"I grew up in a believing family. I remember my childhood with deep emotion - the carefulness of my father who believed so much in Jesus even in those very hard times. It was not in his nature to be silent about his faith but he had to tell me it was best not to speak to others about our faith. In 1967, when I was seven, all the churches were closed - not even one was left open. Thank God, I can remember the church before it was closed.
"When I was little, my father would tell me Bible stories but without explaining they were from the Bible. Time after time he told me the story of the Prodigal Son, always with so much love.
"I remember once asking my father about God, 'This Father of all the world that you talk about - where does he live?' My father was not an educated man and could not give clever answers, but he loved Jesus very much. I remember how red his face got when I asked my question, the anger he felt that I was thinking in such a way about God. 'You must not ask such a question,' he told me. 'It is a mystery. No one knows where God lives. Only when you think about God, ask yourself, "Can you make yourself? Can you build something without work? How can things exist by themselves." ' He spoke with conviction and feeling, in a simple way. I will never forget what he said! I hope I can pass on to my son and daughter, Spiro and Maria, the same fire in the heart. They are 11 and 9 years old.
Pauline Russell and Raimonda Shqeva at the Soup Kitchen in Tirana
"My father loved the Virgin Mary and always celebrated the Dormition on the 15th of August. He would explain, 'This is the mother of all creation. We must pray especially to her because she can speak for us.'
"There were many promises I made to him about what I would do, how I would live. Sadly I did not keep all these promises. Now I try to keep them.
"When the Church reopened, I was 30 years old. By then my father had died but I had the fire of the loving God in my heart. I felt as if someone was pushing me forward, to some height. I dedicated myself to the Christian life.
"My husband is also a strong Christian. He never objects to the time I spend in church or involved in church projects - and it takes a lot of time!
"In 1994 I began my journey into diaconal service through involvement in the catechism program that was led by a nun from Athens, Sister Galini. She started this in 1992. This gave us confidence to bring the Gospel to others who don't know it. Maybe they came from Orthodox families but they never heard the Gospel or only tiny fragments. We also began going to asylums for the blind, to people with other disabilities, to the very old, to prisoners.
"This is how our women's group began. In the first year there were only seven of us, all very strong believers - now we are 25. Part of our work is cooking free meals and assisting needy and sick persons. We have special activities for Christmas and Easter. Also we organize special excursions to places like the Monastery of St. John Vladimir - the one with a church that was burned in the German time and which the government still refuses to return but where a few other buildings have been returned. We had a trip there not long ago for a group of blind people. We provide catechism lessons in several towns and villages to help people better understand the mysteries - the sacraments. You know there are many people who make the sign of the cross and kiss icons but don't really understand the meaning of the cross or the meaning of icons. We also explain confession - how it is a way to clean yourself of sins. We explain the power of holy communion. We want people to see that it is possible to change the heart from a place of darkness to a place of light, to receive power from Christ so that you can follow his teaching.
"When Mother Theresa came to Tirana, I went to meet her and received her blessing. I am glad to be Orthodox and I believe the truth is in the Orthodox Church, but I respect all Christians. I don't look down on anyone. It is a blessing to know Christians from other churches - some of them are very inspiring.
"Sometimes they are surprised I am Orthodox and ask me questions like why do we have icons? I tell them if you keep a photo of your father or mother or your children, you can also have an image of Jesus and his mother or those who followed him even to martyrdom. Sometimes I am asked why we Orthodox fast and I try to explain how this gives us strength to struggle against temptations and evil spirits. As Jesus said, there are some demons that can only be defeated through prayer and fasting. Fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays helps us remember the betrayal and suffering of Jesus.
"It is sometimes hard to learn not to hate, not to attack - you can convert only with love. We must be very careful of each other and never use force. If someone cannot hear us, then let us pray for him. We each go at our own speed. Archbishop Anastasios has taught us that each person is an icon of God. We must not judge others! We must help anyone in need no matter what."
I asked what problems the women faced in their charitable work.
"A big problem for us is deciding how much to help a particular person or family. You can help too much, so that the person lives entirely from charity and takes no initiative, but you can also help too little. We don't want people to become completely passive, but there are people who are so damaged that sometimes there is very little they can do for themselves. Not everyone is capable of having a job. Sometimes we spend hours discussing a particular person's situation and how much help we should give. My own tendency is that it is better to give too much than too little. My father taught me never to judge someone who begs, never to think he may just be pretending. Just be a Christian and try to live the Gospel. When people say we give too much, I think that at the Last Judgement no one will be condemned for giving too much or for forgiving too much."
The Resurrection of the Church in Albania is published by the World Council of Churches. Information about ordering a copy is on the web.