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When Djola (pronounced Dee-ola) and Orjon (Or-yon) were growing up in their native country of Albania, there were no churches, mosques, or synagogues. In fact, all religious expression had been outlawed in Albania in 1967, when communist dictator Enver Hoxha declared that Albania was to be “the world’s first atheist state.”
Hoxha’s troops aggressively enforced the new edicts, closing all 2,169 houses of worship—even going so far as to destroy the buildings where worshipers had met. Any religious leaders who refused to denounce their roles were arrested or forced into hiding. Under the new laws, all religious practices were banned, and teaching children about God—or even giving your child a name that had its roots in any religious history—was illegal.
After the dictator died in 1985, Albania edged toward democracy, but Hoxha’s efforts to eliminate the influence of religion and faith from that land had largely succeeded, impacting the nation far beyond the years of his rule.
“I saw a church for the first time in my life,” Orjon says, “when I was a teenager—probably fourteen or fifteen years old. I knew nothing about God. I remember just one time hearing my mother, or maybe it was my grandmother, say something about God. Just mentioning God—nothing more than that—because they were afraid if a child went outside and said something about it, then everyone would be in trouble.”
For Orjon’s wife, Djola, the first awareness of God and His love for her came in the early 1990s, when she was around nine years of age. By that time, Albania’s borders had opened, and missionaries from England and the US had come to her town to hold children’s meetings, where games and stories drew her in.
“My grandmother would say, ‘Go. It will bring you good luck. There is a God. So you go and learn something,’” Djola recalls. “So I went.”
“The missionaries brought little books with stories—some in English and some in Albanian,” she said. “And that is how I first learned about God and Jesus.”
But even though religion was no longer forbidden, the people of Albania—including the children—had little interest in spiritual things.
“If I was reading one of the stories, my friends would say, ‘That’s weird. What’s wrong with you?’” Djola said. “And when you are young, you are influenced by what other people think.”
Even so, Djola continued to have a desire to read the Bible, and even after the missionaries were gone, she tried to pray as they had taught her.
“I was searching for God,” she says. “I knew He was there, but I didn’t know how to have a relationship with Him.”
In the following years, Djola began attending mass at a local Catholic church, trying to do all the “right” things, but she never felt, she says, “like I was doing it right. I still was feeling this emptiness.”
It was her sister-in-law, Orjon’s sister Ada, a Christ follower who lived in Sicily, who helped Djola understand that no matter how many times she said the rosary or prayed to the statues she had collected in her home—even going to church, and standing and kneeling at just the right moments—doing those things was not going to bring her into a relationship with God.
That truth began to sink in over time, as Djola came to understand more about who Jesus is and what He had done for her. But it was what she later saw God do in Orjon’s life that brought Djola’s own faith to a whole new level.
“I am so thankful for everything God has given me in my life, but especially for my husband,” she says. “I say that not just because I love him but because of the changes God made in his life. With Orjon, I had proof that God was listening and answering my prayers.
“He was not, let’s just say, the sweetest or the best guy ever. He was more on the bad side than the good side,” she says, “but I was always praying.”
“From the time I was a teenager,” Orjon says, “I went the wrong way. Even when I was eleven or twelve, sometimes instead of going to school, I would go outside to the newsstand and sell newspapers. Then I’d take the money to go to the movie theater to watch movies about Rambo and Chuck Norris and other guys with money and power and girls—and I wanted that.”
The theater was also the place where Orjon met men who lived in a dark and lawless world. “Because I was younger,” he says, “they would teach me. So I learned the wrong ways to get money and a lot of other bad things.”
Orjon admits that he was a bad guy—a tough guy who didn’t care who he hurt. But even while he continued to walk in darkness, God brought people into his life who pointed him to the light.
A brother who had been away in England for several years came back with a newfound faith in Jesus. “He would talk to me,” Orjon says, “about God and about Jesus, and about being a Christian. I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I just wanted him to stop.
“After that,” Orjon adds, “it was my sister, Ada, who became a Christian, while she was living in Italy. Every time she came home to Albania for Christmas or for a summer vacation, she was sounding the same as my brother—but she had even more understanding about Christ than he did.
“She knew how I was living and would tell me I needed to change. ‘Come to Christ,’ she’d say. ‘Come to church.’ And after talking to her, I would wonder, Why are two members of my own family so crazy? Why can’t they be smart like me?”
The darkness that dominated Orjon’s life even followed him into his sleep, where he would repeatedly dream of someone dressed in dark clothing who tried to strangle him as he slept. Another frequent and disturbing dream, Orjon says, was of “a deep wave of the ocean” that was coming toward him, threatening to drown him. He remembers that in the dream he would challenge the wave to just take him away and put an end to his sad, empty life, but it never did.
“Every time, I woke up,” he said, “but my life was still empty. I was still doing the bad things, and no matter what I did, no matter how much money or power I had, nothing brought me peace.”
