Reluctant refugees. That's what Albania Mission Pres. Laurel L. Holman, his wife, Sister Louise Holman, and 33 other missionaries became March 14-15 as they were safely evacuated from Albania during the throes of civil unrest.
The Albanian capital of Tirana slid into chaos Thursday, March 13, after weeks of violence, sparked by the collapse of high-risk investment schemes of the government in which many families lost money. News reports described widespread looting and people with guns - many of them youngsters - who roamed the streets while firing wildly into the air with weapons stolen from abandoned military depots. Americans were ordered out of Albania on Friday, March 14. Missionaries in the Albania Tirana Mission were among refugees evacuated by military personnel.The whole experience can be called nothing short of high drama: Missionaries heard weapons being fired; they were airlifted by helicopter from the U.S. embassy compound at Tirana and were transported aboard a U.S. Navy ship across the Adriatic Sea to Brindisi, Italy. Yet nothing was as powerful as the quiet assurance that the Lord had them in His watchful care throughout the whole ordeal. Of this, President Holman and his fellow missionaries testified Sunday morning, March 16, at a special sacrament meeting in a tourist hotel set among olive groves in Martina Franca, about 25 miles from Brindisi.
Two members of the Seventy went to Brindisi to meet with the missionaries and help smooth their abrupt "transfer" from Albania. Within hours after the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve called for the missionaries to leave Albania, Elder Neil L. Andersen, first counselor in the Europe West Area presidency, and Elder F. Enzio Busche, second counselor in the Europe East Area presidency, were en route from their areas' headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, to Brindisi. Matthew Mathias, who speaks fluent Italian, traveled with them to provide assistance.
Leopoldo Larcher, the Europe West Area service center manager in Italy, had been notified to anticipate the missionaries' arrival and to prepare necessary arrangements for accommodations and other needs. Details were sparse. At first, Church officials were told that the missionaries would be taken straight from Brindisi to Rome. Later, however, Elders Andersen and Busche learned that they were not required to continue to Rome.
"We were unable to contact the local members," Elder Andersen said, "but the Lord's hand was at work. Unknown to us, Lt. Col. Bill L. Cochran, a member of the Church from Hill Air Force Base in Utah who was in the area on temporary assignment, was directly involved in receiving those coming from Triana. He recognized the missionaries as they arrived at the Brindisi Airport by helicopter from the naval ship, and he and another military member of the Church immediately watched over them."
Elder Andersen said that Brother Larcher had arrived in Brindisi and went quickly to the port, believing that the missionaries would be coming in by sea. After waiting a while, he felt impressed to return to the airport, thinking that at least he would be there when Elders Andersen and Busche arrived. "He returned to the airport just as Col. Cochran was hoping for help in knowing what to do with the missionaries," Elder Andersen said. "Brother Larcher was joined by Carmels Vergari, president of the Brindisi Branch of the Puglia Italy Stake, and Vito Greco, the elders quorum president.
"Brother Larcher was able to relate that we did not want the missionaries continuing on to Rome. Col. Cochran suggested hotel arrangements near the airport, and the missionaries were transported there for a good night's rest."
When Elder Andersen and Elder Busche arrived in Brindisi at 11:30 p.m. March 14, they learned that the missionaries from Albania were safely in Brindisi - all except Pres. Holman and Elder Jozef Szamosfalvi. The fact that Elder Szamosfalvi, a Hungarian serving as Pres. Holman's assistant, did not have a U.S. passport caused them to remain at the embassy compound in Tirana after the other missionaries were evacuated. (See article on this page.)
Not until the next morning, Saturday, March 15, did anyone from the Church hear from Pres. Holman and Elder Szamosfalvi. Elders Andersen and Busche, on their way to meet with the missionaries at the hotel near the airport in Brindisi, received on a cellular phone a call from the Italy Catania Mission informing them that Pres. Holman had telephoned that office. He was at the airport in Brindisi. Elders Andersen and Busche instructed their taxi driver to go to the airport. "To our great delight, not only was Pres. Holman there, but so was the missionary from Hungary, Elder Szamosfalvi," Elder Andersen said. "You can only imagine the emotion of the next few minutes."
He said that the missionaries were gathered in a meeting room at the hotel. Told that two members of the Seventy had arrived, they began to sing "Called to Serve." They were happy to see the two General Authorities as they entered at the back of the room. As the missionaries stood and turned around, they then saw that their mission president and missionary colleague had arrived, also. Needless to say, everyone in the room was overcome with emotion. They struggled to complete the hymn.
"There were tears, hugs, smiles and prayers of thanksgiving," Elder Andersen said.
Elders Andersen and Busche feel that the timeliness of Pres. Holman's telephone call from the airport to the Italy Catania Mission headquarters was more than coincidence. "It was as if the Lord allowed His servants to deliver this miracle, though He had surely brought the miracle to pass," Elder Andersen said.
At the meeting with the reunited mission leader and missionaries, Elder Busche expressed the love and concern of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve and of all the Church. He quoted D&C 115:6, saying that the purpose of a stake was "for a defense and for a refuge from the storm." The Puglia Italy Stake, including the vicinity of Brindisi, had been created just one week earlier. Elder Busche told the missionaries that they were "safe in a stake of Zion."
The missionaries were relocated Saturday afternoon to the hotel at Martina Franca, which provided a tranquil setting for their special testimony meeting Sunday, March 16. On Saturday afternoon and evening, Elders Andersen and Busche met with the missionaries individually, listening to each tell of his or her thoughts, feelings or reflections on the events of the past few days.
"This was an `emotional debriefing,' " Elder Busche said. "We weren't looking for facts and numbers. We wanted to know where their hearts were, how they felt about what had happened, what their own personal situation was."
What they found, Elder Busche said, were "33 missionaries who had a tremendous level of trust in the Lord. They demonstrated no fear, no panic. There was a reluctance to leave the country because they love the people so much."
The General Authorities listened to the missionaries express concern about "the wonderful people" of Albania. Several missionaries left behind investigators who had set baptismal dates.
At the meeting Sunday morning, missionary elders blessed and passed the sacrament; the hymn had been "In Humility Our Savior." Elder Andersen spoke about the missionary labors of Paul and the lessons for the missionaries coming from Albania. Elder Busche bore powerful testimony of the importance of the gospel in today's world. He traced the recent history of Albania and the noble effort of those very missionaries in bringing the truth of Jesus Christ to that country. "We each must experience the real, living Christ," he said. He told them of when missionaries were taken for a few weeks from his city when he was investigating the Church in Germany.
In bearing her testimony, Sister Holman said, "Our [mission] theme was `Faith in Every Footstep,' but we didn't expect it to be so real."
Elder Dennis C. Hess, a doctor from Provo, Utah, serving a humanitarian mission in Albania with his wife, Sister Noreen A. Hess, said, "We get the idea that when we take the first step we know where we are going. Sometimes our path takes us through difficult steps."
Elder Mark Stringham of Provo, Utah, said, "I wouldn't care what happened to me, as long as I know that I have touched someone's life with the truth."
Throughout the weekend and the next few days, many missionaries expressed sorrow at having to leave their "beloved Albania."
On Monday, March 17, the missionaries were taken to Rome. Some left for new mission assignments that day, while others awaited assignments to missions elsewhere in Europe and the British Isles.
Being "split up" was a sorrowful event. It was more difficult, some said, than being in the midst of the turmoil in Albania. But one missionary seemed to express the underlying feeling of all the missionaries who had been serving in Albania. "I love the Albanians," said Sister Heather Corrigan of Orem, Utah, "but I am still the Lord's servant wherever I am sent. I can serve Him anywhere."