What is a Missionary?
By Anastasia Pamela Barksdale
Glory to God!
A year and a half ago, I responded to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center’s call for missionaries needed to teach, preach, and mentor in mission fields all over the world. There was a special need for men and women with a theological education to train catechists and lay leaders, and so I stepped forward and like Isaiah said, “Here I am Lord, send me.”
God has given me this year and a half to search my heart and soul and ask myself “What is a missionary?” “Why do I want to be a missionary?” “Why do I want to go to Albania?” I have to admit there have been times when I felt more like Jonah despairing in the belly of the whale than like Isaiah. Now, however, when people ask me why I want to be a missionary or why I want to go to Albania, I know the answer, but it is not easy to put into words; it is complicated and personal.
One needs to first ask, “What is a missionary?”
• An apostle – one who is sent;
• An emissary – a servant;
• A messenger – one who brings “good news.”
I want to be a missionary because I want to live the good news and share the love of God that transcends all understanding and to proclaim to all people that God Is! and God is love! “God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16) to save us.
In order to proclaim this truth we have to live the truth. It is not enough to just love God; we have to truly love our neighbor and see Christ in our fellow human beings. To be a Christian, a mature Christian, is to love as God loves – to love unconditionally and perfectly. In truth, becoming a mature Christian doesn’t have anything to do with age or education – it is about learning to trust God, to listen to God, and to begin see Jesus Christ in my neighbor. Becoming a mature Christian means understanding that I cannot love as God loves without the Grace of the Holy Spirit.
I said earlier that I am a missionary candidate. That means I am an apprentice, one who wants to train under the guidance of a great missionary, Orthodox theologian and ecumenist, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios Yannolatos, and to witness and learn from the miracle of love that is taking place in the mission field of Albania.
When a missionary goes out into the field, whether the field is in the back woods of a distant land or the dark corners of the human mind here at home, they know that the field, the mission field, is always the human heart. Holy Scripture tells us that “The kingdom of God is within”…”Where your heart is there will your treasure be also.” Whether it is in one heart or the heart and soul of a nation, as it was with Albania, it is in the unfathomable depths of the heart that the battle between good and evil is waged. The weapon, the only weapon that can restore and transform a broken heart and a shattered spirit, is love, the unconditional, invincible power and tender mercy of God’s love. God’s love works miracles.
Why do I want to go to Albania? I want to go because I see God’s love transforming the hearts and souls of the Albanian people. Their country, their Church, their lives faced times of great darkness and despair, and they were forged in the throes of oppressive dictatorship. Yet, the faith, perseverance, and love in the hearts of the secret Christians were heroic and humbling. The holiness of the Orthodox bishop, and all that has been accomplished by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, is a miracle and testifies to the goodness and glory of God.
The Orthodox Church in Albania is 2000 years old, and was originally evangelized in the first century by St. Paul. Orthodox Christianity flourished in Albania for nearly 1000 years under the Byzantine Empire. Then, during the 500 years that they were dominated by the Ottoman Turks, 60% of the population converted to Islam. Today the population is 20% Orthodox, 10% Catholic and 70% Moslem.
At the end of World War II, Albania became part of the Communist block. Hoxha ruled from 1946 until his death in 1985. For the first 23 years, the Church was under persecution. However, in 1967 Hoxha decided to make Albania the first completely atheistic State, and thus he began to wage war against God. He tried to erase the memory of God from the hearts of the people.
What remained after 23 years of this reign of evil was a bleak landscape that looked like it had been ravaged by the fiery breath of dragons. Half a million bomb shelters still litter the countryside, attesting to the national paranoia of the Cold War. Crumbling foundations of ancient churches stand as silent reminders that more than 1600 churches were destroyed. Countless clergy were imprisoned, forced into labor camps, or died; some were tortured, some murdered. After the collapse of communism, only 11 priests remained alive.
When he arrived in 1991, His Beatitude was faced with the monumental task of rebuilding, restoring, and renewing a shattered church—not just buildings, but the hearts of the people. His very first act was to go to the church and proclaim the victory that we, as the children of God, have in Jesus Christ. To proclaim: “Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!”
At the ancient Christian site in Durrës, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios began to resurrect the Orthodox Church of Albania. It was here on the foundation laid by the Apostle Paul that he built a church, a monastery, the Resurrection of Christ School of Theology, and a children’s orphanage, the Home of Hope.
The accomplishments of the last 16 years are really nothing short of a miracle. His Beatitude reestablished the Archdiocese in Tirana, ordained and educated six bishops and 140 priests, and installed a Synod of Bishops. Two hundred new churches were built, and 140 churches restored. Christians, who had not been able to even make the sign of the cross for fear of being arrested, now openly celebrate the liturgy and are baptized, married and buried.
Restoring the infrastructure of the Church was important, but social outreach programs were also needed. Catechetical education, along with teachers and mentors witnessing and modeling Christian community and values, were needed, too. His Beatitude needed help with this work, and in 1992 he invited OCMC missionaries Fr. Martin and Presbytera Renee Ritsi to come to Albania and assist in rebuilding the church. A long line of OCMC missionaries have followed. I am proud and humbled by the call to add my name to this list of dedicated Christians.
What will I do in Albania? As I am assigned to the National Children’s Office under the leadership of His Beatitude and our OCMC field leader Nathan Hoppe, my job description is that of a facilitator, trainer, and resource person. Although this job description is both specific and vague at the same time, I know the real work will manifest itself in countless opportunities to glorify God through acts of love, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness, because this is the work of all Christians.
Because nearly one-third of all Albanians are under the age of 15, this children’s ministry is vital, and its mission is urgent. There are 3.5 million people in Albania. This means that there are 1.16 million children under the age of 15. This is the first generation of children who will grow up in Albania without the influence of Communism.
We have a very short window of opportunity to win the hearts of this generation to Christ before atheism, greed, and selfishness devour them with the illusion that prosperity is salvation.
The work of missions and evangelism – the spreading of the “Good News” – is the work of every Christian. We are all called to love one another and manifest the love of Christ in our lives, both locally – in our home, in our parish, in our community and universally – to all nations. How can you participate more fully in the missionary activities of the Church? You only need to do three things: Love – Pray – Give.
Love – Live the Good News – love one another, love yourself, love your neighbor, love those who do not love you, love the Lord deeply and truly and with your whole heart. When we lift up our hearts and Jesus Christ abides with us, our lives, our homes, our hearts, and our world are transformed into the Kingdom of God.
Pray – Become missionary prayer partners and form a bond of fellowship and love with Archbishop Anastasios and
the people of Albania. Everyone may not be called to go to Albania or elsewhere, but we are all called to pray and support the Great Commission. Remember the Albania Mission during your celebration of the Divine Liturgy, in your intercessory prayers, and in your personal prayers.
Give – Give of your time, your talents, and your gifts in Spirit and in Truth, in word and in deed. Please pray about this ministry. When two or more are gathered in prayer … the unconditional, invincible power and tender mercy of God’s Love will work wonders.