It was a bold request, somewhat out of character for a typical Albanian woman. The answer, which came from another Albanian woman, was just as bold.
In retrospect, that moment — a divine moment that could only have been set up by God — has changed both women’s views of themselves and others. It changed the trajectory of their futures and their legacy. And it showed with God nothing is impossible.
But to many, these moments that are beginning to happen in Albania seem impossible, especially considering the nation’s brutal history.
Communism ends, but the suspicion continues
The Republic of Albania is located in Southeastern Europe on the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Head north, and you’ll find yourself in Montenegro or Kosovo. Go south, and you’re in Greece. Board a ferry in Durres at breakfast time and sail east, and you’ll hit land in Bari, Italy, before dinner.
Centuries ago, Paul and Timothy traveled a route between Rome and Greece that wound through today’s Albania. Albanians are surrounded by the things you have read about in your World History class.
But to study Albania’s history is to learn about a land victimized by savage cruelty and oppression. For 600 years, it existed as part of the Ottoman Empire. Christians there were rendered second-class status, and most who did not flee were forced to convert to Islam or be killed. For decades in the early 1900s, warring factions fought for control of the country, and Albania eventually fell to communist forces in the 1940s.
For five decades, Albanians lived under the communist regime, which used brutal means to keep its people in check. Public executions were commonplace, and citizens were tortured for minor offenses. Neighbors were trained to spy on each other, using the information they gleaned to gain favor with the ruling authorities.
Trust evaporated, then disappeared completely. Communist rule was eventually crushed in 1991, but its effects still linger in the psyche of Albanians.
“To this day, there is no trust,” said Nita Bukowski, a Converge global worker serving alongside her husband, Ted, in Albania. “You do not open up to others, you do not show vulnerability. And, especially for women in Albania, who have been trained from their earliest years, you do not show emotion. And never, ever, let other people see your weaknesses.”
Introverted Albanians, an extroverted American and a safe place
“Because of their upbringing, Albanian women are in performance mode almost all the time,” Bukowski said. “‘I’m good, I’m good,’ is the common phrase you always hear from Albanian women. But the truth is they live in a culture where they are not valued. Muslim families there are considered cursed if they don’t have all boys. Girls are considered cursed.
“Even in 1991 (after communism’s fall) when the missionaries came in and people got saved, many of them were girls,” Bukowski continued. “These girls received salvation and were told, ‘You’re a daughter of God.’ But what does that mean to a girl to whom the word ‘daughter’ means nothing? That word only means you are expected to perform and bring your family into good standing.”
Bukowski is a Global Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) leader in Albania. She spends much of her time discipling women and helping them understand who they are in God’s eyes. With a tender heart and a reassuring smile, she has built relationships with several women who, with her help, have embraced their value as daughters of the Holy Father. Bukowski’s willingness to share her story of surviving abuse at family members’ hands as a child has helped her connect with other women.
One of those women is Vali. She became a Christian several years before meeting Bukowski through MOPS. The two shared conversations about Jesus, and eager to grow in her faith, Vali gladly accepted Bukowski’s invitation to join her small group.
In a society void of trust and transparency, a small group runs counter to its norms. Showing vulnerability isn’t natural anywhere. But in Albania, it goes against an ingrained century-old life-and-death standard.
No matter who they are, the small group members have two things in common: they are Albanian and they know Bukowski, who is far different from other women they know. Bukowski uses their commonalities to break down barriers.
“When they started sharing with each other how they met me, I realized how unique my role here is,” Bukowski said. “One by one, they all said, ‘So, I meet this American woman and I can tell that she wants to go deep with me and wants me to share from deep places. And I want to say to her that I would never do this in a million years. I don’t know why she thinks I will answer any of these questions she’s asking me.’
“It was funny, because they all said the same thing,” Bukowski said. “Again, in their culture, especially for women, if they share vulnerabilities, those things are taken and used to destroy each other. It’s a harsh culture in that way. It’s how they gain power over one another.”
But Vali was intrigued. Bukowski was a safe person to speak to. The pair began meeting one-on-one in addition to their small group meetings. Bukowski discipled Vali, who was eager to soak up as much knowledge as she could. Over time, Vali began to understand her identity in Christ, overcoming the layers of negativity placed upon her and other women by Albanian culture.
That’s the role in which Bukowski thrives: giving women a safe place to freely express themselves and learn to see themselves as God sees them. Ultimately, she is helping women in a shame-based culture experience freedom for the first time.
As Vali began to understand that freedom and grew in her faith, she became an amazing servant-leader, sharing Jesus’ love by helping mothers in need. She has organized food drives and provided Christmas presents to moms. She also provided a bold answer to a bold request.
A bold request, a bold answer and the beginning of a journey with Jesus
Vali had known Vera years ago when their children attended kindergarten together. When the two ran into each other again, Vali invited Vera to join her at a MOPS meeting.
