The Final Weeks

Friends, our final weeks in Albania have come and passed in a flash. Circumstances didn’t allow us to let you in on the move beforehand, but we want to make sure to catch you up on the last little bits before the next move (to Cedar Rapids, that is). It was an emotional time for us– feeling all the bits of excitement to be back in our home country, and all the waves of sadness to be leaving our friends and the city we grew to love.

Our last weeks were pretty crazy, too. We had our two summer teams to watch over like the parents we happily felt we became, Elena had a planned trip to the states for a wedding, Nathan and the summer teams had a week-long beach camp and a following beach vacation, and then our friends David + Steffi made it over to see us and Montenegro days before we moved. Whew! It was a whirlwind.

To pick up where we left off before, we finished the outreach strong with a soccer championship and a fashion contest.We even managed to climb a small mountain somewhere in there!

After that week, Elena jetted off to the U.S. for the wedding of one of her best friends, Lauren. She spent about a week and half catching up with family and friends and reveling in the wedding festivities.


While Elena was away, Nathan, the Albanian staff team, the summer teams, and some Albanian students went to a beach in the south for a week. They taught English classes, shared the gospel, and chilled hard. They had a blast sweating it out, swimming, and even climbing another small mountain (or at least trying). After the week long beach camp, they basically repeated their beaching in a vacation format in Ulcinj, Montenegro (summer teams + Nathan).

Elena returned just in time to get things in order and pick up our friends David + Steffi from the airport. We took a few days with them to explore our neighbor in the north, Montenegro, and the cities Budva and Kotor were astoundingly beautiful. We took the next few days to show our friends around our ‘hood and community. It was a fun way to take a final look at what God had done in us and in the people and city around us during our year there.

Our friends moved on to Italy and we took the next four days to pack, clean, and move our lives back to Iowa. By the time the summer students left we felt like proud parents. They even made  a rap video about their time in Albania. Its a fun peek into life in Shkodra, especially because the rooftop scenes were shot on our apartment building’s roof!


So weird and so great, right? Our church family at Guri i Themelit sent us off graciously with a goodbye night and we spent quality time with our Albanian team that week just having fun. All in all, we felt we left well and were ready to set our eyes on the next thing God has for us: Iowa. And specifically, Cedar Rapids.


We’ve had about a week and half back in the states are really adjusting pretty well. We’ve already found a place to live and have met some of the staff at Veritas Church Cedar Rapids where Nathan will be the Salt Director. We are so excited to be a part of this growing church and love on students in this new city.

You can check out this awesome community here:

You all have supported and loved us well during our Albanian adventure and God has done a ton in our hearts through this time. THANK YOU. Your prayers are felt and so welcomed. We love you all. And in case you are wondering how to get in touch to hear more about our time in Albania and the next step for us- Facebook or email works well ’cause we haven’t gotten phones…yet.


The Final Weeks

Summer Projects and Teams

Well friends, its not summer here yet (for university students) but it sure is starting to get hot! Things have picked up and we are rolling around from sharing food with local families in need, to baptisms, to an ongoing outreach event with our American students reaching Albanian students and a lot of little (big!) things in between.  What does this all look like, you ask? Well, I can help you out there.

Salt Teams

About three weeks ago we picked up our two Salt Company teams from the airport and brought them to our city where they are serving for two months. It has been one of our greatest joys to be their hosts and to pour into them during their time here. They are reaching out to Albanians by teaching some English classes and by participating in our summer outreach called JuJu.

JuJu Outreach

I know, I know, you have no idea what an outreach is. Its hard to explain really and only makes sense once you’ve been in one before, but I’ll take a shot an explanation anyway. Outreaches here are put on by the student ministry, Jete Studentore (which functions more like a social club that leaders and staff use to meet new people and share the gospel personally). We do about 3 a year to make a big push to draw in new people, and we do this by planning about 2 weeks of games and competitions and inviting people to compete in them for a big prize. We split all of the students (both high school and college) into groups and have different events for competition like volleyball, debates, minute to win it games, dancing contests, etc. This outreach we are putting on frisbee, soccer, capture the flag at the castle, American/Albanian night, and a ladies fashion contest. One prize is to spend a day climbing and picnicking on a nearby mountain, and another is a full week on a beach in the south with our American students learning English and hanging out. We are about half way through the events,  have budding new friendships because of it, and lots of photos to show for it. Here’s a taste.

