Monday, 29 April 2013

A "Thank you" meal ...and Librazhd young people

On Saturday evening there was a "Thank you' meal at a local Greek restaurant for all those who had been involved from the Church in planning, preparing and making the Newfrontiers Balkan Conference happen. Ann and I were invited guests!  Here is one of the starters, cheese covered in sesame seeds that has been warmed through and served with cherry jam. I cannot tell you just how good the salads are here. Everything is freshly picked. The big tomatoes, lettuces, spring onions, cucumbers are all straight from the local fields.

Below is Arjan with his wife Blerina and son Elion and daughter Orantia. The very first time I came to Albania and to Elbasan I slept in Elion's bed! Needless to say, he wasn't in it!

I thought this was going to be a meat loaf, but it was chicken and mushrooms in a lovely cream sauce covered in filo pastry. Yum!  It is hard to lose weight here!

After the meal, Arjan and Blerina took Ann and me home but on the way we saw these dancers from Kosovo. So we stopped to see them, talk with them and take a few photos. Every village and town of Albania and Kosovo, which is Albanian speaking, have their own distinctive costume.

On Saturday afternoon before the "Thank you" meal we went to Librazhd just 25 minutes away to meet the young people from the church we know there. Five years ago Ann and I met 5 young people from Librazhd and they came to our first Youth Camp and all of them became Christians there. The next year there were 12 from Librazhd and then the last 2 years 25-30. The youth group continues to flourish and here are the ones who could make it to see us.
I have shown them all here as our young people from Bracknell who have been to the Camp will know them or recognise most of them.  There are some new faces here, which is a good sign.

Igli, Ani and Kledi, who did all the technical stuff, and very well too!

Arselad, ? and Gledisa

A new girl to me who told me she wants to be an actor, Nerila and Xhorxhe pronounced Georgie

Artin, Lenin and Marsel

Ida, Sinoli and a new guy I don't know

Paola, one of the first who came to Camp with Erlisa who now leads the group and Gezim

Xheni pronounced Jenny, Ira and Junada who translated for me.  I told them that they take the presence of God with them where ever they go. I think this is very important to remember for all of us but especially here when several of them have Muslim parents or attend the best local school which is Turkish and wants to pull them to Islam and a Muslim way of thinking. These schoools offer scholarships to the brightest and best.  It reminds me of Daniel and his friends in the Bible.

These guys really look forward to seeing Liam and Dave and our guys again at the Youth Camp in July. Then it was into a taxi, you can wait ages sometimes for a local minibus, and back to Elbasan for the Thank you meal.

Sunday was going to be another full day, and that means another blog!

Ken and Ann

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Balkan Conference

One of the reasons for coming out to Albania was to be at the Balkans Conference in Elbasan. This was a gathering of church leaders from the Balkans region.  Leaders came from Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Bosnia Herzegovina and Albania with other guys like ourselves from the UK and Switzerland.  Here is a photo of some of us.

Below is a picture of Shaban, right, who leads a church in Tirana, Albania with Halil and his wife Vali. It looks a s though they have just eaten their lunch, which because of the warm weather we have outside.  Ann just said to me, Just because they have jackets on doesn't mean it is cold!  It is only just warming up here 24C, so not time yet to take your jacket off.

Here are Rudina, on the left, the wife of the leader of the Elbasan church, with Blerina another leader in the church.

And Mondi, a guy who 2 years ago came to a concert we held in the Skampa Theatre here in Elbasan, liked it, came to the Youth Camp where he came even closer to God and then became a Christian on the Alpha course.  Now he is involved in gathering the young people here in Elbasan. Our young people at Life  recently took up an offering for him that helps pay some of his out of costs, mobile phone bill etc.

This photo is of Andy in the centre, the guy who first invited me to Albania, his wife Esme on his left and Rustem and Maria and their daughter Lili who lead the church in Burrel.

I think we were all moved to hear the story of this couple, below, Bernard and Nada, who lead a church in Bosnia.  The country is still very divided, Orthodox against Muslim, and people against people with the bitterness and hurts of the nation very near the surface. Nothing they said had really been resolved and only the peace of God in peoples hearts can really change the situation. They personally and their children receive physical and emotional abuse.

Below, by the pillar is Scott from Reading Family Church with Zdenko on his right from Varazdin, Croatia.

And Geroge from Bulgaria in full flow!

Here are two guys Lee Laytton Matthews and I got to know from our time in Nis, Serbia, Misha and Marion.

And finally two more, Sasha, who came to our church for the Willow DVD conference last October, from Skopje, Macedonia, and on the right another Geoge from Lovech, Bulgaria.

