HNGR in the Balkans

HNGR in the Balkans

A Reflection on Radicalism and Imagination from a Host Trip to Albania by Ryan Juskus, Assistant Director


Thanks to a long-time supporter of the HNGR Program, I had an opportunity to visit a new HNGR partner organization in Albania called the NEHEMIA Foundation, which has recently been confirmed for a 2011 HNGR placement.  NEHEMIA is a well-run organization focusing on education, community and health development, and spiritual renewal in a country that is recovering from 40 years of strictly enforced communist atheism.  

After sending our first intern to the Balkan region last year (Kosovo), I was most interested to explore the context’s coherence with HNGR’s mission, vision, and values.  More personally, the trip was also a return to the roots of my own journey through the complex forces and issues that shape our world and our social imaginations.  My rather naïve participation in a short-term missions trip in 1999—delivering relief supplies to refugees of the Bosnian war—left me with many questions about the region’s complexities:  How could so-called Serbian Orthodox Christians massacre Bosnian Muslims?  Why did Bosnians love Americans, especially President Clinton and his foreign policy?  How can the scars of history and identity penetrate so deeply that one ethnic group appealed to aggression in the 1990’s, another to abuses in 1912, and then another to atrocities in the 16th century?  Who is in the right?  What is justice?  Where is healing and reconciliation?

Needless to say, the answers are slow in coming.  Albania is a bridge between West and East, North and South.  Although it is part of a region where the fusion of religious and national identities has led to intractable conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Albania stands out as a place of generally peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, and now Evangelicals. Proud Albanians recount the fact that, after Nazi control during World War II, Albania was the only country in Europe that had a larger Jewish population after the war than before it.  However, maintaining such coexistence may be one of its greatest challenges in a context of increasing radicalism and an influx of financing from the Muslim East and the secular West. 

Another challenge Albania faces might be summed up like this: during communism everyone was equally poor and destitute, but now during capitalism there is increasing disparity and social division.  I heard some version of this account several times during my visit.  Many of the Albanians I met were both proud of being Albanian and yet very dissatisfied with the state of their country and politics. Many young and educated Albanians migrate for work elsewhere because the country’s future is uncertain.

In this context, NEHEMIA stands out as a hopeful, forward-oriented organization with a vision for social transformation through strengthening Albanian leadership and values.  For instance, they recently inaugurated a university whose first degree is in socially conscious business administration.  When I asked my host from NEHEMIA about the fall of communism and her experience of it, she contrasted two narratives: the official communist narrative that portrayed little Albania as a beacon of light to the world versus her Christian narrative that opened up new and fresh interpretations of her role as an ambassador of the Kingdom of God in the world.  For instance, Albanians take pride in their unique language and their levels of education among women, two victories claimed by the communist regime.  However, she said, the untold story is that it was Christians who first legitimated Albanian language in schools and educated women as an outgrowth of their faithfulness to God’s transformative work in the world. This happened long before the era of communism. 

This contrast between the “official story” and the “fuller story” is a reminder to me that imaginative engagement with our world, shaped by the narrative of God’s reconciling and redemptive work, is more radical than any political ideology.  In the end, my visit to Albania solidified that this is exactly the sort of context where HNGR should be involved.

by Ryan Juskus, HNGR Assistant Director
*photo taken by Ryan Juskus
Lake Ohrid, Albania

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