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Signs and symbols

LIKE A BLADE OF GRASS PENETRATING THE CONCRETE, it was a small but perhaps significant sign of an unexpected breakthrough of the Kingdom.

For almost forty years, Enver Hoxha ruled Albania with an iron fist, implementing a rigid Stalinist programme of nationalisation and collectivisation. From his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired luxury villa in the capital, Tirana, he set his country on an isolationist path to becoming the world’s first atheistic state. When he died in 1985, Albania had the lowest per capita income in Europe. Paranoia gripped the whole nation. Hundreds of thousands of concrete mushroom bomb shelters dotted the whole countryside awaiting the invasion of an imagined foreign enemy.

Back in the early seventies, two YWAM women, Reona and Evey, had been arrested and threatened with execution in that same city. Their ‘capital crime’ was to bring gospel literature into the country. For decades, Albania remained hermetically sealed off to the gospel.

A week or so ago, Romkje and I joined the YWAM Albania staff for their annual conference, and to pray in a new leadership team. A staff of 45, from 23 different nationalities(!) were gathered in the port city of Durres from nine operating locations around the country. A number of the staff come from Caribbean islands, each with their own different passport. The outgoing national leader, Carmelita Clarke, is of Jamaican origin, and is moving to Budapest to take up broader oversight in the Balkans and Central Europe.

As we travelled in to Tirana for a meeting of young politicians, Grant van Cleve explained to Romkje and me that there were now 152 evangelical fellowships in Albania, with another 183 preaching points, representing 22,000 active participants. Until recently, Grant had been director of the Albania Encouragement Project, a partnership umbrella of numerous evangelical organisations operating in the nation, and had helped initiate a survey of the evangelical movement. Grant is now a member of the newly installed YWAM national leadership team (along with Hannes Steets and Ned Spiecker).

We parked in the centre of town, and Grant led us into what he described as the most exclusive quarter of the city, where Hoxha used to live. Since I last visited Tirana, a multi-storeyed Sky Tower had risen above the city from this same neighbourhood, with a revolving restaurant and sky-pod elevator. From this tower, we could look down on Hoxha’s villa, and see armed guards still patrolling the gardens. Part of the villa was still used by the government, explained Grant further, and part was rented out for income to a restaurant. A further section had become the Liberty Centre, he added casually, where our meeting was to start in a few minutes.

Wait a minute! This meeting tonight, with young politicians seeking biblical direction for Albanian society, was being held in the dictator’s own home?! Yes, Grant explained, an American foundation now rented part of the villa for English lessons and to promote democratic principles. There were meeting rooms where this small network of Christian politicians regularly meet with invited colleagues, academics, young emerging leaders, students and journalists, to discuss the future of Albania.

As I stood before a small mixed gathering from Christian, muslim and atheistic backgrounds, and talked about Relationism and the “R-factor” as a way forward for Albania (see ww 7 May/04 – What’s the big idea?), I relished the irony of Hoxha’s own house being used to discuss biblical principles for Albania society. I thought too of Voltaire’s declaration that within a century, Christianity would have died out; and within 50 years, his own house had become the office of the Geneva Bible Society.

Indeed, a small-but for me personally, significant-sign of God’s kingdom breaking through in unlikely places.

Trulli
Which relates to another interesting discovery we made on the same trip. Travelling as cheaply as possible to Albania, Romkje and I made use of Ryanair’s budget fares to Bari in southern Italy, planning to celebrate our wedding anniversary there. I found an inexpensive hotel on the internet, in a place called Alberobello. My father, who had served in that region during the Second World War, told me to visit the trulli there. Trulli? Totally by coincidence, I had booked a hotel that was actually built around a trullo, and Alberobello was a town formed by trulli covering town facing hillsides.

A trullo is a small conical dry-stone dwelling, i.e. constructed in rock without mortar, remarkably similar to the dry-stone cells the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the Irish Celtic monks used to build for themselves. A dwelling usually consists of a central area surrounded by a few attached smaller conical rooms as bedrooms or utility rooms. From the outside, the circular walls are whitewashed and the grey slate-slab roofs rise to pointed domes, adorned with pinnacles of various shapes.

A short walk from the hotel brought us right into the centre of this amazing vista of pointed-dome rooftops covering two hillsides and providing home for a permanent community. People have been living here since the 15th century and used this style of building to avoid paying taxes – when the inspectors came along they simply dismantled their houses! We were amazed to discover this whole community of fascinating dwellings we hardly knew anything about, and also to learn that it is a World Heritage site (see
www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/alberobello.html
– & for photos: www.rbsaika.com/yashichi/it003_e.html).

So how does all this relate to signs of the kingdom breaking through?

Well, one of the quaint characteristics of the trulli is that their domes are often decorated with whitewashed folk religion symbols, sacred and profane: crosses, signs of the zodiac and other esoteric-looking symbols. We came across a poster explaining the meaning of the various symbols and again were astonished to learn how many of them had clear biblical symbolism. The one that most appealed to me depicted a circle divided in quarters by a cross (the Kingdom of God!), atop a large downward pointing arrow penetrating a semi-circle representing the earth. According the the poster, this symbol represented the prayer, May your kingdom come on earth!

I wonder if my wife would let me paint that on our roof?

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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