As soon as our vehicle turned on to Dikaiou Street, where PORTA – the Albania House in Athens is located, we could hear the lively music, blaring away. Because this first-year class is larger than most, we offer it in the Gallery, where Albanian artists often display their works. A professional trio (clarinet, accordion & guitar) was providing the music and “the joint was rockin!”As is too often the case, when we arrived, these adult students showed far too much deference to us, hurriedly making a space of honor for us at the head table. From out of nowhere, plates of delicious, home-cooked food began to appear for us. Raki, the traditional Albanian “home brew” was served and we did lots of toasting, all around.
Before us was an exultant crowd, dancing, partying and enjoying each other. Janice and I have come to know most of these people only since the beginning of the school year. I recognized that they come from a variety of backgrounds. Back in their home country, some were doctors, engineers and professional people, while others did not complete high school. Some have ancestral links to the historic Roman Catholicism of the north of Albania, the traditional Orthodox Christianity of the south or to the Islamic or Bektashi faith traditions from throughout the country. But today, few if any of them have any sort of personal faith of any kind, owing to the fact that, for half a century, their homeland was dominated by a dictatorial, radical, Communist ideology which required them to live as though there is no God. What unites these Albanians is that all are immigrants in Greece; they have come here in search of a better life, despite the reality that Greece historically, has been antagonistic toward immigrants - most especially Albanian immigrants.The other feature that fuses these good people is that, despite their differing backgrounds, each has found help, hope and wholesomeness through PORTA. At a time in Greece when these qualities are in short supply, PORTA has literally been an open door of opportunity. Indeed, when Edi Rama, the former Mayor of the capital city of Tirana, Albania and the Albanian Socialist Party’s nominee for Prime Minister was recently in Athens, he referred to PORTA as “a bright, shining light for Albanian immigrants in Athens!”
When the music ceased and I rose to make an extemporaneous speech to this disparate, partying crowd, my mind raced as I thought about my improvised remarks, in this context. Albanians are tolerant of my limited fluency in Shqip, their traditional language. But, my anxiousness had more to do with content and context, than language.We work hard at PORTA to respect all who come through its doors. Albanians know that we have come to them in the name of Jezusi. They understand that, although PORTA’s program includes many things, every, single thing that we do, we do to honor Jezusi! They also understand that we strongly believe in spiritual freedom and that we never attempt to push our faith on them. They know that we always want them to be free to decide for themselves where to place their personal faith. But the party was a Christmas party and I felt an honest urge to speak about what English-speakers sometimes refer to as “the reason for the season!”
But how does one speak of Jesus to a group of people with little apparent need for or interest in religion and even less information about him? I reminded these friends that, like them, Jesus came from an immigrant and oppressed family. Joseph & Mary were forced to abandon the familiar comforts of home at an awkward and inconvenient time when, under the pressure of a tyrannical, foreign government, they left Nazareth and travelled by foot to a destination that must have seemed a lifetime away from familiarity. Although Christians piously sing about this “little town of Bethlehem,” for them it surely must have been a strange place, where they found themselves not belonging, perhaps unprepared, surely unable to secure lodging, certainly unwelcome and definitely required to register for the patently unfair purpose of paying egregious taxes Even before any post-partum adaptations, the fragile, holy family, including the only recently-circumcised, infant Jesus, was coerced into becoming impromptu immigrants again and exiles-on-the-run, when they fled to Egypt, to escape the tyranny of Herod’s imposed, yet insecure power.Despite the fact that most of these adults have little prior acquaintance with Jesus, my Albanian friends showed an almost immediate empathy and understanding, as I described Joseph’s family and the newborn Jesus in this fashion. The looks on their faces suggested that they had found a painful point of personal connection with this mysterious, incarnational narrative from long ago. They seemed to identify with Jesus and with his story, when described that way.
Of course, it was just one brief moment, followed quickly by the lonesome wail of an Albanian clarinet and the unspoken search for intimacy, hope and personal meaning embodied in traditional Balkan folk dancing. But, my sense was that the distant, bright-shining light from Bethlehem’s star had, once again, broken through the darkness. Hope so!