Now a spot of lunch and then Ann and I are off to Librazhd to meet the young people there who will be coming to the Youth Camp in July, and to end the day, a meal in a Greek restaurant to say "thank you" to all the people in the Elbasan church who hosted the Balkans Conference.

Sunday, 21 April 2013


To all of you have been here on Youth Camp teams or have been here with Ann and me such as Lee, Liam, Dave and Colin. Here is a picture and word to bring back memories. AKALLORE! If you haven't already guessed it means Ice cream! The taste and cheap price is as good as ever! Wonderful! Must get another!

Having arrived on Wednesday afternoon late, I went to the church building in Elbasan. Newfrontiers are having a Balkans area Conference here next week from Monday evening to Thursday lunchtime.  One of the reasons for us being here.  So the church here were busy, busy getting the place sorted in readiness. We as a church have helped them financially in kitting out the kitchen. Good equipment is obtainable here and comes from Italy, just across the sea. So here is some of the cooking range and powerful expel air.

Much needed cupboards

A good size fridge and freezer and hand wash area. This latter item is an innovative idea to people here.

The kitchen includes a microwave, dish washer and washing machine to wash tea towels etc.

A detail from one of the tiles

The whole area surrounding the church building has been cleared and cleaned. I am impressed. It speaks of quality and wanting to serve people well. Leaders will be coming from Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece as well as the UK.  Just as our Kerith church building has spoken to many I believe this will happen here.

This morning Sunday I spoke at the morning meeting followed by coffee and another round of sorting and cleaning in final preparation for the conference. As I write this in an Internet cafe at 9pm, I know guys from the UK will be on the BA flight arriving at 10.30 in Tirana.  An over night stay in the capital and then they will make their way here with others overland from the surrounding countries. Here is the meeting hall where we will be just so that you can picture it.

Please pray for us all as we gather that we know God speaking to us personally and for the churches we represent.

Love from Ann and Ken

Skopje 2 and onto Elbasan, Albania

For those who have never met Marija from Skopje here she is in her home with her children Tamara the eldest and Naomi and Luka.  At lunchtime Sasha and I went to the cafe at the American University College and chatted with the owner who lets them use his premises on a Sunday once a month. Ann and I met him last year and he gave us some mugs that we use every day for breakfast coffee.   He provided us with lunch, below, free of charge.  It is a plateful of chicken gujons with lettuce, small tomatoes, croutons, slices of cheese and a mild curry like sauce. I made a start and 20 minutes later I am still working my way through it! The plate is much deeper than it looks.  Evening was spent with the family and chatting things through and then saying cheerio to the children as that will be the last I see of them for a while.

The next morning Sasha and Marija collected me from my hotel and took me to the bus station for the next part of my trip, a 3 hour journey to Struga in the south of Macedonia. The Macedonian alphabet is used mostly though some things are in the Latin alphabet. So this is Struga via Kichevo.

And a little to my surprise the bus was a really nice minibus.

So off we set going through the suburbs of the city collecting a few passengers and then on out into the countryside.  We followed a river valley and all around we are surrounded by snow covered mountains with a backdrop of a beautiful blue sky.

As we travel I can see some villages and towns are strongly Muslim and fly the Albanian flag, though we are in Macedonia, then the next village is strongly Orthodox and flies the Macedonian flag.  By the time we get to Struga I am the only one on the minibus. The driver has phoned ahead and there is a taxi, probably one of his mates, to meet me and take me to the Macedonian/Albanian border a few miles away.  I have a driver who is sick and feed up with his country and who tells me all his woes as we travel slowly uphill all the way to the border. I have done this part of the journey before and because it is up hill and the cars are old, we chug along like we did in my fathers car 50 or more years ago!  I sometimes wonder are we going to make it or are we going to conk out! But we did and the border comes into sight. Not the wisest place to take photos so I don't. 
So I walk across the border through no mans land and into Albania.  There I straightaway get a taxi, not always the case I can assure you, and for a good price the driver takes me to the main Korce to Elbasan road where I plan to catch a furgon (minibus) as it passes by.  There are some guys waiting there and I chat to them. They are going to the capital Tirana. But within 2 minutes an Elbasan bound furgon hoves into view, I put my hand up and hey within 30 seconds I am aboard closely followed by a lady. I ask the lady where she is going to. Librazhd she says. I have have friends in Librazhd, I reply. In return she says she has a cousin who lives in Enfield north London. I say, I know a guy who comes to our church from Enfield who comes from Librazhd. What is his name?  she says. I reply, Besnik Nogu. What! she says, he is my cousin.  I text Besnik straightaway and replies with a standard Albanian response. What is her fathers name? Xhelal she says. They are indeed cousins! Sadete tells me she is training to be a lawyer in Struga and stays there for a few days at a time.  And so we talk all the way to Librazhd where she gets off. What a smalll world and what a really nice way to end my journey.  The furgon driver goes one better and drops me off right near the apartment where Ann and I will be staying. What a wonderful journey,  connections timed really to perfection, wonderful countryside and to Elbasan is less time than I thought possible. God is good!

