The story on an Albanian atheist
Interview with Pastor Gani Smolica
God has done a remarkable work in the country of Albania. Gani Smolica was caught up in it from the beginning….
Gani was born in Peja, Kosovo in 1958. His family were Albanian Muslims, but at school, being part of the former Yugoslavia, he was taught atheistic Marxism. He studied English Language at university and, as a good student, was invited to become a member of the Communist Party. It was an offer you could not refuse. So he went to Communist Party meetings, but at home he observed the Muslim feasts, though he did not really believe in God at all.
At the university of Pristina he met his wife Adila. They worked as teachers and Gani would also ‘moonlight’, providing subtitles for films and TV series (including Dallas and some John Wayne films!). But then God stepped in.
EN: How did you find Christ?
GS: One day, as my wife came to the end of her university course, I went to the university to find out about the time of her last exam. There I saw an Englishman standing among the people trying to speak seemingly with his hands and his feet — he could not speak Albanian. So I just tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Can I help you?’ Stephen Bell was his name. He had come from Manchester. He was a Christian missionary. Of course, he couldn’t say that in a Communist country. He had come to study Albanian. I helped him with the bureaucracy and we got to know him. He would come to our house to visit. That caused problems. The police came to me suspecting he was a spy.
Anyway, Stephen was a good missionary. He started talking to me about God. I was an atheist, a teacher, I had a family. ‘What do I need God for?’ I thought. But Stephen saw that I would like to improve my English. He gave me a New Testament to read. I thought, ‘Okay, anything in English helps’. But when I read it, God spoke to me.
I thought I could read it and it wouldn’t affect me. But it really did. One night I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about this God-man who came and died for us. God really broke me. ‘Gani, what’s happened to you?’ people began to say. And six months later my wife became a Christian too. This was in 1987. We experienced opposition from our family and local people after. They could not understand what had happened to us. Had we become Catholic? Were we Serbs?
EN: How did you get involved in Albania?
GS: We had started to attend a little church. There were other missionaries there who had really come to Kosovo hoping one day get into Albania. I remember going to the border of Albania with them to pray. In 1991 the prayers were answered. Communism broke and Albania opened.
So Stephen Bell left Kosovo with other missionaries to go into Albania. Being Albanians ourselves, we had always looked upon Albania as a kind of ‘promised land’. The Party always told us that Communism was blossoming there and that it was a wonderful place. But when we went to visit Stephen there in 1992 we could not believe the poverty. We sat down and cried.
Stephen was in Tirana, the capital. Trans World Radio had been broadcasting into Albania, and Stephen, working with European Christian Mission, tried to visit and gather those who had responded to the broadcasts. About 200 people came in November 1992. But at that time Stephen and I also visited an orphanage down south. It was run down, the children cried, they only had some porridge to eat. It was terrible. One night, as we heard the children crying, Stephen said: ‘Listen, I need someone to help me. Would you consider coming?’
Kosovo was rich compared to Albania. To take our three children and move to Albania… I did not know how Adila would react. But having prayed she said: ‘This is a call from God. I want to come and help here’. Next day we walked by the beach with Stephen. He asked: ‘When are you coming? Six months? Two years?’ ‘No’, said Adila, ‘we are coming now.’ I was amazed!
People at home thought we were crazy. Our little church couldn’t support us. But they had a service for us on Thursday evening and on Friday morning we got a truck with our belongings and followed Stephen to Albania.
EN: What was it like? How did the churches grow?
GS: To begin with we had a bad time. Everything was different. The poverty was hard. The schools had no glass in the windows. One of our daughters came home crying and said: ‘That’s not a school, it’s a prison! Why did you bring us here?’
But God planted a church in Tirana which I became the pastor of. I grew with the church. I had no theological training, so I had to teach the church what I was learning. We had groups in other towns and I would try to get around to these groups each week and teach them. We organised church in Tirana on Saturday night. I would get the 6 o’clock bus on Sunday morning. It was a three-hour drive stopping everywhere to cover the 100km to get to the next group. Adila was alone with the children for three days most weeks as I travelled round. Often I was studying on the bus! But because I could speak English I had some English commentaries to help me.
In 1997 I started at the Albanian Bible Institute for three years. That helped. You did a week at the Institute and then two weeks working back in the churches. Stephen took on the church at Fier. Then a church started in Lujni. To begin with the churches grew rapidly, but then it settled down. Now there are Bible churches, of one sort or another, in most towns in Albania.
EN: In 1998 / 99 the war in Kosovo started. How did that affect you?
GS: In Kosovo houses were burned and communities devastated. A lot of displaced people came across to Tirana. Many of our family and friends came to us. In a two-bedroom apartment we had 35 people staying with us! But people prayed. God sent money and in a few months we had rented other houses for them. The Albanian Christians were very friendly and gave lots of practical help. Through this five became Christians.
Of course, when the war was over they had to go back home. So we got in five vans to drive them back. Their homes had been burned and they had to stay there and rebuild as they could. We went back to Albania, but we felt then that God was calling us to go home. So in June 2000 we moved back to Kosovo. We now lead a church in Peja. It is a church which used to be led by Simo Ralevic. In those days only Serbs would go there, but now it is different. Back in 1969 as a boy I used to throw stones at that church. Now I’m the pastor!
EN: How is that church now?
GS: Since 2002 it has been growing. That is mostly through friendship. Open-air work would cause trouble there because of the Muslim presence. At present we have about 40 to 50 local people coming.
My fellow elder, Esat, was converted through the war in Kosovo. He was a famous weight lifter, champion of all Yugoslavia, who became a rich businessman. When the war started, he refused to leave, though his family fled to Albania.
But the Serbs came and threatened him, shot his dog and beat him up outside his big house on the hill above Peja. They allowed him to leave and he eventually got to Tirana. He found his family there. They thought he had been killed so they were overjoyed to see him. Now he had to feed them.
This rich man was reduced to poverty. Overcoming his pride he eventually came to get food from the Baptist Centre. He wanted to work for the food. His weight lifting came in useful. He ended up unloading trucks of 50 kilo sacks of flour. But at the end of each day he saw the volunteer helpers getting together to read the Bible and sing praises. He was intrigued. It was through that he became a Christian.
EN: How can readers help?
GS: They can pray for us. They might want to help financially. We host summer teams which go out to young people and others. If they want to, they could get in touch with me and get involved.