In honor of Valentine’s Day, we are offering a series about those who return God’s Love to the community and the world through ministry and acts of service.
Dn. Stephanos and Dkn. Alexandria Ritsi arrived in Albania as long-term missionaries with Orthodox Christian Mission Center in April of 2013.
Tell us a little about how the two of you met?
Dkn. Alexandria: Dn. Stephanos and I met at Holy Cross – Hellenic College in 2008. It was the first week of classes. I was talking with some friends when I saw this guy walk past. It looked like he had soap on his arm. I mentioned it to him and he said, “It’s not soap!” He came closer and took off a big white bandage. Underneath was a crazy scar in the shape of an “S.” He said he got this scar from being bit by a shark in the ocean. After we met and started dating, I told all my friends and family that I met this awesome guy at Seminary named Stephanos and that he had gotten bitten by a shark! How cool! Needless to say, Stephanos forgot to mention one little thing to me (and it took him two weeks!): he was in fact, not bitten by a shark, but he had cancer. I was glad to know that all of the cancer was removed with two surgeries and he was cancer-free. Fast forward 6 ½ years later and we have been married for 4 years, serving as missionaries for almost 2 years and we are expecting our first child in April!
Tell us about your ministry and what is the most interesting part of it?
Dn. Stephanos: The most interesting part of this last year of ministry was Epiphany. There is a cultural memory that lies deep within the Albanian people that this is a Holy Day. The Cathedral was full for Liturgy. I was amazed at the constant flow of people who streamed into the Cathedral, coming to fill bottles with Holy Water and receive a blessing. Later that night while walking home, a group of men on the side of the street saw me in my robe and asked if we could sit and drink a cup of tea together. They all knew about Epiphany, but were from a Muslim background. Despite that, they wanted some of the Holy Water. We spent the next half-hour discussing Orthodoxy. What a blessing to be here!
How does this ministry impact others: the participants, and the church?
Dn. Stephanos: One the members of a Bible Study we lead, Kristi* is from a family of Muslim heritage. He was searching for the Truth. He heard about the Church and became involved in the Orthodox Student Ministry. He was baptized and became Orthodox. He was full of joy. But… he also was facing struggles. He had a job at a Halal Pizzaria (a halal restaurant is one that caters to the dietary restrictions of Muslims). His boss realized he had become Christian and he was fired. In addition he has to hide his faith from his extended family. So what is the impact of these ministries? People in Albania are searching for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. They are finding Him through the Church and its ministries, which proclaim, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Our ministries strive to find those who answer this transformational call and then to nurture, support, and guide them.
Where do you see this ministry going short or long-term goals?
Dn. Stephanos: Over the last few years, we have gathered young adults from around the country for weekend workshops about community mobilization, fundraising, and stewardship of the environment, The fruits of these trainings have been cleanups and fundraising initiatives carried out by the young adults around the country (In 2013-2014 the young adults raised over 5000$). This year, the focus will be on training the students in some basics of pastoral care. After this training we will fundraise for the Church’s soup kitchens.
As for our long-term goals, we hope to continue our work here in Albania by reaching out to those who are un-churched. We also hope to help Albania in its transition to a Church where it becomes self-supporting and even begins to do external missionary work of its own.
Tell us about your roles in the ministry?
Dn. Stephanos: I am a Deacon at the Cathedral in Tirana. Ministry as a deacon in Tirana involves serving liturgically, making sure everything is prepared for the Archbishop, and being prepared to help with conferences and meetings. In the Young Adult Office I work as a coordinator, which means doing everything from leading Bible Studies, to planning the national Summer Camps, to pastoral visits with the young adults. To see the Orthodox Church of Albania begin to awaken to missions, to begin to focus on Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations,” is a great blessing. To be a piece of that awakening by working alongside His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios is an indescribable joy.
Dkn. Alexandria: For me, ministry includes: teaching 6th and 8th grade English in Tirana, being the photographer for the Church, leading a book study for young women, and helping out with the young adult group. The highlight of my photographic journey was photographing the Consecration of the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. It was a momentous point in the history of the Orthodox Church of Albania and I was blessed to be a part of this event by documenting this history. From welcoming the Hierarchs at the airport to attending Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Anastasios’ meetings with the President and Prime Minister, it is a week I will never forget!
How does your relationship as couple play into your work with the ministry?
Dkn. Alexandria: As missionaries, having a strong relationship as a couple is very important. We are separated by thousands of miles and by multiple time zones from our families. Living in a foreign culture means we have to be ready to be each other’s entire support system. In addition, being a couple and serving together in the Orthodox Church of Albania is an integral part of our ministry. Because we are primarily ministering to the young adults, we try to be a good example of a husband and wife that are part of the Church and who serve together. In Albania, it is common for young adults to marry a non-Christian. By being an example of an Orthodox couple who works, serves, and worships together, we hope that our lives can help the young adults to see the value of finding a spouse who is striving to follow the same road towards God.
How can readers assist in this ministry?
Dn. Stephanos: OCMC is recruiting individuals who are called to this ministry. So, Pray. Examine yourself and ask, “Where is God leading me?” If that answer is missions, contact the missionary department at OCMC and begin the application process.
While it may not be possible for everyone to physically move to another country and share the Gospel in a remote land, readers and their parishes can be engaged in this work by becoming part of the team that sends us and other missionaries to fulfill this commandment. Readers can do this first by praying for the missionaries working around the world. Your prayers make a difference. There are countless situations where we have experienced the impact of your prayers.
In addition, as missionaries, parishes and individuals fund our salaries and ministries. We need people who can make a monthly support pledge to enable us to stay in Albania and serve the people here. Whether it is $5 or $100 per month, your support will add up over our two-year terms and will enable us to continue to share God’s message of peace and reconciliation in these times of transition and growth in the country of Albania.
(You can go to www.ocmc.org/theritsifamily and click support to fill out the online donation form)
* Name changed