Now to wash and get some food in from the supermarket. I knew Ann was about to fly to Albaia from Gatwick arriving in Tirana at 10.30 pm so I had time to eat and sort myself. Little did I know as this time but Ann was seated at the front of the plane next to Sali Berisha the Prime Minister of Albania accompanied by his bodyguard! ( I guess he had been to Margaret Thatchers funeral)  When they arrived at Tirana the red carpet was rolled out for him with 2 soldiers dressed in red uniforms very similar to our guards.  But before Ann could step on the carpet, they stopped her!  They didnt want to wear it out! It was rolled up out of the way! A phone call told me Ann was here and the next morning we would meet in Elbasan ready for the next chapter.

Ken and Ann

Thursday, 18 April 2013


This was Lee's first time to Skopje, so having booked into our hotel, one Ann and I had been to before, we went to the city centre.  Here there is a fantastic fountain. It beats anything I have ever seen and makes Trafalgar Square look old and tame.  Atop of a column in the middle of the fountain is a huge sculpture of Alexander the Great on a horse.

Here is Lee with Marija and Sasha. Marija has been a couple of times to REAL, our womens conference, once with her daughter Tamara who became a Christian at our church and then came to our Youth Camp in Albania.  Sasha came to the Willow Leadership DVD Conference last autumn and would like to come again this year.

The 13 arch stone bridge that crosses the Vardar river and is a symbol of the city.

Time then for a drink and lunch together before going on to see the apartment that Sasha nd Marija gutted completely and then refurbished as their Bible teaching centre.  They teach students during the week, and have staterd a new church in their part of the city with a 70,000 population.  Skopje has a pop in total of about 700,000. Marija gathers 7 women on Sunday monring and Sasha 5 men in the afternoon.  Once a month they come together with other friends at a cafe where the American University College is. This is an ideal venue for student work. 

Early, really early, the next morning Lee was up to get his flight from Skopje to Belgrade and then onto London Heathrow and home to a waiting Linda and two daughters.  I wanted to spend another day with Sasha and Marija to talk through a number of things, before going on my way now westwards by minibus to the Albanian border and onto Elbasan. It gave me opportunity to see their three children again Tamara, Luka and Naomi and catch up on the details of their family life and the state of the church in the nation and learn more about the people and thinking in the Balkans.

In practical terms the next part of my journey is the trickiest part and so I really prayed...and my prayers were answered!  I will tell you about it in the next blog. 

Now it is Thursday as I write this in an a smoke filled internet cafe (no smoking by law, but hey!) and the first time to add in my camera photos. Ann arrived in Tirana, Albania  last night on a BA flight and soon, in 30 minutes she will arrive here by furgon, so I will finish now and go to meet her.  It will be so good to see her.

All our love, Ken


Church life in Nis

Sunday morning saw us together for worship.  Here are Misha and Karolina leading us. Karolina is from the Czech republic and invited a group to come and do evangelism.  The Czech group gave a couple of personal stories and then I spoke.  They finish with worship which they believe is more helpful for people who come from an Orthodox background.  And no, I don't understand the words either!

Earlier in the week Lee and I had a meeting with some of their leaders in Vlada's apartment.  Vlada's wife Sonja was in the UK during the week so we met her on Saturday night.  Here are Karolina with her husband Sreten, a Bosnian Serb, Mejli, Vlada, Vlada's daughter and son and Misha. This is when we learn what is happening in their church, the problems they face, the help they feel they need, practical, financial or personnel wise.  This is when we ask question after question to get a picture of what is happening and they also ask us numerous questions on how we do things.  It is where relationships are built as we appreciate each others openness and desire to see God move in peoples lives.

After Sunday lunch Lee and I left Vlada and Sonja with their family to spend time together, whilst we talked through all that had happened and wrote down our thoughts for discussion. 

Monday morning Vlada picked us up from our hotel and we sped on our way south over the Macedonian border to meet Sash and Marija from Skopje at a convenient petrol station.  Our time in Serbia had come to a close for now and the way to Macedonia was open.