Meanwhile, Djola continued to pray. “Whenever we were together, I would be praying, Please, God, if You really love me, protect him and save him and make him look at You. Just in his heart, plant a little mustard seed, because I know that if he has that, You will grow it into a big huge tree.”
That was Djola’s prayer for more than seven years.
It was during those years that Djola and Orjon—who had known each other since childhood—were married. They soon decided that life would be far better somewhere other than Albania. Even though both of them were educated, there was little opportunity for good jobs or for better lives for their two little children.
About that time they learned about the US government’s green-card lottery program. They decided to apply even though they were warned that there was almost no chance of being chosen, since people from all over the world would be competing for a very limited number of available visas.
Orjon and Djola can now see God’s hand in a whole series of events—beginning with the news that they had been chosen by the lottery process and granted green cards to immigrate to the United States.
As the couple prepared to leave Albania, Djola was still struggling in her faith. “I knew Jesus, and I could see that God was answering my prayers, but I still felt something was missing—like I needed someone else to make the connection to God for me.
In their last few days in Albania, Orjon’s sister came from Sicily to say good-bye.
Djola remembers her sister-in-law coming into their apartment and seeing the statues of St. Anthony and St. Francis and other saints that she had collected.
“She asked me, ‘Why do you need all this?’ And then she asked me to bring her the Bible, and she opened it and read to me from Psalm 115:4–9, where it says, “Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see. They have ears but cannot hear, and noses but cannot smell. They have hands but cannot feel, and feet but cannot walk, and throats but cannot make a sound. And those who make idols are just like them, as are all who trust in them. O Israel, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield.”
“I never even knew that was in the Bible,” Djola recalls. “Ada said I was doing the same thing as the Israelites when they made a golden calf to worship while Moses was talking with God up on the mountain, getting the Ten Commandments.
“That same day I took all the statues and threw them in the trash. Ada helped me understand that no statue or ritual makes us better in God’s eyes. Even coming to church doesn’t make us closer to God—unless we come really to worship, not just to check off that we were there.”
It was also that visit—during their final week in Albania—that Orjon faced the most important turning point in his life.
“During that visit,” he says, “both Djola and my sister were constantly talking to me about God.”
“We would all be in a room together,” Djola adds, “just talking about general things, and Ada or I would say, ‘Let me read aloud a little,’ and we would read from the Bible so he would hear it.”
“One night at our apartment,” Orjon says, “they were talking to me about God and were asking me about how I was doing and what I was feeling. I said, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t feel anything. I don’t have any more feeling than a concrete block or a piece of wood.’ And in that moment, Ada asked me to come with them to pray.
“I thought to myself, Just to make them both happy, I can do this. So I went along with them into the living room and sat down on the floor. My sister said, ‘Just close your eyes, and then I want you to remember what you are thinking and what you are seeing.’ Then they started to pray, and I can still remember the words.
“When they finished praying, Ada asked me what I had seen as they prayed, and I told her the truth—that I’d seen the old kind of soldiers—with helmets
“She said to me, ‘You are very close to the end. Just make your decision. Somebody does not want you to change.’”
Recognizing the battle that was going on inside her brother, Ada urged him to go to church. And he said yes—not really thinking it would make any difference.
“That was the Sunday,” Djola says, “that everything changed.”
Ada had investigated and found a small evangelical church right near where they lived. “We were living there and never knew anything about it,” Orjon says, “but she comes there from Sicily and finds this church for us to go to that Sunday!”
“That morning, we came in late—Ada with her two kids, us and our two little ones, his brother and his kids—and the worship service had already started,” Djola said.
“Everybody was worshiping and singing, and I was sitting,” Orjon remembers. “I had been to the Catholic church when Djola was baptized, and I felt nothing. But on this day, as people were singing all around me, I began thinking about all the bad things I had done in my life. I was remembering things from fifteen or twenty years earlier—back to my childhood. Things I had completely forgotten about. Bad things I had done. All the people I had hurt.
“For the first time in my life,” Orjon says, “I felt guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty!”
Sitting in that church service, his head in his hands, Orjon felt someone touch his arm. He didn’t know who it was, but Djola says it was an African woman who didn’t speak Albanian but began to pray for Orjon in English.
“I started crying, and I couldn’t stop. Just sobbing,” Orjon said. “At one point, the pastor came to me, and he said to me, ‘No matter what you’ve done, if you repent, God will forgive you, and those things will never come to His eyes again.’”
“I know God put those words in the pastor’s mouth,” Djola said, “because we had never talked to him before that moment. He was answering everything Orjon was crying for. That day God gave the pastor just the truth Orjon needed to hear.
“That was the Sunday that changed our lives,” she added. “For me, that was the first time I went into church free from statues and rituals. I could breathe in the Lord’s presence, which I had never felt before because I was so focused on the physical stuff—on statues or on always trying to do things just right. I realize now that any right thing I do comes from Him, not from me.”
For Orjon, that was the day, he says, that he began to feel, no longer like a concrete block or a piece of wood, “but like the feeling when you are first in love. You have something in here,” he said, pointing to the center of his chest. “Before that day, I was empty, but that day I began to feel.”
