Entertaining Global Peace with Albanian Besa?

What can we learn from the Albanian besa that promotes peace instead of conflict?

There I stood in the middle of the small village in the northern mountains of Albania. The year was 1996. It was still a momentous time in the history of the small nation. The Berlin Wall crumbled on November 9th, 1989 and with it, the collapse of the USSR; there stood Albania teetering on the brink of a new direction. Students gathered in the center of the capital of Tirana in 1990 and others joined. They wanted a new life, a new direction, a new hope and they protested for it. And then Albania opened. The first declared atheistic state of the world opened its doors and emerged from the shadow of its ruthless dictator of 40 years, Enver Hoxha.

In the mountain village, my team and I had already obtained permission from the local mayor of the town to set up in the central green area of the village. We talked with the villagers as we erected a simple double-sided screen. That evening we were showing the most translated movie of all-time, the Jesus Film. The night showing was in the Albanian language.  My team of college students were hopeful to share with the people and stay in the village for the next week or longer, if possible.

As the sun dropped behind the large mountains of the north, the time was getting nearer. All around me there was activity and excitement and many of the villagers were finishing their day in the fields and homes and joining around us. And then I heard some commotion. There appeared to be a heated debate. Raised voices, some yelling, and an argument was becoming the focal point there on the grass. One of my Albanian teammates came up to me and told me what was happening.

The local Imam was having a vicious argument with the mayor. His threats were serious and although I had permission from the mayor earlier in the day to show the film, the mayor himself packed up his stuff, got on his cart and bid me and my team a generous farewell for the evening. His permission was thence revoked – in its place the next order of authority – the local Imam.

When Albania opened, they opened fully, allowing all in – both Muslim and Christian alike. All evidence of religion was wiped away during the Hoxha atheistic rule. Thus, many a mosque and church were erected when the doors opened in this small European country.

Like many places before on Earth that have been the battlegrounds of religious violence, ancient Illyria is no exception. This too was a place of contestation, a place where life was lost from shed blood – an ancient pagan peoples become Christian and then in the 15th Century a conquered people become Muslim. With so many years of religious experience, it was no small feat to transform the society in the mid-20th Century into an atheistic state, sending all remnants of religious adherence underground as buildings, monuments, and anything religious was destroyed.

I was told that less than 6 Albania people in country were Christian when it opened. I don’t know if that is true but what is true is that the Albanian people were held back from actualizing their true potential all based on the notion of atheism through Communistic dictatorship for 40 years.

The Imam approached me with zealousness in his eyes. His words were loud and they were directed at me. My Albanian team told me he was threatening my life and that if I showed the film, he was going to come back and shoot us with his shotgun. I protested. I said there was nothing to fear from this film and didn’t even his scriptures acknowledge Jesus? I had the permission of the mayor, even if withdrawn, and the village people were gathering, wanting to see the film. Why was he blocking it?

The argument intensified and so did my passion. However, from the edge of the green there came another commotion. This time one of my teammates was involved. The Imam had already stormed away readying himself to realize his threat – no doubt if he failed to do what he said, his reputation would be lost. He must have felt we were a real threat to his leadership and way of life – I felt like we were allowing people to make up their own minds. I was determined to show the film and risk an encounter.

The second commotion, I came to find out, was generated from another villager. The village man told my teammate it was true that the Imam would kill us and that just last week the nearest village on the next ridge stabbed a Dutch Christian missionary and stripped his clothes naked as they literally kicked and stoned him out of town. The village man reasoned for peace, for tolerance, and for our safety with all passion he could muster. He offered his protection and his hospitality. He offered his besa.

The Albanian besa. What a beautiful thing.

We agreed to go with the man offering his besa, but I didn’t know what it meant – my Albanian teammates did though.  The man urged us away because, by giving his besa, he now was between us and the Imam – he was putting his life on the line for us, the strangers. We packed up our things, explained we were sad to not show the film that many had gathered to see, and said our farewells. I was pretty upset about the whole thing and my teammates prayed and helped me along as we walked from the green to the man’s house down the mountainside through narrow village streets.

He explained he would take care of us. He explained, his home was our home. He said, anything we wanted he would get it for us. He even said he would ask many village men to stand watch all night long to protect us. And that is what he did.

We met his family, talked about life, broke bread together and stayed safe all night long as he gave us all the comforts he could. It really was remarkable. He opened his home to us, complete strangers, with no strings attached. The Albanian besa.

Was it just coincidence? Was it just a thing for this village? No, the besa is an Albanian tradition. It is their code to walk by honor and duty and hospitality. It is welcoming the stranger – it is the Albanian besa.

A recent article by the BBC explains another encounter with the Albanian besa through eyes of the refugee exiles flooding into Albania and Macedonia during the Kosovo-Serbian conflict.  I saw that flood and its aftermath first hand in 2001 when I went to Kosovo. The BBC article asks what can be learned from Albanian trust?

