Albania: Living Water in a Dry Land
Albania: Living Water in a Dry Land

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Living Water in a Dry Land—Albanians Find Hope in Christ

Story by Margot Bass
Photos by Micah Martin, taken before COVID-19

This story originally ran in Issue 83, Spring 2020.

In an Eastern European country where worshiping God could have once easily ended in prison or a death sentence, a new generation of believers is being raised up. Calvary Chapel pastors from New Jersey imparted encouragement and verse-by-verse teaching to more than 140 pastors and leaders from four Eastern European nations at a conference in Albania last fall.

As one of the conference leaders, Albanian pastor Plator Collaku, a sociable man in his 40s, greeted every conference goer warmly. He was overwhelmed with joy as people—many of them young adults—streamed in.

Man worshipping with hand on chest

Pastor Mentor Rama (right) of Christ for the Nations, Albania, worships during the two-day conference in coastal Durrës, Albania.

Plator’s mind drifted back to how he had struggled with believing when first presented with the Gospel, soon after the Iron Curtain had fallen and the death sentence for becoming a believer had ended. He had been raised as an atheist but had pondered many questions about life.

When Plator was given a Bible, there was an address inside for a Christian meeting. He didn’t go the first week but went the following week when a classmate told him “cute girls” had attended. His goal was to destroy the meeting with a difficult question: Who created God? “It was almost impossible to give a reasonable answer,” Plator remembered thinking. He attended the next six weeks, consistently disrupting the meetings. Finally, the frustrated leader told Plator that he was fighting with God. Later that day, he read the Bible as he would any other book, taking Matthew 7:7 seriously: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”

Pastor Frank and other pastor preach

Pastor Plator Collaku (left) translates as Pastor Frank Ippolito teaches at the conference.

Plator challenged God: If You are real, just show Yourself to me. Plator continued attending the Bible study, and six months after attending the first meeting surprised himself by agreeing to pray to dedicate his life to Jesus. “In those six months, God was working in my heart and changing me from a person who didn’t believe in Him to a person who fell in love with Him forever,” he affirmed. Plator was saved as a teenager in the early 1990s. Years later, he spearheaded the formation of a day center for street children. Now he is the director of a boy’s orphanage and oversees two Bible-teaching congregations and three church plants which are all in the process of becoming affiliated with Calvary Chapel.

Scenic Lake Ohrid

Scenic Lake Ohrid borders Albania.

Growing Strong Leaders

Christianity is growing in Albania, a country held in the iron-clad grip of harsh, repressive communism for more than 50 years. When former Dictator Enver Hoxha declared his nation to be the world’s first atheist country in 1967, he outlawed and severely persecuted all religion.

The two-day Biblical Leadership Conference far exceeded the original expectations of the three pastors from New Jersey: John Durante, senior pastor of Jersey Shore Calvary Chapel in Point Pleasant Beach; Frank Ippolito, senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Vineland; and John’s cousin Michael Durante. Michael pastors Hope Albanian Church, an evangelical church ministering to Albanian immigrants in Elmwood, NJ. John exclaimed, “Many [attending leaders] reported a true sense of fresh vision and courage. Praise God that He has allowed us to serve these hardworking ministers. I see bright days ahead for the Albanian church.”

John hugs man

Pastor John Durante from Jersey Shore Calvary Chapel hugs Mentor at the conference.

The idea for the conference came about because Plator wanted to teach biblical leadership to the churches he oversees. Since Christianity had been banned for so long, Plator stated, Albanians—including church leaders—don’t have the historical understanding of Scripture that many have in the United States. “One of the biggest things I [emphasize] is discipleship. We want leaders who are strong in the Word of God,” Plator stressed. “We talked about the characteristics of elders and deacons. The churches are now in the phase of setting up elders and deacons; the structure of the church should be based on the biblical writings of the apostles.”

Ladies praying together

Christina Durante (right) of Jersey Shore Calvary Chapel prays with a woman.

The conference invitation list had expanded as Plator invited leaders from 30 evangelical churches and organizations from Albania and nearby Macedonia, Greece, and Kosovo. American John Durante explained, “At first I had no idea it was going to turn into more than Plator and his young people attending. The Lord gave me an opportunity I couldn’t even set up for myself. You don’t have to ask a pastor twice to teach a group of young people who are highly motivated to learn about God and biblical leadership.”

