Passing On The Torch by Fr. Luke Veronis, OCMC Missionary in Albania

Friday, May 14, 2004

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well” (2 Timothy 2:1-2).
 
Saint Paul’s words of counsel to his spiritual child and disciple Timothy offer a very important starting point for all long-term missionaries who enter the field. From the moment that we enter a new country and live among a different people, we must never forget one of the most important goals of our ministry – to work ourselves out of a job!
 
That’s right, from the start we need to think of the end. Our purpose for entering the field is precisely to find people open to the Gospel, who will grow in their knowledge, relationship and commitment to Jesus Christ and His Church, and who will eventually take over whatever we do. We need to raise up “faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”
 
God calls long-term missionaries to be wise parents who offer their spiritual children two of life’s greatest gifts, roots and wings. First, we must cultivate and plant solid roots in young believers – roots which will ensure that these tender trees grow firmly founded in Jesus Christ and His Orthodox Church, roots which help one to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). This is the beginning. The time comes, however, when the missionaries need to understand that they have fulfilled this goal. We then must learn to respect our young disciples by allowing them to use their wings and fly on their own, even though they may make mistakes. Too often missionaries don’t know when to leave, or when to acknowledge that their spiritual children have grown up and are ready to take responsibility themselves. If we have trained them well, even their mistakes will be a part of their ongoing learning and growing process.
 
St. Paul exemplified this teaching so well during his three famous missionary journeys. He traveled throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia (modern-day Turkey and Greece), together with his co-missionaries and young disciples, planting churches and raising up indigenous leaders. One of St. Paul’s most amazing accomplishments was the fact that after only 8-12 years of missionary work, he could say that “from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum I have finished preaching the gospel of Christ” (Romans 15:19b). There was no more work for him to do in these vast parts!
 
This is not to say that all of these lands were Christianized. Surely not! Christians made up only a tiny minority in these regions by AD 58. The important fact, however, was that St. Paul had founded enough churches and trained an adequate amount of young leaders to feel comfortable to move on to other places. His disciples would continue his work of evangelism, while he moved on “to preach the Gospel not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on another’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him shall see, and those who have never heard of him shall understand’” (Romans 15:20-21).
 
Leader Training in Albania
His Beatitude Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana and all Albania shared a similar vision with us when we first arrived in Albania in 1994. I began teaching at the seminary, working with university students and helping to direct the overall youth ministry. My wife, Presbytera Faith, began with various ministries, but eventually settled in as overseer of the National Children’s Office and Good Shepherd Girls’ Summer Camp Program. The Archbishop told us to train and groom promising Albanian men and women who would eventually take over our ministries. “One day you will leave,” he counseled us. “Who is going to continue when you are gone?”
 
Over the past 10 years, we have worked with many wonderful young people. We have seen some develop into faithful, dynamic, committed leaders. With others, we have put in much time and effort, only to be disappointed. Yet even with those who are not serving Christ as we had hoped, we still believe that the seeds of faith dwell within them and we pray that these seeds may one day sprout forth.
 
Our most visible fruit has been at our Good Shepherd Girls’ Summer Camp Program. Each year, 300 young girls, ages 10-24, come to three different 12-day camps. We offer an outstanding program of spiritual activities, arts and crafts, sports, and creative entertainment. To properly minister to 100 girls at each camp, we need a dynamic team of 25 women leaders at each camp. Thank God, our “Resurrection of Christ” Theological Academy has served as a wonderful training ground for these leaders. We have equipped the young women who have studied at our school with a proper theological foundation and spiritual life to minister to the campers, as well as provided them with camp-specific training before camp begins.  
 
Today our young women basically run the camps themselves! In fact, with each passing year, we have seen our role diminish to the point where our main function with the camp program is simply to offer some guidance in the preparations, intervene when serious problem arise, and act as a listening and encouraging ear to the leaders.
 
Our theological academy receives the fruit of these camps when we see more and more enthusiastic, talented women applying at our school. Today almost all of our female seminarians were once in our camping program.
 
Another positive model has been in the leadership of the National Children’s Office and Tirana University Ministry. In our Children’s Office, two of our outstanding seminary graduates have assumed the role of coordinators. Under Presbytera Faith’s guidance, Ana Kercyku and Gabriela Bezhani have blossomed into responsible, creative, and hard-working servants. They very capably organize dozens of Easter and Christmas retreats, 10 summer day-camps, and a Sunday School Program in Tirana.
 
The University Ministry is coordinated by two other seminary graduates, Ana Baba and Deacon Emanuel Lusha. Both work closely with university students, holding numerous weekly dormitory Bible Studies, catechism classes, prayer services, and pastoral visits, as well as organizing special events throughout the year. I see the influence these young leaders have in the lives of many students, and I remember my early years in Albania when I had the time to do the same with the students. They have learned well that the best way to touch the lives of students is to enter into a deep relationship with them and be there for them in their times of question, doubt and need.
 
We began a new ministry in leadership development this past year after hearing our leaders talk about the need to be nourished themselves on a regular basis. We conduct a weekly Bible study focusing on spiritual growth and leadership, and have held numerous day retreats for small groups of leaders. Some have expressed how “these periodic retreats and weekly study groups have helped us grow in ways we’ve never experienced before.” We have tried to help these leaders discover how they can nourish and support one another.
 
“And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.” As St. Paul passed the torch of faith onto Timothy, we also have tried to pass the torch on to young Albanian leaders. Please pray for these young men and women as they themselves begin the search to find disciples themselves and to cultivate another generation who will carry the torch forward!
 
 
To learn more about Fr. Luke and Presbytera Faith Veronis and how to support their mission work please go to www.ocmc.org. Checks can be sent for the Veronis family to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center at PO Box 4319, St. Augustine, Fl, 32084-4319. To contact the Mission Center call 1-877-GO-FORTH (463-6784) or (904) 829-5132 or e-mail at missions@ocmc.org.