I echo that same question for us as well, what can we learn from the Albanian besa that promotes peace instead of conflict?

Three things I would like to highlight about the Albanian besa that move us toward peace:

  1. Albanian besa welcomes the stranger. Think about how you feel when you are welcomed. Being a person of welcome is already a step towards peace. What if we were so welcoming that we invited strangers in need to our home? Maybe an immigrant, maybe a person at church, maybe someone who just moved to your town from another, maybe the poor and downtrodden. These people are everywhere. They come into my country all the time. They stand on my corner with “Help!” written on cardboard signs daily. I was welcomed as the stranger in Albania. Thankfully the church is rallying, ever it be slowly, to welcome the stranger better. Ministries like the Welcome Network exist in many places that work to build coalitions with churches and others, along with events that raise the same kinds of welcoming questions are growing more frequent.
  1. Albanian besa puts others first. What a concept! In our world of ‘I got to have mine!’, putting others first is rarer and rarer. Increasingly we are a self-interested, narcissistic, me-first attitude people. I fight against this tendency internally every day. In my worldview as a Christ-follower, it is called sin. It shouldn’t be a surprise to Christians that our world bends in that direction. The fall of Satan was due to this attitude. The fall of mankind was through this attitude. I was really amazed that this man, not a religious man according to his own volition, would give his Albanian besa to me and my team and put us first. What if we all willingly put other first – wouldn’t that, even as hard as it is, promote peace?
  2. Albanian besa honors real community. Real community – whew how difficult to find! It has been said that it takes a village to raise children, but where are our villages? In the United States, they are all but disappearing. I hope where you live they are not. Do you know your neighbor? Do you let your kids run free in the neighborhood in which you live? What are your work relationships like? Do your co-workers ever come over to your home? Where is community in your life? I find community at home, at work, and at church. In Albania, I found the man who welcomed me was truly interested in conversation and interaction with me and my teammates. Community promotes interaction, it promotes accountability, and it promotes resolution. Community provides the grounds for conversation. And with conversation comes the potential for peace.

So what can we learn from Albanian besa? A lot. I’ve tried to point out just three, but of course there is more. And why the emphasis toward peace? Because we need it. Where there is peace, there is life. We need peace in our lives. We need peace in our country. We need peace in our world.

Ultimately, I found eternal peace in my relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But not everyone agrees with that and I am ok with that because I value others opinions and thoughts. I have friends from all walks of life and I pray for them. I don’t know how good I am at welcoming the stranger, putting others first, and promoting real community, but I hope to improve. In a sense I hope to engender more Albanian besa.

In is natural that we won’t always agree with others and we won’t always think the same as others. But what if we welcomed the stranger, put others first, and  worked to create real community? What would our world in 2050 look like if we did more of that?

There are clear links between what I’ve drawn on between Albanian besa and what the Bible discusses on these topics. If you are interested, here are a few links in that direction.


Author: Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Support for this Blog Theme comes with additional funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS) and Calvin College.

Whither Geographically-Informed Christian Missions?

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

The discipline of Geography, one of the academic majors represented in the GEO Department at Calvin College, is a sort of rarity. There are only a handful of private Christian-based colleges in the United States that have a geography major, let alone any PhD trained geographers. At Calvin College we have fluctuated between 5 and 4 PhD geographers for the last 20 years and have been striving in geography to understand the intersections of geography and Christian faith. It is a wonder why so many Christian higher-education institutions, which have as mission to impact the world for Jesus Christ, have a paucity of geography? Beyond geography majors, we have a wide range of other majors taking geography courses at Calvin, not just future missionaries, but at its basic level, how can missionaries know where they are going, what the world is like in its human and physical geography, and understand the deep connections of time and space – without geography?  Maybe it is time for Christian colleges in the United States to recognize the importance of this old academic discipline as part of the core fabric of who they are.

Many in Geography have been thinking about the year 2050, such as with recent conferences by an older geographic body of thinkers, the National Geography Society.

As I took my seat in the famous Low Memorial Library of Columbia University in New York City, the mighty pillars of marble stood tall against the backdrop of the stage. Around me were 250 other people from various walks of leadership: the Vice President of Google, the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency of the United States, the Vice President of Shell Oil, the Geographer of the United States in the US State Department – the list goes on. We were at the Geo2050 conference sponsored by the American Geographical Society, which brought together experts from around the globe in November 2014.

Our task at Geo2050 was to converse broadly about the current state of the world from environment to energy to society to technology. Together, we considered what the world will be like at the mid-point of the 21st Century. The challenges we face are significant, and both hopeful and dire possible futures were discussed. Although the Low Library has etched in the exterior limestone, “For the advancement of the common good and the glory of the Almighty God”, conversation about faith in God was absent from the agenda this year. I could not help but think, as a Christian who happens to be a geographer, about the ramifications for the American Church moving toward 2050.

