TIRANA, Albania — What does a visit from an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mean to the Church members in Albania?
Tirana Albania Stake President Jetmir Hysi knows the answer. “They need this spiritual jolt, this shakening.”
Like the Islamic call to prayer that echoes on loudspeakers seven times a day across Tirana, this ministry visit from Elder David A. Bednar was a call to the members to strengthen their covenant connection with the living Christ.
This year marks 30 years since missionaries first came to Albania, and next year marks the 30th anniversary of the official beginning of the Church here. President Hysi hopes the milestone will become a way for Church members to share with others around them more about what they know.
And on Tuesday evening, Oct. 11 — in a gathering so large there was not enough room for everyone to sit — the Albanian Saints listened to Elder Bednar testify that the Church has been restored, priesthood authority is on earth, and God’s plan of happiness is for everyone.
“When we are yoked with the Savior through our covenants, we are never alone. And we will have strength beyond our own,” Elder Bednar said. “It is not about the covenants alone, it is about the living Christ and how His power comes into our life.”
He told them being members of the Church is not just something they do. ”The gospel is about becoming new creatures in Christ. So always put Him first. It is not about the Church as an organization, it is about Him.”
Roza Gjini — one of the earliest members of the Church in Albania — listened carefully to Elder Bednar’s remarks and appreciated how he expounded upon doctrine, including “how we can find our eternal happiness and how we are supposed to have Jesus Christ in our life, every day,” she said.
Elder Bednar came to Albania during a five-country ministry tour of Central Europe. One of the hymns that was sung during the devotional was “Eni Shenjtor” — “Come, Come Ye Saints,” which is a song many might associate with pioneers in wagons across the American Plains. But this is a song also for these pioneers in Albania to come and to gather.
Touching her heart, Gjini said, with her son Roan translating, “We were full of the Holy Ghost tonight.”
Sister Susan Bednar had borne her testimony in French while speaking to the Saints in Switzerland earlier in the trip. While Sister Bednar admitted she didn’t know how to say anything in Albanian, she said she could speak the language of love.
“And I want to tell you how much I love you, and how excited I am to be with you as you gather together,” she said.
Sister Bednar told the members she hoped they felt the power of testimony and of belonging, and that they saw the strength of numbers in the large, full room.
“Thank you for being pioneers in Albania. Pioneers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
President Hysi’s story
This country in southeastern Europe’s Balkan Peninsula borders Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. With the Albanian Alps and the Adriatic Sea, it is a beautiful land that shook off communism in the early 1990s, paving the way for missionary work and the gospel to be preached.
Albania has about three million people, with about one million of those in the Tirana area. While the majority religion is Muslim, the records of the Church of Jesus Christ have grown to include 3,280 people.
Many are first-generation members who are now having children and raising them in the gospel, like President Hysi. He met the missionaries as a young man when he came to Tirana to go to a prestigious technology school. The Book of Mormon was not in Albanian at that time, but he was fascinated by the English in it. After being baptized, his grandmother told him, “I have seen something change in you. Whatever this is, this must be good.”
President Hysi went to Brigham Young University and eventually married a young woman from Las Vegas, Nevada. They settled in Nevada, and were comfortable. But he kept feeling that they should move to Albania. After three years of such promptings, they finally moved to Albania in June 2017.
Meanwhile, they had been married for nine years and were not able to have children, despite trying everything they could. Within a month of moving back to Albania, the Hysis found out they were finally expecting their first child.
“That was a huge answer to me that God blesses us when we listen to Him,” President Hysi said. “He makes everything possible if we let Him prevail in our life. Since this time I stopped making plans. I realized that His plan is better than any plan I can come up with.”
The Hysis’ daughter is now 4 years old, and they just had a son three weeks ago.
Pioneers in Albania
When Dorjana Veliu saw her childhood friend again after he had served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she asked him about the gospel.
“I had a feeling I liked it,” she said. “Every day the feeling got stronger, this is where I belong.” That childhood friend — Erald Veliu — baptized her, and later married her. He had learned about the gospel as a young man, when the missionaries invited him to play basketball.
Dorjana and Erald Veliu were the first Latter-day Saint Albanian young couple to be sealed in the temple, doing so on Aug. 3, 2005, in Frankfurt, Germany. But ask the Velius if they consider themselves pioneers for the Church here, and they respond that others have done much more than them — they just want to be a beacon to guide others.
A plaque hangs in their home engraved with Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This determination for the Velius came about after hardships and obstacles. For a period of time, Erald Veliu was less active in Church as work kept him busy and he started slipping away.
But when his daughter turned 8 years old, she said to him that if he couldn’t baptize her, could he be ready to baptize her little brother when it was his turn. That night Erald Veliu turned his life over to God again.
Now he serves as first counselor in the stake presidency in the Tirana Albania Stake.
“There are three fundamental things we try to live our lives by,” he said. “First, we are children of our Heavenly Father. Second, He loves us all. And third, He knows better.”
Seasonal October rains fell on Skanderbeg Square in Tirana off and on throughout Oct. 11, but it did not deter missionaries in the Adriatic South Mission from filling the famous square and talking to people about the gospel. Skanderbeg Square is where people marched to end communism just over 30 years ago.
One of those missionaries was Elder Theodore Nilsson, from Los Angeles, California, who usually serves in Cyprus speaking Greek. “We had a different missionary with each language of the mission in each group today on the square. We talked to lots of people,” he said.
The mission covers Greece, Cyprus, Kosovo, Albania and North Macedonia. The
missionaries all traveled to Tirana to meet with Elder Bednar in a missionary meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Elder Bednar asked the missionaries to put into five words or less the answer to this question: “Based on what you have observed and felt, what will you do with what you have learned?”
For Elder Nilsson, those words were, “Stand up and be filled.”
For Sister Bailey Larsen from Mapleton, Utah, those five words were “Love, growth, action, commitment, eternity.” And Sister Abigail Barton, from Alpine, Utah, thought, “Follow the spiritual flow.”
Meanwhile, the words that entered the mind of Sister Annika Ballif from Danville, California, were, “Continue to search.” Because, she said, a person can keep learning and learning in the gospel.
As Elder Bednar conversed with the missionaries about teaching, testimonies, faith, agency, covenants and more, Sister Lindsay Musgrave from Wasilla, Alaska, felt promptings to help her in life when she returns home soon after her mission in Cyprus.
“Ideas like, what do I do when I get home? How can I create a strong family and raise good children in the gospel?” she said.
Sister Sydnie Zundel from Willard, Utah, felt blessed to hear from an Apostle in person. “He came all the way to Albania just to speak with us missionaries. I just didn’t think I would ever get this opportunity,” she said.
The future of the Church in Albania
Elder Carl B. Cook of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Lynette Cook, are traveling with the Bednars through Europe. The Cooks’ son served a mission in Albania from 2004-2006.
They felt touched to be with the Saints in a country their son loved, and they read a message from their son to the members — keep the faith and grow the Church in Albania.
Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy and the president of the Church’s Central Europe Area, said the Albanian Saints are some of the most faithful members attending the temple.
“There is a bright future for the Church here,” he said during the member devotional. “As you become a true covenant people, there will be nothing in this world that will be an obstacle for the growth of the Church for generations to come in Albania, even to worship in the temple even closer to you.”
President Hysi said Elder Bednar’s visit energized the members of the Church.
“Heavenly Father is always here with us, no matter the hardships or struggles we have been going through,” President Hysi said. “This is a testimony that He loves us, that He sent an Apostle to visit with us in Albania.”