Coming to America
Just days later, Orjon, Djola, and their two children—two-year-old Abigeil and four-month-old Daniel—got on a plane, believing that God, in His grace, had provided the visa and opened the path before them.
The decision about where they would locate once they got to the United States had been settled when a cousin of Orjon’s, who lived in the Chicago area, graciously agreed to help them. They stayed in his home for their first three weeks in America. And even though Orjon’s cousin and his American wife were not church attenders, when the subject of church came up, they knew someone they thought might be able to help.
Soon after, Orjon and Djola met Miya, who happily brought them the following Sunday to Wheaton Bible Church—which marked another new beginning for the couple.
Joined to the Church
“We loved it from the first day,” Djola says. “It gives you a surprise when you walk in and it’s so huge, because I have never seen such a big church. Now I understand that even for USA people, this is a really huge church,” Djola says with a smile. “And on that first Sunday, Miya asked if we wanted to connect more with the church, and I said, ‘Yes, why not?’”
Miya took them into the Visitor Center and introduced to them to Marie Allison (Director of Connect Ministries), who asked Djola if she wanted to be part of a group where she could come and learn more about knowing God better. That sounded exactly like what Djola needed, so before she left the building that morning, she was signed up for the Alpha group. When she completed that class, it was followed by another Bible study with some of the ladies she’d met at Alpha. Later she joined the women’s Place 4 You Bible study and has been part of that weekly study ever since.
“I had tried to read the Bible before, but it was just a nice story. Now I can read and see how God is talking to me using certain verses at that moment and that day. That never happened before. So when I am afraid, I think, Wait a second, I don’t have to be afraid, because fear doesn’t come from the Lord, and He doesn’t want us to be afraid. That’s why He said in the Bible, like 365 times, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ And I can pray. And when I start to be afraid about something, I remember that the Bible tells us 365 times, ‘Do not be afraid.’”
Orjon, whose English was more limited when he first arrived, took a bit longer to join a study, but he has been a fast learner. He came to the Thursday evening Alpha group and has been part of three different ten-week Bible-study sessions since he’s been at Wheaton Bible Church.
“I was saved that day at church in Albania, and everything is done,” Orjon says, “but then, in my heart and in my life, I needed to put down the habits of thirty-five years of my life. “That is a hard thing to do, to stop growing in the bad things and all that was in my heart and in my mind. I cannot stop all the things that I have learned, and for a long time there was a fight inside of me.
“I remember one day at work, and inside I was fighting, I was angry, and I was tired—so tired that my head ached and my body was hurting. When it was time for my break, I went to my car, and all I could do was to pray. I was praying and praying and praying. Then, for maybe ten or fifteen minutes I fell asleep. When I woke up, there was no pain. No headache. No nothing. No medication. Just praying.
“From that day,” he says, “the anger inside is gone. I come from a country where you needed to fight for everything—to prove you are strong enough. And you need to be angry. I kept all that inside me. But now, I’m learning what it is to be part of the church, to learn about Jesus Christ and have a relationship with God and His people. I knew what it meant to live in the darkness, but I like learning about the light. Now I believe in Jesus, and I have the light now inside me.
“I thought I was strong before—a tough guy—but it is a stronger thing I’m finding in myself now.”
Thankful to God
Settling into their new lives in the US has brought some challenges, but Orjon and Djola are so thankful for all God has given to them.
“He has been so good to us,” Djola says. “We came from Albania with nothing. Just our clothes. And even though Orjon couldn’t speak English well, he was able to get a job, and now I’ve been able to start working too.
“There were times,” she adds, “especially that first year, when we could hardly make it to the end of the month, but God has always provided us with bread to eat and the clothes we needed to wear. We had nothing for our home, and the lady who brought us here to the church found everything from forks and spoons to sheets and comforters for us.
“Others from the church have opened their home to us and have become our second family,” Djola says. “We have an apartment and the material things we need, but we also have friendship—relationships.”
The lives of their children—Abigeil and Daniel—are so very different from the spiritual darkness of Orjon’s and Djola’s own childhoods. They are so happy that their children will grow up knowing about Jesus, free to go to Sunday school and to pray.
“If we get too busy,” Djola says, “and forget to pray before a meal, our little ones—now three years old and four and a half—will give us their hands and say, ‘We’ve got to say amen.’ And at bedtime, Abigeil will say, ‘Mommy let’s pray.’”
Because of work schedules, Orjon and Djola haven’t yet been able to be in a Bible study together, but they look forward to doing that someday.
“She’s doing well in her studies, but I’m going even faster than her,” Orjon jokes.
“For a year now,” Djola says, “he will wake up every morning and pray, then pick up his Bible. Doing his homework.”
Last year, Orjon made the decision to be baptized. “I know so much about the darkness,” he says, “but I’m learning about the light now. I wanted to be baptized because I now have a connection to God and believe in God and believe in Jesus. I am a Christian. I have inside me what I didn’t have before, and I want to learn more.”