Vera was intrigued but knew attending MOPS wasn’t in the cards for her. By Albanian standards, she had been dealt a losing hand. Her daughter, Sarah, was autistic. In a society where just being a girl is looked down upon, being a girl with autism could take families to a new level of shame.
But love knows no bounds. Vera and her husband, Nik, had already sold their house to afford Sarah’s therapy. “For Sarah, this is the least we could do,” Vera said.
Four years after Sarah’s autism diagnosis, Vera was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The tumor is lethal only if doctors attempt to remove it, so Vera lives with the tumor.
But, like most Albanian women, she didn’t reveal her hand, maintaining she was just fine. So, when Vali invited her to join her at MOPS, Vera’s request was out of the ordinary at the least, and fearless at the most.
“Can there be a MOPS meeting with mothers who have children with autism? This was the first question I asked her,” Vera said.
No small request. It was likely a request much larger than Vali realized. Vera knew she wasn’t going to fit in somewhere else if there wasn’t a group for moms like her. It just wouldn’t work.
Vali was taken by surprise, but answered just as boldly as Vera asked. She knew nothing about how to start such a program, because none like it existed locally. It would have been easy to apologize for not having such a program and move on. But that’s not how Vali operates.
“I have to pray,” she told Vera.
“Her response was both encouraging and discouraging,” Vera said.
Vali held to her word, seeking God’s voice through prayer and doing a lot of research. A class for moms of autistic children would require so much more than what her usual MOPS classes include.
After much prayer, Vali gave Vera her full response. That Christmas, Vali hosted a local MOPS meeting for mothers of autistic children for the first time. Her response and follow through on Vera’s audacious request carried repercussions even beyond MOPS.
“Vera felt seen in a way that she hadn’t been before,” Bukowski said. “As a non-believer, you can have all these negative thoughts about Christianity in your head and think, ‘I don’t believe this or this or this,’ but all of that crumbles when you experience the love of God reaching out to you. Vali not only followed through, but she did it quickly and effectively, and she continues to show her love.”
Vera looks back and sees the life-altering impact of Vali’s response.
“It was a gift from God, not only for me, but also for other moms,” Vera said. “It was also the beginning of my journey with Jesus.”
“Every day I became more curious.”
Vera grew up in a Muslim home and had gone to school to study the Quran. She said the lessons she learned in school were practical but focused on doing good deeds to reach heaven. Without good deeds, she was taught, there was no chance for salvation.
“But at the MOPS meetings, Vali often talked about her faith and her God,” Vera said. “I heard the speakers who shared about different topics and also talked about God as a God full of love and grace. Every day I became more curious because the god that I knew was not like that.”
Vera later accepted Vali’s invitation to take an English course in which students learn the language by studying the Bible. Over two months, Vera not only learned English, but she learned about God and herself. One of her teachers invested in Vera’s life, further opening her eyes to Jesus.
When Vali started bringing Vera to Bukowski’s small group, Vera began to come out of her shell. But it didn’t happened all at once.
“She’s always had a very sweet personality, but she stayed in the background and at Vali’s side,” Bukowski said of Vera’s first appearances at the small group. “I usually ask the ladies to share about things, and everybody talks. When she shared, it was usually very brief.
“But the first time she made an attempt to pray out loud was really cool,” Bukowski continued. “At the time, she hadn’t accepted Christ, but she was attempting to be present and express what she felt was right. It was really beautiful that she even felt comfortable enough to do it. She came with Vali, but she didn’t know everybody who was there. But they all accepted her, which was probably a big gift to her.”
Vera has since come to know Jesus as her Savior. She credits her meetings with Vali, Nita and other women for much of her growth as a new Christian.
“This time with Christian women where we share challenges and joys and encourage each other with the word of God — this is the energy that God gives me to move forward and be stronger,” Vera said. “Nita, with her calmness, her love for God and for me and with her patience is helping me to solidify the qualities of God in my life.”
The old has gone, the new is here!
This past September, Vera was baptized. Vali was by her side, as she has been throughout Vera’s faith journey.
So far, the journey has been short. As time progresses, its roads will no doubt wind through the mountains and valleys associated with a life lived in faith. But Vera has already gained a new perspective.
“God has placed three women in my life — Vali, my English teacher and Nita — who I am thanking for every step in my life,” she said.
“I thank God that I was born into my family. I thank God I married Nik. I thank God for my two children. I thank God Sarah has autism. I thank God I have a tumor mass. I thank God for the plan he has for me. I thank God that he loves me despite my deeds.
“My faith has changed me,” she said. “I am a better mom. I am a better wife and every day I motivate my husband to see that God is with us and loves us. It’s like it says in the Bible: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17)”
What started with a bold request and a bold answer resulted in a new creation — and a bold new witness for Jesus.
God is using Converge global workers like Nita and Ted Bukowski to build relationships and make a gospel impact across the globe. We are asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group — in our generation. Learn more about how you can partner with Converge International Ministries to help more people meet, know and follow Jesus.
Mickey Seward, Contributing writer
Mickey Seward is a freelance writer and editor. He served as Converge's director of communications from 2017-23.