ANSWERING THE CALL
Fr Luke A. Veronis
It was an exciting and challenging time in the 1990s in Albania, the only country in the world where all religion had been absolutely forbidden for the previous 24 years. All churches and mosques were closed and most were destroyed during that communist era, and anyone who mentioned the name of God, made the sign of the cross, possessed a Bible or even an icon, could be imprisoned and persecuted. Following this era of darkness, the light of Christ began to shine anew with the democratization of the country and a new freedom of religion. It was at this time in 1991 that the Ecumenical Patriarch sent His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios, the foremost Orthodox missionary in the world and a former Archbishop of East Africa and Professor of World Religions and Missiology at the University of Athens, to resurrect an ancient church.
My wife and I had the opportunity to serve in this context as missionaries and co-workers with the Archbishop for ten and a half years. Although I had the opportunity to baptize a thousand people, mostly adults, during that period, one baptism I performed will always remain as one of my most beautiful memories.
In the Church baptistery was a crowd of 30 people, 25 of which were from a Muslim background. For most of the people, it was their first time in a Church. They came to witness the baptism of Luljeta, a 45 year old woman who herself came from a Muslim background. She also happened to have the dehabilitating illness of Multiple Sclerosis. For 23 years she had been unable to move anything but her head and hands. She lived in a decrepit, old hospital room for the past seven years. She had suffered much, yet maintained a life of hope and peace.
An important event occurred in her life two years ago. She met Daniel, a second year seminary student, whose father happened to be hospitalized in a room next to hers. During that time, Daniel befriended Luljeta and daily spent hours with her, talking about God’s love and concern for her, sharing the Gospel and telling her about the strength and hope he derived from his Christian faith. You see, Daniel also came from a Muslim background, but now firmly believed in Jesus Christ and the new life that comes through Him. A friendship developed between the two, and eventually Luljeta herself came to believe his words and developed a strong belief and love for Christ.
Eventually, Daniel told me that I had to meet this beautiful woman. I started to visit her in the hospital, and with Daniel, we continued our dialogue of faith with her. After a period of time, Luljeta asked if she could also enter into the Church and become a Chrisitan.
What touched me so about this baptism was not only the path with which Luljeta came to Christ — through one of our seminarians, and a former non-Christian at that — but also that her baptism itself offered an opportunity for another 25 non-Christians to witness the beauty of an Orthodox baptism service. Throughout the service I explained what was happening and the theological meaning of what union with Christ means. By the end of the service, several of these Muslims expressed their gratitude for such a moving ceremony, and showed interest in learning more.
This is only one of countless examples in Albania, and in other such mission lands, of the opportunities to share the good news of our Savior. The saying of Christ resounds so relevant today: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
Here lies a major obstacle to our work and mission. The needs are so great, and yet the workers with experience and faith are so few. For example, Albania is a country with 3.5 million people, twenty five percent of which come from an Orthodox background. That means 875,000 people with an Orthodox identity, but very few of these Orthodox truly understand the richness of the true Orthodox faith. Over the past 20 years, the Church has made great strides in re-establishing itself, yet 50 years of militant communist atheism, followed by the now Western secular and often atheistic spirit, will take much more time to overcome. Along with re-educating the 25% Orthodox, there is another 65% non-Christian population throughout the land. Who will share the good news of salvation with these people?
Missionary statistics reveal that more than 400,000 foreign missionaries actively served cross-culturally each year. A very generous guess at how many are Orthodox missionaries could be 1000. Even though Orthodox Christians make up approximately 12.5% of all Christians, why is it that Orthodox missionaries make up only 0.0025% of all Christian missionaries. Is God not calling Orthodox Christians to fulfill His Great Commission to “go forth to all nations?”
How would we Orthodox Christians answer God’s question to the prophet Isaiah during his heavenly vision, when He asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (Isa 6:8). Would we answer with Isaiah, “Here am I; send me!” Or how do we respond to St. Paul’s words, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:13-15).
In order to answer the call of God, first we must be in a condition to hear His call. Three indispensible elements of hearing His call are 1) striving to live a faithful Christian life within the Church by actively partaking of the Holy Sacraments and obeying His commandments; 2) being open to whatever God is calling us to do, and not placing limits on what we are willing to offer Christ; and 3) consciously seeking out the will of God through sincere prayer, fasting, study of Scripture, confession and a life of repentance.
After hearing the call of God, we then must find the strength to overcome our weaknesses, fears and limitations by trusting in the grace of God.
Answering the call to mission can be scary. It is one thing to “think” about living in some foreign land where we aren’t familiar with their language, culture or life, and it is quite another thing to actually take the step and go. And yet, this is when we must, as Archbishop Anastasios often says, “Make the sign of the Cross, put our trust in Him, and go forth.”
Yes, God is asking some of us to answer His Call to go forth to all nations. It isn’t a call only for missionaries of past generations. It is also a call for us today! May some of us open our hearts, accept this holy mission, make the sign of the cross, and go forth!