Community Outreach

We took the first week our American students were here to reach out to families in need in our city. We ordered food supplies, bagged it all up, split up into Albanian/American teams and took food to needy families whose names we got from the city government. It was a blessing to bless others and a way to reach beyond students and serve the city. A lady and her son and a friend of hers has been attending our church ever since, which is a huge answer to prayer.


Our church, Guri i Themelit Shkodra,  travels to the beach once a year meeting up with our sister church Guri i Themelit in Tirana and celebrates new life with baptisms in the Adriatic Sea. This year our church came out in force (about 35 of us plus our 9 American students) and 11 of them were baptized. It was a beautiful thing– these friends declaring their love and trust in Jesus, being lowered into and pulled out of the water by their mentors, friends, and leaders, and the rest of the family in the water with them, cheering them on. God is at work. It was so fun to see girls we’ve invested in through our small group take this step, and even rejoice with some who have made their own disciples along the way. Here’s a sample of some of my favorite moments.


Can you believe that in the midst of this we even fit in a whole week of hangs with our amazing friend Laura that came to visit? Well believe it! We did some ministry stuff (JuJu kickoff and weekly meetings), some relaxation stuff (hiked up Tarabosh to picnic and hammock, spent the night at a resort in the mountains), and some adventure stuff (Castle Rozafa, Ulcinj, Montenegro).


Looking ahead, we’ve got one more week of the outreach and then a beach camp before the Salt teams take a break and begin the debrief phase of their trip. Lots yet to do and we’re excited to be a part of it all.

Summer Projects and Teams

Questions and Answers Pt. 2

  1. No, we have not traveled to any new countries since we last wrote.
  2. No, this plate is not for more than one person.20160426_145337
  3. Yes, we can understand  decent amount of Albanian conversations now.
  4. Yes, we still have lots of moments where we completely blank.
  5. No, this looks like a button but is not. Yes, I would love it if it actually worked.20160408_203947
  6. Yes, we have two summer teams of Salt Company students coming to us soon!
  7. Yes, this photo was taken in a restaurant in March.20160326_210623
  8. Yes, we now frequently play the games “that’s not a parking spot” and “you’re driving the wrong direction” while we drive.
  9. Yes, we have identified all the locations around our neighborhood where packs of wild dogs like to sleep. (can you find all the dogs in the second photo?)
  10. No, we have not found a good/free/safe place to take our dog in the city.
  11. Yes, we have begun to drive outside the city once a week to take a walk up a mountain so our puppy can run and we can breathe.
  12. Yes, it does take 3 extra people to watch 1 person fix something20160414_093903
  13. Yes, we almost had our water turned off because our owner didn’t have a water contract.
  14. No, we have not seen a better way to transport mattresses.20160402_101706
  15. No, we have no idea when the random holidays are here and have frequently discovered that it is a holiday when we see the kids out of school early or stumble onto an event.
  16. Yes, this is our neighborhood. Yes, we live in the middle of the city.20160412_095406
  17. Yes, Nathan has started running again!
  18. No, I didn’t know what to do with myself at the women’s conference during game time. Some games included “cut and peel food as fast as possible” and “get your hair, nails, eyebrows, and every other cosmetic issue you have fixed for fun.”

19. Yes, our puppy is learning and growing a lot but is still a brat.

20. Yes, there are hidden corners of simple beauty that we are enjoying. 20160413_191122

Questions and Answers Pt. 2

Guests, Travels, and Projects

Hello all!
Sorry for the blog silence. As you’ll see from the pictures from exotic locations, we’ve been busy.

Needless to say, that’s no excuse for not updating you lovely people on our goings on.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so we’ll fill you in with pictures where we can.



We got our first visitors of the year: Elena’s parents Ron and Diane Noll!

It was a blast to have them see what our life is like in Albania, and to get a chance to travel to Italy with them, hitting up Rome and Florence in a few whirlwind days. Then it was back to Albania for a quick trip to the mountain town of Krujë for an old castle and some great views.

Honestly, the trip to Italy was amazing. We got to see some real treasures, including some works of art Nathan had been wanting to see for years. We loved the cities, the quiet corners, old book shops, and beautiful cafes. We definitely want to go back some day.




