Tirana’s Soup Kitchen

by Pauline Russell

When my husband, two children and I made the two-year commitment to become missionaries in Albania to open a soup kitchen in Tirana, we didn’t expect it would take a year and a half just getting it open. The most difficult part was not knowing how it was all supposed to work or even how many delays there would be. If someone tells you that a task will take eighteen months, you can feel peaceful because you have a goal in mind. But when it drags on continuously with no end in sight, you wonder if you are meant to do it at all. Such was our struggle to open the soup kitchen doors.

We arrived in June 2003. During the first three months, we settled in a bit and began to understand some of the challenges of living in Albania. In August we began to focus on our chosen ministry.

We toured our prospective building, assembled a committee and made a budget. We felt at last that we were “cooking with gas.” Our main obstacle was that the building assigned for the soup kitchen was being used by a school run by the church. We were assured that the school would to be out by September to start the new school year in their new, bigger facility, but September came and went – the new facility wasn’t ready!

We were wondering what we could tell our supporters at home who had been kind enough to send us here. What must they be thinking we are doing over here after so much time with nothing to show for it? Then finally, finally, the school moved. In August, eleven months late, the building was officially ours.

Now came the next step: outfitting the kitchen and dining rooms. This may sound easy – just buy a few tables and chairs and basic kitchen equipment. But in a country you do not know well, in a language you do not speak well, in a currency you are not familiar with, and in a country where basic supplies are hard to find, it was a daunting task. My husband George had countless meetings with people trying to find where to buy the best industrial refrigerator, stove and sink. Everything is hard to find and then a lot of bargaining has to take place to get the best price. We were not even able to see the tables and chairs before we purchased them because the place was so remote. The maker just described them to us. We saw what we had purchased only on delivery.

Everything happened in painfully slow steps. Things would be delivered and installed but then not work well – or not work at all. “Technicians” would have to come back to adjust or fix things. Just trying to get the radiators to work in the building on a consistent basis was a two-month ordeal, culminating with George siphoning out oil with a hose to put in new, fresher and less sediment-filled oil. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so cumbersome.

The author with her husband, George, their two children, and her mother

Another serious difficulty was the frequent lack of electric power. For three to four hours a day, there was no current to the building. He would then have to run the generator to get power, but the neighbors would be furious because of the noise the generator made. George was walking a tight rope, running the generator only when it was essential.

Yet little by little we made headway. Each problem was eventually solved. We saw our goal slowing coming into view.

Used to things happening quickly, we found ourselves attending a school of patience. We came to understand that the delays had a providential aspect. During the many months it took to get everything accomplished, our family was able to adapt more fully to this new environment and culture. Despite the fact that we are all human beings, we had a lot to learn about the way people live in Albania. The adjustment encompasses every aspect of life: shopping, keeping a household, going to church, driving, and communicating with others.

I used every bit of that year and a half to become more acclimated to life here. It was truly a blessing that setting up the soup kitchen took so long. I could not have handled the work we are now doing any sooner. I would have been overwhelmed.

On the 18th of January, 2005, the soup kitchen opened with a blessing from Papa Yanni Trebieka. Since then we have been serving from 60 to 70 people three meals a week.

Gradually we have developed a system to stave off anarchy. George now uses tickets to help keep everyone more orderly – Albanians are not known for standing in line and waiting their turn. It has worked wonderfully.

It is truly an amazing experience seeing all those people standing outside waiting to be fed who otherwise would have been hungry.

We try to reach out not only with food but with a smile and compassion. With lines of hungry, sometimes impatient people waiting to eat, there is always the danger of forgetting some of the basic rules of hospitality.

Sometimes it is our volunteers who give us the best example of what it means to welcome guests to a soup kitchen. I think of the nine children from the Home of Hope who came to visit and assist us one Saturday. After helping serve the food, they sang Albanian folk songs. Everyone loved it and actually began to stand up and clap, and then formed a small line and danced around the room. Some of the men were crying remembering other times, a different life, while others “cut the rug” (as my husband likes to say) and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. People who on occasion had seemed to me dirty, rude and aggressive suddenly became individuals with hopes, dreams and feelings.

As a result of that event, George and I try to provide enriching experiences for everyone involved.

The soup kitchen has now received two formal blessings. The first came from Papa Yanni Trebieka, one of the first men to be ordained priest after the Communist era ended. He was with us the day the kitchen opened. Then two months later the soup kitchen was blessed by Archbishop Anastasios, who afterward joined us for a meal. He stayed long enough to talk personally with many of the people present. The reality of finally sitting with him, and all the people he was so concerned to provide for, was fantastic.

Now a priest tries to come once or twice a week to bless the meal and be of some assistance to those who are interested. Occasionally the children from the Protag onist Orthodox School also come and give a program. Our visitors often get much more than a meal when they dine with us.

It takes time, but as the days pass you learn that each person has his or her own unique story as to why they are either out on the street with nothing and no one, or live in a rudimentary shelter with little to eat. One gentleman we often serve was imprisoned for eight years because of a picture he painted, a semi-nude woman that was deemed pornography by the government during the Communist era. His family deserted. He said he lost his mind being locked up. Even after his release, he was never the same. He has given George one of his paintings neatly rolled up in some newspaper.

Another of our guests loves to buy little cakes for our children, Christopher (age five) and Maddie (three). Probably there are people who wonder, “If he can buy cakes to give away, does he need to eat at the soup kitchen?” But what little he has, he has decided to give to my children – an awe-inspiring act.

Another man came from Bulgaria in hopes of a better life here, which unfortunately did not happen. He now collects aluminum cans which he sells for one cent apiece. Another guest, deeply depressed, who was married to an abusive husband who deserted her and her two small children. She cries profusely and kisses my hand – so thankful to have someone interested in her.

The soup kitchen experience is also wonderful for our children who see us as witnesses to a life of reaching out to people in need. Christopher says that he wants to give away some toys to children who might need it. Yet he is also sometimes bewildered. On a number of occasions he has asked, “Why do so many old people come to our door?” In fact many of them are not as old as they look, but have extremely difficult lives.

We have found that running the soup kitchen isn’t just about the logistics of preparing and serving food to so many people. The greater responsibility is to show them the love and respect they greatly deserve, and to keep in mind that all those we serve are unique persons, loved by God and made in His image. It is a humbling challenge.

George and Pauline Russell have a web site: www.russellmission.org.