Siegfried and Luba Dana, Marleen, Cindy, Janet, Renee, Elena, Dashi,and I , and many others that I’m forgetting to mention..(sorry about that…my feeble mind..) Where is Albania? I asked my friend Cindy. “Guess!” She said…..Feeling a little dense, I paused and wondered out loud?..”Is it somewhere in the Baltics…Russia…I honestly do not even have a clue.” “Nope,” she said…”If Italy where to kick a country with the tip of itself(because Italy looks like the shape of a boot..which of course you know..right?), that is where you would find Albania…right beside Greece..” Well it seems like somebody in this conversation had better get out a globe and reacquaint herself with World geography I thought.
My dear friend Cindy had been a missionary to Albania, amongst other places for a great many years. She had often shared her stories with me, and through the years I had become more fascinated with this area of the world that I knew very little about. I had also been privileged to meet another dear friend from Belgium named Marleen who had been a missionary in Albania for almost 20 years. Cindy and I often would chat over a steaming cup of coffee about the people there, and the poverty, and especially we discussed the “special needs folks” there who were so often shut in because they had no wheelchairs with which to move about with. I felt a deep sense of sorrow about this, and really felt quite overwhelmed with the many ways I was able to take my daughter around. I had a wheelchair, a shower chair, handicap van complete with a ramp, hospital bed, fully accessible wheel in shower..even an elevator in my garage…..readily available diapers, tubing, syringes…well as you can see…the list of provisions we receive here in the the U.S is staggering. I was very humbled..I had been given so much to help me in caring for our daughter, and these dear ones had so little. The people who lived outside of Korca, in the country villages, often moved about with a donkey and cart, and sometimes their beloved “affected” ones would just lay on top of the cart. The streets were often dirt, which would make moving about incredibly challenging. Some lived in apartments, but with no elevators in them, they would be carried up and down 4 flights of stairs to get to the outdoors…exhausting….and because of this, many “special needs” people were shut away, and often did not get to leave their homes, let alone their rooms. Some stayed in their beds consistently, and it was very taxing for their families to care for them with so little resources available to them.
Cindy had mentioned to me about the idea that a few people had been working on called “Hope for Albania.” It was going to be a wheelchair outreach mission, and would be happening in the Fall of 2015. She asked me if I would consider going along to be a part of the trip. I could perhaps be a “parent liaison” for the other caregiver/parents there, and help to support and encourage them on their journey with their “special needs” loved ones. I was excited and really quite nervous about the idea of going. How would this work? I would be traveling a great distance, taking time away from my family, would this truly be the right thing to do? The more I thought about it, and prayed about it…truly the more intriguing and ” out of my comfort zone” this seemed. I was no world missionary..what could I possibly offer these people?
I packed an extra suitcase brimming with medical supplies, wheeled Bianca’s “hand me down” wheelchair , and my other suitcase out to the airport, and off I went…into the great big world with a big lump in my throat, fear in my stomach, and trepidation in my heart. This was around the time when radical groups were in the news doing heinous things to believers, and to their countrymen. I can’t deny..I was fearful, and wanted to turn around, and run back to the safety of my home many many times. I felt coaxed forward, and even though my knees were knocking, I felt sure that this was something I should and could do…..and I was so grateful for this tremendous opportunity. I travelled alone, and was going to be meeting up with our outreach group in Thessoloniki, Greece. I was so excited to be going to Greece as well.
My first thoughts, and ones that stayed with me throughout this time in Albania is that of being overwhelmed. I felt the unconditional love of Jesus for me, and how he truly goes before me in every little way, and he creates opportunity to share his love, to reach out and to comfort, and grieve with those who have the same pain and sorrow as do I. I have met some of the most inspirational Mothers and Fathers caring so deeply, and sacrificially for their disabled children and adults. The beauty in their caregiving is breathtaking to me. It meant so much to travel with our combined team from Russia, Albania, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, the U.S.A, and Canada to visit with these dear ones in their homes, and to bring wheelchairs of hope to them…they were so hospitable, and generous, and often gifted us with cake, candies, and of course”raki”, their rather potent liqueur(or Albanian moonshine as I like to refer to it.) One dear man even offered us champagne. He had cared for his wife for over 20 years. They had been married for over 60 years, and she had become disabled for the later part. His absolute love for her, and excellent care of her was very evident. She was miraculously clean, her skin beautiful, and the love that shone from his eyes to hers was mesmerizing to behold.. I remarked to him( via an interpreter,) how well she looked, and he simply said, “well she would do the same for me.” Such a sincere and beautiful love, pure and simple..when given from the heart, it blesses the soul, and all who witness it are transformed. These people’s lives are simple, but their love and care are so generous. Their needs are great, but they are so delighted to have visitors, and the universal language of love and respect too is shared openly. Such a gift…even though I didn’t speak Albanian, there was so much communication that went on between our eyes. We touched our hearts often, we cried and hugged together, and there was this breathtaking shared comfort and empathy experienced. The team joked everyday whether or not I had cried that day on our trip . “She cries everyday,” someone jokingly remarked…and it was true…I was so deeply transformed by these people, and their deep and enduring love for one another.
The day that we were going to deliver Bianca’s used wheelchair, I was ill prepared for. We travelled to the girls’ home who would be receiving the chair. Upon meeting her, what a sweet girl, dark hair, slim, and quiet. She was 21 years old. I need to mention that I had asked my son Logan to make a short video about Bianca, and to show the different ways we experienced life with her, to use as a means of communication with other families. Since there was obviously a language barrier between us, they could see from the visual demonstration that I could understand where they were coming from. It really was a tremendous tool, and several asked to watch it more than once. They would cry during the video, talk amongst themselves, then we would look at one another and cry, and often hug, but words were not necessary. They knew that I knew, and after all isn’t that what we all want most, to know and be known..to be valued..seen…Truly such a wonderful opportunity, and often being there and visiting with the people I would think, this is what life is about, to learn, to empathize with our fellow man, to make others’ lives better and fuller..there is such meaningful value in this.
Our group stayedin a local Albanian house together, and would share our breakfasts in the morning, but at about 5 am I would hear the Muslim call to prayer. My window was open to let in the cooll night air, and I shall never forget the sound of that loudspeaker sounding out over the airwaves….um Jill….you are not in Kansas anymore. I had the sense of being so far away from home, the culture was foreign, the language I did not comprehend, and I felt a sense of smallness. I was dependent….we were a team together working to help overcome some basic mobility issues…but we needed each other. We were all cogs in the mighty wheel, and I was so grateful to just be a part. Just to feel in some way that I had made a difference. I don’t know if I will ever get a chance to travel back over there, but I do know that somewhere in a little obscure villiage there is a young lady riding around in my daughters’ chair with her name on the back, and a verse that says …Let your light shine. And behold I had an ephiphany…..Bianca was now a missionary…because of her lot in life, someone else from across the world benefitted from her disability. This was strangely comforting to me, and in some small way, I was given a glimpse of her purpose in this life. If we look past people, and see only their limitations, their disfigurement, how much we miss…we need to take the time to truly look..observe..be present, and be open to learning a new language…there is a new language of love spoken with no words…only felt with the heart…we are human..part of the same race….it is beautiful to be alive, and to share life with others.