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Made New: From Head to Heart

Made New: From Head to Heart

“Are you studying the Bible?”

Zimi* looked up from behind the bar at the local all-night café where he worked in Albania. Two young men he slightly knew stood in front of him, looking curiously at the collection of books and notebooks laid out on top of the bar.

“Yes,” he replied.

The man was shocked. “No, it’s impossible that you would read that. I have seen your uncle read the Koran.”

“No, I’m OK,” Zimi said. “It’s my choice to read it.”

The man was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Well, what can you tell me about it?”

“Oh, man,” Zimi answered, smiling. “Come on, let me explain it to you.”

Zimi has always stood out in a crowd. In a land of short, dark-haired, brown-eyed, primarily Muslim people who generally stay close to their ancestral homes, Zimi is tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and has embraced Jesus Christ as his Savior. When Zimi was very young, he and his family moved from the mountainous north—after an earthquake destroyed their home—to the village where WGM missionaries Nathan and Cydil Waggoner live. I caught up with him and Nathan on Skype and chatted about 18-year-old Zimi’s story and plans for the future.

As a child, Zimi often felt like an outsider. He was bullied at school and fought back when boys taunted him by calling him malok—the Albanian equivalent of hillbilly.

Whether he was searching for a place to belong or just trying to find a place to play when his mother shooed him out of the house in the afternoons, Zimi ended up at the ministry center anytime the doors were open.

As he grew into his teens, Zimi continued to study the Bible weekly with Nathan and began serving at the center, washing coffee cups, distributing food, helping with Kids Club, and translating for visitors. (He was even mocked for these acts of service, which are considered “women’s work.”) If you had asked him two years ago, Zimi would have said he was a Christian; what he really meant was that he thought the Bible made more sense than the Koran. He was fueled by insatiable curiosity—his head was stuffed full of knowledge—but it was simply that…head knowledge.

From Head to Heart

But even then, Zimi was often brought into arguments with his peers about Islam vs. Christianity, and he wanted to defend his head faith. One day, he and the others in the Bible study asked Nathan, “Can you teach us how to evangelize?”

“Sure, I can do that,” Nathan responded.

The next week, Nathan taught the group the Four Spiritual Laws. They nodded and took notes as he explained that:

  1. God loves you and has a plan for you.
  2. Sin has separated us from God and His plans.
  3. It is only through the death and resurrection of Jesus that we can come to God.
  4. You must personally decide to open your heart to Jesus.

Nathan shared Revelation 3:20 (ESV): “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” He also showed an artist’s rendering of Jesus knocking at a door, wanting to be invited in through a door without an outside doorknob.

Nathan noticed that Zimi was especially intent on the lesson. He asked if anyone believed Laws 1 through 3 but had never taken the step described in Law 4. Zimi raised both of his hands, as if in surrender, and that night he prayed in front of his peers to invite Jesus into his heart!

“It was the picture of Jesus knocking on the door; that was key to his understanding,” Nathan said. “Jesus was knocking, but He hadn’t opened the door. The doorknob was on the inside. It couldn’t be opened from the outside. It had to be Zimi’s choice.”

Made New

After this, Zimi became a new creation. He became a peacemaker at his school with even the teachers calling on him to settle arguments and disputes. He was a better student, earning higher marks than ever before. He began to read the new Bible Nathan gave him and quickly read through the entire New Testament out loud at home so his family would hear it. Every day, Zimi would tell Nathan a new truth he had learned or ask a question about something he didn’t quite understand. “

Let’s just say I was completely changed, from the roots,” Zimi said. “I have more friends than I did before, and they respect me for the way I treat them. I have learned that fighting goes nowhere.”

Nathan offers cultural insight into this mindset shift. “Culturally, to be a man is to not back down. If you are offered a challenge, you will take that challenge and fight to the death. You’ll fight for your honor. And for Zimi to take verbal taunts and not fight, that’s an oddity. But it’s attractive, and people wonder at the change in him.”

Zimi’s Baptism

Zimi wanted to be baptized right away. Baptisms are a big deal in Albania, because they are the public declaration that a person has converted from Islam to Christianity—not something to be taken lightly. He wanted his friends and family to know how firm his commitment was to follow Jesus. However, this small congregation does their baptisms in the Adriatic Sea, and Zimi accepted Christ in November—not a great time to be in the sea! A baptism service was planned for May 2017.

It was a windy, overcast day on May 7 when Zimi and six others from the church were baptized. After gathering in a circle and singing praises to God, a friend or family member read a promise or challenge from Scripture for each participant before they shared a brief personal testimony with the group. When it was Zimi’s turn to be immersed, he leapt out of the water and went running around the beach! It was a holy, joyful moment.

“When I accepted Jesus, I felt joy in my soul,” shared Zimi. “But when I was baptized, something deeper changed inside me.”

Growing in Christ

Knowing he wanted to grow in his knowledge of God even more, Zimi began exploring his options. A friend from church had translated for a YWAM DTS (Discipleship Training School) and encouraged Zimi to apply. He was accepted into the program. This intensive six-month training experience, which began in January 2018, combines lecture-style learning about God and His plan for the world with practical outreach activities. Although his parents don’t share Zimi’s faith, they are supportive of him attending DTS.

In order to pay his way, Zimi needed a job—specifically, a job that would allow him to keep helping with the center and stay involved with church. He prayed earnestly for this and wrote in his notebook that he was claiming the promise of God’s provision. Soon after, he was able to begin working nights at a 24-hour café/gas station. He doesn’t mind the late hours; he brings his Bible, notebook, and Bible study guides and pores over the texts when business is slow. He actively shares his faith with people who come into the café, like the two young men who came in at the beginning of this story. The night shift also allows Zimi to remain active in church activities. He still ends up at the ministry center anytime the doors are open.

In Albania, religion is inherited; you are born a Muslim or Catholic or Orthodox. The idea that faith can be chosen is a radical concept, and evangelical Christians make up just 1 percent of the population.

“I have started learning more about my culture and how to disciple this nation for Jesus,” Zimi shared. “I am finding out the lies that my culture is telling us. Lies like if my father and grandfather are poor, I will be poor too. I’m realizing how these lies affect my people.”

Many of Zimi’s prayers are for his own family, particularly his two sisters. One sister is married and lives in Kosovo, and the other still lives in the village. It has been many years since she came to the Kids Club as a young girl, but recently, she has been coming back to church and Bible study. She was even able to sing along with the worship songs—songs she remembered from attending Kids Club many years ago.

“Prayer changes things, and so I pray,” Zimi said. “But it’s a battle for my family to transform. It’s hard being the only ones in a place to change.” At that, Zimi’s phone rang and he hurried off to meet with his co-leader for a Kids Club they were doing in a neighboring village.

“Zimi is the first believer in his family, but he’s definitely not the last!” said Nathan. “We see Zimi as a leader in this community and in the church in the future. He’s a victory story that’s still being written.”

*Name changed for security purposes.

Action Steps

PRAY: Pray for Zimi as he completes DTS in June. Pray that he will learn more about God and His plan for the world and for protection and health through this intense experience.

GIVE: The WGM Albania team wants to reach even more “Zimis” through an indoor soccer field next to the ministry center. This will allow sports-related ministry and interactions to greatly increase, reaching into the hearts and minds of boys and men in the village. Please partner financially with this ministry.

GO: Do you want to be a part of investing in the lives of children and youth in Albania? Ministry opportunities are available in education, sports, and more. Click here for more information.

Rachel Elwood, Staff Writer
The Call (March 2018)

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