Most of the Churches were either destroyed or heavily damaged. The Cathedral in the capital, Tirana, was leveled and a 13-story hotel was built on top of it.
The other Orthodox Church was stripped of all Christian symbolism, including the iconostasis and the altar, and turned into a gymnasium.
The two-lane highways that link town to town are the worst I have ever navigated. With the infrastructure in such deplorable repair, the electricity may go off two or three times a day. The water supply is iffy as well, and hot water a luxury. Buildings put up under the Communist regime are only a decade or two old, and they are already falling apart.
Despite all this, the Orthodox Church in Albania is being gloriously reborn.
The catalyst behind this modern-day resurrection is Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, a man who knows how to discern the will of God and then do it. Since the fall of Communism he has built 74 new churches, renovated five monasteries and 65 church structures, and repaired 130 other churches. In addition, he has built a seminary and a monastery on a hill overlooking the city of Durres, at which 110 men have been trained and ordained to the clergy.
In mid-December, I spent a week teaching the Bible there to 57 students.
Two American missionary families are serving in Albania--Father Luke Veronis, with his wife Faith and toddler son, and evangelical converts Nathan and Lynette Hoppe and their two-year-old son.
Why do I call Albania an incredible Orthodox turnaround?
1. The joy of the people. I expected to find hopelessness. People have existed for years in poverty, both spiritually and materially. Even after Communism's collapse, ruthless investment charlatans across the country introduced a Ponzi scheme in which tens of thousands of people lost their meager life savings. Widespread political unrest again swept the country.
It was against this backdrop that 900,000 refugees from the NATO bombing of Kosovo streamed into Albania last spring. The Albanian people opened their unheated and crumbling homes to them. It was especially moving for me to meet a newly widowed woman in her 20s, whose husband had been killed in the conflict, and her two small children.
So I had expected despair. Instead, I found a vital joy among the Christians. In the course of my visit, Father Luke hosted a weekend retreat in mid-December for college students and seminarians. Over 100 showed up to spend time in a dilapidated hotel with neither running water nor heat. These students responded with enthusiasm to the teaching and preaching of the Gospel. You should have seen the skits on Saturday night. The kids howled with laughter. What a stark contrast to what I had feared I would find.
2. The indigenous nature of the Church. The Orthodox Church of Albania is self-governing (the term for this is "autocephalous"). Even though the archbishop and one metropolitan--plus several missionary clergy--are from Greece, all of the services, the literature and the teaching is done in the Albanian language. Because they are made to feel at home, a large number of people are coming to the Orthodox Church from other backgrounds. At both the seminary and the college retreat, the majority of the people were converts, many of them from nominal Orthodox or non-religious backgrounds; some have even come from a nominal Muslim upbringing.
3. A theology of beauty. One of the archbishop's prime concerns is that the Church bring beauty back into a country that has been so long unbeautiful. Make no mistake: the topography of Albania is in many places breathtaking. From the windows on the third story at the seminary you can peek out between the hills and see the sparkling Adriatic Sea. Out the windows on the other side are snow-capped mountains, far in the distance. But the landscape is littered with broken-down homes and barns, trash heaps of the hulks of old cars and mud everywhere because of poor drainage.
In contrast, the edifices the archbishop orders to be built are stunning, bringing fresh beauty to the land. I was amazed by the architectural beauty and interior warmth of the seminary. It is a refuge. And the new and reconstructed churches are breathtaking. More than 200 are opened already; many are still under construction.
Pray for the people of Albania. There is still such a long way to go. There are many hurt and broken lives, but the turnaround is definitely underway.
When the Church functions rightly, there is absolutely nothing like her on the face of the earth. Thank God, the clergy and the faithful in Albania are getting it right.