A vision burns brightly at the heart of OM Albania’s special needs ministry – that all people, including the disabled, should have the chance to meet Jesus and experience God’s love. The disabled young people who come to the weekly outreach meeting called Sweet Mess with their families, are some of the most marginalised people in society. As elsewhere in the Balkans, lack of exposure and prejudice lead many people to regard disability of all kinds as a matter of stigma and shame, underscored by a lack of state provision in a developing economy. For example, UNICEF revealed in 2014 that of the 18,000 children in Albania registered as disabled –15,000 received no education at all (UNICEF, 2014).
Sweet Mess (‘Rrëmujë e ëmbël’, in Albanian) is hosted by a local church and OMers for the 10 families in their community who each have a special needs family member. Like a messy-church, Sweet Mess is full of fun, crafts, Bible stories, prayer, songs, a puppet and dramas, along with a tasty meal for all to share. The event is a rare opportunity for these families – an oasis from a culture which defines and limits their daily lives. Here they can feel loved by God and His people: valued and equal.
Fisnik* aged 27, his mother Linda* and 17 year-old brother Dritan* are regular, enthusiastic attenders at Sweet Mess. The family was invited by OM team member Lisi after a ‘chance meeting’, which almost didn’t happen.
Lisi enjoyed growing up near the Austrian Alps and sometimes needs to get away from the hot dust and concrete of the city suburbs in Albania where she lives. “I need to see green, not buildings!” she smiles, describing the day she first met Fisnik and his mother. That day was her final attempt to find a beautiful lake a few kilometres out of town, having gotten lost on four previous occasions. On that one last try, she found it.
Reaching the shore of the lake, Lisi drank in the view from the side of the road. She was not alone; outside a nearby house, next to a roadside stall, a young man sat hunched in a wheelchair. An older woman, evidently the stallholder, stood by him, taking a break from her work to enjoy the scenery. Lisi could see that the young man had profound physical and learning disabilities, and when Lisi introduced herself, he smiled broadly, but could only respond with unintelligible sounds. The woman said that he was her son, Fisnik; her name was Linda.
Fisnik’s severe disabilities mean he has been almost house-bound from childhood, placing huge demands on his parents and siblings to care for him. As a member of OM’s special needs ministry, Lisi perceived the sheer isolation of this disadvantaged family. She decided to invite Linda and Fisnik to Sweet Mess, But sudden doubt and shyness seized her. “They wouldn’t want to come, and, anyway, it would be too much hassle for us to come out here for them,” she reasoned, and without making the invitation, went off for a walk round the lake.
On her return about thirty minutes later, the mother and son were still there. Again, Lisi experienced the inner conflict whether to invite them or not. She forced herself to do so, recognising it as a spiritual battle. Two days later, Linda got in touch, and she and her two sons have been attending Sweet Mess ever since. It’s a bit of a drive out on a pot-holed road for the OM team to collect them from their village, and time-consuming to help Fisnik into the car, but nobody minds the extra effort involved.
Looking back on that day by the lake, Lisi’s eyes fill with tears, as she quotes from Psalm 72 about how God delivers the needy who cry out and the afflicted who have no-one to help, because they are precious in His sight. “One of the helpers from the local church put it like this,” she concluded. "She said to me, ‘you thought you went searching for the lake, but really it was God searching for Fisnik.’”
* names changed to protect privacy
Praise God for the way He led Lisi to meet Fisnik and his family. May God guide the OM team and church members to more families like this to become believers in Jesus through “Sweet Mess”. May the hearts of all who attend be open to respond to the gospel.
Fisnik’s family has had contact with the gospel, and the OM team would like to do a Bible study at Fisnik’s house with the mother and maybe Fisnik’s brother and the neighbour lady. Pray for their neighbour who would like to know more about Jesus but whose family would oppose this.
Pray that the OM team receives enough financial support to cover transport costs and for equipment like wheelchairs which these poor families struggle to obtain.