When former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha declared his country an atheistic state and ordered all Christians imprisoned or killed, he thought he had wiped out the future of the faith.
In 1967, his plan seemed certain.
Twenty-four years later, in 1991, world mission agencies and church denominations counted a total of 16 known Christians in the country. Hoxha's plan to purge Albania of Christianity had nearly worked, but it was now about to backfire.
In 1992, Cru sent its first missionaries to the country. Following in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, this small group of American staff members and hopeful college students asked God to transform Albania. Though at the time it seemed absurd, they prayed for Christian Albanians who would see their own country changed and one day serve as missionaries to other parts of the world.
"Different from other Eastern European nations, Albania had no 'underground' church during the Communist years, and in fact, prior to communism most of Albania was Muslim," explains Bill Babione, who leads Cru's campus ministry in Albania.
Despite the odds, the number of known Christians in Albania now totals a shocking 23,000. Even more surprising, Cru boasts 74 staff members -- Albanians, not Americans -- who serve full time as missionaries. And Albania regularly sends people short term and long term beyond their borders with Jesus' message of hope and eternal forgiveness.
How did it happen?
The strategy was simple: follow Jesus' pattern to lead people to Christ, equip them to explain their faith, and then send them in God's power to tell others about their need for a Savior. And it began on a college campus.
"Students were the first who rose against communism in Albania. They are the future leaders of tomorrow," says Bani Doci, a 30-year-old Albanian and Cru staff member. "The best and easiest way to change a country is to change the leaders of the country."
Bani was in high school when communism fell. He first thought Christ was a fairy tale. Then, in college, someone explained the gospel to him, and he invited Jesus to be his Savior.
The following year, Bani and his roommate joined a Cru Bible study at Tirana University. Since there were still very few churches, this was their main source of spiritual truth.
Bill Babione recalls those days.
"God was truly doing something special," Bill says. "These spiritually 'starved' students would gather in masses around [American missionaries], and through translators would bombard them with questions about God, Jesus Christ and the Bible. Within the first year, hundreds of students turned to faith in Christ and joined Bible studies in the dormitories."
This spiritual oasis proved life-changing for those who had never heard, as well as for young Christians like Marina Burrell. She had first become a Christian in 1992 when missionaries visited her high school in Albania.
She did not know how to learn more about Jesus until she got involved in a college Bible study at Tirana University.
After her junior year, Marina went on a mission trip to some Albanian villages with some Cru friends. "We heard a lot about missions and the need to reach out to people who haven't heard," Marina says. "Knowing Christ and having Him as my friend was the best thing that has ever happened to me. And I had the chance to hear because somebody left their country and came to tell me."
When Marina graduated from the university, she joined the staff of Cru. Like those who had traveled beyond their borders to reach her, Marina left Albania and became a missionary in Kosovo.
Although 12,000 Kosovar Albanians had been killed in Kosovo during a recent war, Marina moved there as a missionary. God, she believed, had a message for the world, not just for her.
Kejdis Bakalli, another Albanian missionary who works with Cru in Kosovo, first heard about Jesus as a college senior back home in Albania. He says that as his understanding of Jesus' love for him grew, so did his desire to tell others about Christ. "I was quickly transformed from a teacher of biology to a missionary in Kosovo," he says.
At the University of Prishtina in Kosovo, Kejdis met Agron Sopaj, whose parents had both been killed in 1999 during the war. "God worked to open Agron's heart to Christ," says Kejdis. "Amazingly, now Agron has become the first Kosovar staff member with Cru and is being trained at the University of Shkoder, where I studied in Albania."
As a Kosovar himself, Agron can address his own culture's unique barriers to Christianity better than a missionary from another country. For example, some Kosovars believe that Christianity is a Serbian religion, and therefore reject it immediately. Agron's Kosovar citizenship forces people to consider an alternative to this belief-that perhaps there is a universal need for Jesus Christ.
And so the strategy continues, stretching farther and farther away from a seemingly impossible beginning on a college campus. In just 14 years, Albania was transformed from a Communist country with only 16 known followers of Jesus to a missionary-sending country.
No dictator could keep God out of Albania. And the Albanians won't keep God to themselves.
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