Man playing piano and leading worship

Young people help lead worship at the conference. Many young adults served behind the scenes at the conference as well.

The first sermon, built on portions of the Books of Nehemiah and Ephesians, focused on the churches’ need to instill vision in Christians to spiritually build the church—not just to be saved. The pastors then taught through 1st Timothy, describing effective church leadership and showing by example how to read, study, and teach the Bible. “This is what Scripture says, what it means, and how you can use it in your Christian life,” specified Frank Ippolito. Plator has a bold vision to see one church in every town and village surrounding the city of Korçë, in eastern Albania. “Our desire is to see these communities transformed by the Gospel … by the spoken Word and good deeds,” he declared. Korçë was home to a vibrant underground Christian church during the years of communism.

Men gather in lobby

Pastor Plator (left), Robert Wojcik, and Pastor Frank enjoy sharing with each other before the conference.

Verse-by-Verse Teaching

As Frank Ippolito shared Paul’s exhortation in 1st Timothy, chapter 5, to take care of widows and urging younger widows to remarry, he noticed agitation and murmuring in the audience. “Afterward I found out that in Albanian culture, remarriage for widows is frowned upon and shunned. Later I was told by one of the leaders, ‘You set us free,’ because the authority for widows to remarry came directly from God’s Word.” Some of those attending were widows. “Now they know that it’s not a [life] sentence because their husbands have passed away. That’s just the power of the Word,” Frank added.

Man holding baby and worshipping

Father and daughter worship together during the conference.

The response to the conference overjoyed the New Jersey pastors. “One pastor didn’t make it to the conference, but he called Plator to say that the five people he sent from his church couldn’t stop talking about it, returning on fire for the Lord. He said, ‘I don’t know what you guys did, but you need to do it again,’” John reported. “Honestly, all we did was typical, humble, verse-by-verse teaching, taking the Word of God at face value and applying it literally.”

I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:15b

Amphitheatre of Durrës

The team toured the Roman-era Amphitheatre of Durrës.

Young Adults & An Exciting Future

Frank noticed that more than half of those attending were between 18 and 35 years old, and many of them were serving in the background. “Once we started teaching, they ate it up. They were all so on-fire, excited about Jesus and wanting to serve Him. I saw a lively group of people who were hungry for God’s Word. The verse-by-verse teaching was almost like throwing gasoline on the fire,” he related. “They told me, ‘I didn’t know you could study the Bible like that.’”

This young generation is open to God, Plator explained. “I have a church full of youth—high school and university students—with a heart for God, and I like it because it’s a vital church. I’m blessed by their energy, by the way their lives have been changed. Some of them have come from drugs and very bad behavior. That’s the power of the Gospel. It transforms people.”

“This is the word of the Lord …: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts. Zechariah 4:6b

People talk at conference

Christina Durante fellowships with CC missionaries Mark & Celeste Yocom (right).

American Tom Grimes has been the pastor of The Refuge Church in Tirana, Albania, a Calvary Chapel plant, for more than four years. He noted that more young families are attending Albanian churches than in the past. “It’s neat to see a second generation coming,” he observed. “Married people with families are coming out to Tirana and [other churches in] Albania to serve and show how to live as Christian families.” He is excited about the growth of Christianity in this once-dark country. “I know God has a plan for Albania,” Tom conveyed. “Even when I get frustrated or worn out in what I’m doing here, God reminds me that I’m here getting ready for revival.”

Men laughing at conference

Conference attendees laugh during Pastor Frank Ippolito’s teaching session.

John also sees the potential for God to do a mighty work in Albania at a national level. “I feel like God’s getting ready to do something [big] there. He’s raising up His Church, building a foundation that’s preparing them to serve,” John noted. He added that his small New Jersey fellowship, which sacrificed to support the trip, has been excited about the spiritual impact they could make in Albania. “I’d like to see the larger Calvary Chapel movement, including people of Albanian ancestry, connect with the churches under Plator’s authority, and eventually support mission work going on there.”

Kids eating meal

Local children from the village of Maliq, in the Korçë, area come regularly to Plator’s day care center for food and homework help.

 

John and Michael Durante talk with Xenzil

Pastors John and Michael Durante talk with Xenzil (center) in Korçë, Albania.

 

Youth laughing at the foot of the cross

Two young adults fellowship after the church service in Libonik, Albania.

 

Kids leap frogging

Local boys play a national traditional game outside of the Libonik church.

 

All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.

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