Saturday, 13 April 2013

Kragujevac and a Men's Breakfast

Yesterday, Friday, Lee and I travelled with Vlada to Kragujevac which is in central Serbia, right in the heart of the nation.  It is the fourth largest city in Serbia and is well known for two events.  It was occupied by the Germans in WW2 in April 1941.  The local communist party decided to start an uprising against this. As a reprisal the Germans in 2 days shot more than 7,000 men including many boys.  There is a memorial to this event that we saw.

Then in April 1999 during the troubles here NATO bombed the Zastava car factory destroying it totally. 38,000 people lost their jobs overnight.  You can imagine the financial impact that had.  Now just recently Fiat have taken over the factory, but if you would like an old Zastava or Yugo car or spare parts, this is the place to be.  The streets are full of them.

We met with Ivan and Adriana in their home. Ivan is a former drug addict who gave his life to Jesus six years ago. He now runs a half way house helping drug users seek help from their addiction. He also runs a second hand clothes shop. Anything with English things on,  Union flag, names of music groups, etc. sells straightaway he says.  Adriana works at the Fiat factory. Together they gather people in their house and just recently nine people have their lives over to Jesus.  We talked together and prayed that God move more powerfully in this large city, said our farewells and headed for home.

Then this morning, we were up and about ready for the men's breakfast at 9.30.  An ample supply of bacon rolls was provided washed down with thin yoghurt to drink.  We worshipped, many of the songs we knew, and then Lee spoke really well about taking risks for Jesus.  He brought his talk alive telling us of the first time he made a bungee jump.  Definitely not for the feint hearted! Then we prayed for the guys, asking God they would be risk takers and bringing encouraging prophetic words to them.  We finished just after 12 and then it was time for us to walk into the centre of Niš and sit and have a coffee.

One thing I wanted Lee to see was the inside of an Orthodox Church. So we went to the local church.If you  have never been inside one it is an experience.  It is very brightly decorated with the paintings in a set style of Jesus, the disciples, events from the New Testament but also with Mary and her baby son and many, many saints.  There are no seats. You stand. People come and go all the time lighting candles, bowing low to the many icons and kissing them.  The Orthodox Church is tied to the State, so though few people go to church, the church receives money from the State and can therefore afford fine buildings etc.  To change from the Orthodox faith is seen as a denial of your nationhood, that you no longer wish to be Serb or Greek or whatever and you are in many cases made outcast from your family. This is the battle the local church has here in seeing people becoming added to them.

With a team from the Czech Republic having arrived this morning (they drove all the way in a minibus for 12 hours) we have vacated our room at the church building and are now installed in a small hotel for 2 nights.  Tomorrow I speak in the morning and we will have our last meeting with the
leaders so that on Monday we are ready to go south to Skopje, Macedonia.  There we meet Sasha and Marija and are ready for the next part of our journey.

Our love from Lee and me.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Corinth and the Edict of Milan

One of the joys of being in the Balkans is that you are not far from where the New Testament letters were written and where the early church was started. Thessaloniki for example is a few hours bus ride from here. Next week when we are in Macedonia and Albania we will be even nearer. So the culture here is much closer to that of Paul's day then we experience in Northern Europe.  This makes it fascinating for me and makes the words in scripture come alive. Events are much easier to imagine being here.
This morning Vlada led a fairly in depth bible study of the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians.  The group were reading from their Cyrillic script Bibles while I read along from my iPad.

Afterwards, Lee and I went for a walk to the local open air fruit and veg market. It is only 24 C here,  so people are still wrapped up in their winter coats, apart from us, who are enjoying this heat wave! Last year it reached 48 C to tell you how hot it can get.  The stalls are already laden with fresh locally outdoor grown lettuces, radishes, spring onions and potatoes. In addition there are all the other salad vegetables that have been brought on under plastic, tomatoes, chillies and so on.

Then a walk around the Niš fortress, the remains of a Turkish fort with walls 8 metres high and 3 metres thick. Niš is a university city and so it is full of young people from the city and surrounding area who have come here to study.

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (photo above) was born here in Niš and in 313 he issued the Edict of Milan when Christianity was given equal  status with other religions in the Roman Empire. So this year 1700 years on, they are celebrating the Edict here in Niš.  Vlada has been approached by an Orthodox priest  to obtain Bibles and put them into the schools. Such an approach and openness to putting Bibles into state schools like this is unprecedented in Vlada's experience. So now we are meeting Vlada and another leader from Belgrade to talk this through.

Tomorrow we are of to a new church that has started in Kragujevac. But that is another day.

Lee and Ken