By Jim Cobban, Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Middletown, Kentucky
In late Winter the search begins for a summer mission project for the adult construction team from the First Baptist Church of Middletown, Kentucky. While searching through the CBF website looking for stateside mission requests, Jim Cobban, the church’s pastor, came across the names of Bob and Janice Newell, CBF field personnel in Athens, Greece. They were searching for American Christians with specific skills: a financial planner/debt counselor; a computer skills teacher; and a social worker. All of these needs are for a one-week mission project at PORTA, the Albanian cultural center in Athens. It was a “Eureka” moment!
The following December, after a ten-day pilgrimage in the Holy Land, pastor Jim Cobban stopped in Athens for a few days. At a meeting at PORTA, Jim and Bob discussed how the First Baptist Church could partner with the Newells in their outreach to the Albanian population in Greece. Without a “missions budget,” funding would have to be creative but both men were trusting God to supply the needs of PORTA. Returning home, Jim began to share with the church his dream of sending First Baptist members overseas to use their unique gifts in missions and ministry.
Doug and Kim Gaskins are graduates, teachers, and coordinators of Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” Through that program Doug and Kim have managed to become completely debt-free. They were the ideal couple to be the first ones sent from First Baptist on this mission. At the same time, the Newells dreamed of providing a workshop to Albanian immigrants living in Athens to help them learn to manage their money, live on a tighter budget, and still find financial freedom.
The Albanian population in Athens consists mostly of young adults who grew up under the oppressive Communist regime in their home country. Insulated from the world press, few Albanians had any idea how spiritually, financially, and morally depressed their country was. Atheism was the state religion and many churches were destroyed, converted into office buildings, or abandoned. When the last vestiges of Communism fell in 1992, the Albanian economy collapsed. Many young adults dreamed of leaving to find a better life for themselves and their children.
Athens sits just 310 miles from Tirana, the capitol of Albania. Although the cities are close geographically, the cultural divide is deep. Greeks and Albanians speak different languages; have different cultural heritages; and different religious histories. Greeks and Albanians have been rivals in southeastern Europe through much of their history. Albanians can be legal immigrants in Greece, but discrimination against Albanians in housing, employment, religion, and education is legal and acceptable.
Doug and Kim left Louisville on Wednesday, November 3, 2010, to travel to Athens. Their task was to teach financial planning at PORTA, a meeting place for the Albanian community, in Athens. Founded by the Newells, PORTA is housed in a former residence in downtown Athens. Completely renovated, the center hosts classes in areas like computers and English plus social events to reach out to the Albanians. It is a refuge for many Albanians struggling to survive emotionally, financially, and spiritually in a struggling Greek economy.
On Friday evening, more than sixty Albanians came to the workshop translated into Shqip, the Albanian language. On Saturday, because of a death in the Albanian community, about forty came for the second half of the workshop. Over the two days, the participants heard of ways to live debt-free, the dangers of credit abuse, how to live on a budget, and many tips on making a Euro stretch. In the audience were both Christians and atheists. Hosted by young Albanian couples, the workshop gave Bob and Janice the opportunity to mentor indigenous Christian leadership in the Albanian community.
Doug and Kim Gaskins returned to report to their own church of their experiences in international missions. And the church was able to hear a first-hand report of how God could use the talents of First Baptist Church to build a Christian community on the other side of the globe. The church is hoping next to send a Christian social worker and his wife, who is a certified music therapist, to reach out to the Greek social system and a husband-wife team of computer scientists to enhance Albanian job skills. He is an engineering professor at the University of Louisville and she is a UL masters graduate in computer science and an IT professional. Bob and Janice Newell will be stateside in December, 2011, and the church is planning to host them in Kentucky. They may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.