Balkans missionary forges local bond, spreads gospel here

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

More than 5,000 miles, a vast ocean and an even wider gulf of cultural and language barriers separate Sanford from Kosovo’s capital city of Pristina.

That distance, however, wasn’t enough to stop a connection from developing between the two cities — one that came about when an American man and an Albanian woman started attending the same church in Pristina.

Some time after Sanford’s Aaron Smith went to Kosovo nearly two years ago to spread the gospel through a music ministry, he met Adriana Sallahu, an organizer with Campus Crusade for Christ. And now Sallahu, a curly haired 29-year-old who goes by Diana and speaks fluent English, is in Sanford spreading the word about her work.

She’ll be at Calvary Missionary Methodist Church in Olivia at 6 p.m. Sunday and New Life Praise Church in Sanford at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Anyone and everyone is invited to come and hear what she has to say, said Ken Smith, Aaron’s dad, who is hosting Sallahu on her second trip stateside and first trip to North Carolina.

He said she has already spoken several times around town, and the audiences have seemed to love her story while also getting a sense that his son and Sallahu, who work with different groups and met through their church band, have their work cut out for them in Pristina.

“You’re talking about a city of 300,000 [total re sidents] and a couple hundred Christians, if that,” he said.

Most Americans know Kosovo as the war-torn region in the Balkans that the U.S. bombed in the 1990s, trying to stop the fighting and war crimes that erupted in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s disintegration following the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s much more stable now, Sallahu said, allowing missionaries to work in relative safety.

No official statistics are available on how much of the populace practices various religions, although Sallahu estimated that about 98 percent are Muslims or come from Muslim families. The area’s long history under the Ottoman Empire explains that, she said. Even she grew up reading the Quran.

“In Communism, no religion was allowed,” Sallahu said. “... After, my family said, ‘OK, we will be Muslims,’ but they didn’t know how. So I was a Muslim until high school, when my brother showed me a Bible and I converted.”

Not everyone can make such a life-changing decision, but she said she’s there for those who want to try. An untold number of students at the university where her group is based might want to convert to Christianity but ultimately don’t, Sallahu said.

“It’s hard for them to accept Christ because they have family and friends who are all Muslim, and they’re scared,” she said. “I had one student ask me for a Bible but say, ‘Can you cover it to make it look like something else? I don’t want my friends to know.’”

So she’s in Sanford — in between stops in Oklahoma and Tennessee — to make a plea to local Christians to pray for her and other Christians in Kosovo, and to help fund their efforts if possible. She said the attitude toward Christians isn’t outright hostile most of the time in Pristina, but they still rarely feel welcomed by the locals.

“They’d never do something obvious because the world is watching,” Sallahu said, noting Kosovo’s hotly debated push for independence in 2008 that divided the United Nations. “But they find other ways. We bought land for a church years ago, but the government keeps stopping us [from building the church], saying it’s land meant for something else.”

Smith said it’s odd that many in Kosovo are anti-Christian, because they have embraced other Western values. There’s even a monument to one former U.S. president in downtown Pristina consisting of a 25-foot banner, a larger-than-life statue and a major boulevard named for him.

“They have a huge statue of Bill Clinton because of the bombing he did there,” said Smith, who saw the statue in person when he went to visit Aaron recently. “Yeah, they love Americans, and especially [Clinton]. You won’t find that in America, but he’s there in Kosovo.”

That love for Americans, Smith said, makes him more comfortable about his son working as a missionary there. It also helps, he said, that the whole family gets to see and speak to Aaron weekly thanks to Skype — a piece of technology Smith said he’s probably going to have to use for some time.

“I think he has given his heart to that place, to Kosovo,” Smith said. “That’s where he’s going to be for a while. He really enjoys what he’s doing.”