So what about the Gospel and discipleship over the next 35 years? What should we as Christian leaders consider? The interconnected relationships of humans and the environment are vast and complicated. I explore these connections with students every semester. Whatever your opinions of the issue, it is clear that humans are placing mounting stresses on the environment (natural resource depletion, loss of habitats and species, earth heating, ice melt, etc…), The key to thinking about the future of making disciples for Christ is really based on one simple question – where will people be?

Given the current trends in the world, in 2050:

  • There will be approximately 9.5 billion people on earth, and
  • The vast majority (7 in 10) of the 9.5 billion people will live in urban places.

That second point is vitally important. For the first time in history, more people are living in cities than in rural areas. The crossover to an urban world happened in 2008, and there is no return to a rural world in sight.  Our conversations about the future of ministry should have a significant urban focus. Why?

First and foremost, because that is what Jesus did. Jesus went to the people and met them where they were. You know that too. Any church that wants to thrive in ministry not only opens its doors, but it goes to the people in the community and ministers with real dialogue seasoned with the life-changing Gospel. Where will the people be? They will be in the city. And that is where we should be too.

Are we ready to train the next generation of Christian leaders to understand ministry in the city? In 2050, we will be sending our missionaries to the urban cores of high population density, especially in the developing world where urban growth is currently unprecedented. Will we empower missionaries going to these uncharted urban mazes? Will we train them for the significant challenges they will face with the poor that are flocking to developing cities forming new squatter settlements every day? And what about children? There are 200+ million orphans in the world, according to the latest UNICEF estimates. We need to prepare missionaries well, because the poor and orphans will increase in this urban growth movement.

What will urban growth be like in the next 35 years? Right now the most urban growth is in the developing world. The UN and geographical research estimates that the Earth in 2050 will host in excess of 1,000 cities with more than a million people predominantly in Asia and Africa. China leads the way with well over 160 cities of a million or more. In 2050, India will be our most populous country with the largest urban population on the planet. The absorption of cities into megacities or mega-urban corridors will be the norm, with at least 40 megacities with 10 million people or more. The cities with the most expected growth are outpacing their ability to provide for basic services of water and energy and sanitation.

Will our missionaries be prepared for this future?

What about urban growth in the developed world? The growth rate is much slower at present. However, demands on energy, shifts in natural resources, consolidated ownership of fertile agricultural land and immigration all point to a continued move of people to the city. Edge cities, con-urban landscapes where cities meet cities, and new forms of built environments will be where most people live.

What are some ways we as the church can adapt to this urban future? First, look for new opportunities in your city as it grows and changes. Where are the new places for ministry as change occurs? For example, in my city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, we have many new apartment buildings and condominium towers going up in the downtown. Are existing churches in the downtown changing the way they approach ministry with the influx of new pedestrian-based residents now living there? Are they adapting to the vast opportunities to minister to immigrants coming to the urban sector, and what does that look like? As we get better at these urban ministry approaches, will that translate to empowering our missionaries overseas?

Second, where are opportunities for church-planting? How can the suburban/exurban churches partner with the urban churches in ministry? My suburban church is trying that with an urban church partnership. It isn’t easy, but God is doing some wonderful things. Will we lead new initiatives in these kinds of partnerships?

Third, remember that cities are different and filled with people who are different, so ministry might not look the same from one city to another, and that is alright. You probably know your neighborhood pretty well, but if you do not know some of the basic demographics for your area, you should investigate at least the census details as a start. The American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually in the USA, is another good way to learn sample statistics about your geography. Perhaps a church and non-profit partnership can lead to a county-wide congregational study that will reveal ministry opportunities in your city?

If you live outside the United States, you can check with your central statistics agency as a starting point for demographics. If you live in the USA, you can check out this mapping application I built to start to learn about your area – Understanding Your Geography (http://calvin.maps.arcgis.com/apps/OnePane/basicviewer/index.html?appid=c069ce1274744b4898033ab2bfde3d9c). As a model for regional congregational studies, you can check out the 2007 Kent County Congregational Study, documented by the “Gatherings of Hope” report (http://www.calvin.edu/weblogs/csr/more/kccs_canvassing_completed/).

During the triumphal entry, we find an interesting, often overlooked, response from Jesus. After the many praises of Hosanna, Holy Scripture indicates, “When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it,…”( Luke 19:41 NASB). Do we have the same compassion for the people of our city and cities around the world?

Author: Dr. Jason E. VanHorn
Support for this Blog Theme comes with additional funding from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (CCCS) and Calvin College.