We were blessed by Cornerstone with an amazing trip to Turkey and Greece with Cornerstone School of Theology and some great friends from back home.

Nathan got to hang out with his good friend Jordan (Smalls) Adams, who was totally not a third wheel at all.

We got to visit the sites of the seven churches of Revelation and track the apostle Paul’s second missionary journey through Greece.

It was an absolute blast getting to stand in cities like Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth, soaking those places in and relishing in their history. We also saw other amazing pieces of history, like Philip II of Macedonia’s burial mound and the burial place of the 300 Spartans at Thermopoli. Not to mention some beautiful Turkish textiles and stunning Greek coastline.




We left the trip exhausted from the relentless pace, but so refreshed in our hearts. We got to get to know some great people on the trip, and spent some weird nights out and about in some cool cities (big holla to Istanbul and Kavala and some friends from Ames and Cedar Falls).

April finds us having just finished an outreach project, and ready to do follow up. You can pray for us to have boldness and for students to be ready with open hearts to hear what God would like to speak to them.


We are pursing language learning hard and have just reached a fun new level of conversation. We got a little overexcited and went to a local play performed all in old Albanian, which was a fun experience although we could barely track the plot line. Whoops! Good thing we went with our language teacher. Also notice how few people are in the theater 5 minutes before the show begins. 🙂


Life is settling down for us for a few months before it picks back up with a quick summer pace. We’re anxiously awaiting summer guests – our Salt Company summer teams, Laura Benson, and David + Steffi Livingston. So pumped.

Please be thinking of us, and praying that we can stay balanced in life and focused on the important things. Some days are a breeze and some days are tough, but we’re learning and growing through all of it.

Until next time.

Guests, Travels, and Projects

New Year, New Ways to Grow

2016 is well underway and we’re already learning and growing a ton. This maybe be our only full calendar year in Albania and we’re excited for a slew of new opportunities, new visitors and new lessons to be learned.

We’re not really New Years Resolution kind of people (not that there’s anything wrong with those people), but there are some ways we’re praying and working to grow:

Nathan is praying to grow in his positivity, perseverance, and perspective (holding on to God’s perspective).

Elena is striving in new ways to see God’s perspective as well, to seek Him more in prayer, and pursue His purposes and glory above all else.

Although these seem like basic “Christian resolutions”, the stories behind them are heartfelt and real to us. We’re seeing our need for our Savior more and more, and see ways these qualities will bear fruit for a lifetime. There are cultural challenges that necessitate these, language frustrations that reveal these, and also normal life “I’m less holy than I thought” situations that show our true need for Jesus’ help always.

We have a list of hopeful guests and visitors this year – if you want in on this Balkan action let us know!

We’re really thankful for your prayers and support. It’s not easy living and ministering cross-culturally, but it makes a huge difference knowing you’ve got our backs.

Thank you.


Here are some pictures from January



We got to have beer and pizza with a great couple who had us over for New Years as well. They don’t speak English but they are patient and gracious with our sparse Albanian.



A beautiful old bridge around 20 minutes from our place.


We celebrated the return of one of our students who had been kept in police custody for just over a month on false charges. We had a large gathering of our Connection Groups, then ate great food and danced (hard). Elena may have done a backflip during a lull in the dance, which no one (even us) saw coming.

p.s. here are the books we’re reading. Because I’m sure you’re interested.

Nathan is reading The Cross of Christ by John Stott, Calvin’s Institutes (slowly), Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts (also slowly), Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp, and the NT in Greek!

Elena raced through The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy and is currently working on Journey to the Center of the Earth by Verne.


New Year, New Ways to Grow

Expat Holidaze

After far too much silence from this blog we are more than ready to update you on the crazy happenings of the last month or so. We managed to fit in Thanksgiving, a Christmas service, connection group Christmas party, ladies craft night, team Christmas party, midnight premier of Star Wars, a bunch of time with friends for Christmas, gate-crashing a televised Albanian singing contest, a quick trip to Macedonia, New Years in Tirana, and our first visit in an Albanian friend’s home. This may explain our lack of blogs over the last few weeks, but I’m sure you’ll forgive us. We’ll fill some of this in with pictures, but we can’t possibly show you everything we’ve been up to, so here are our personal highlights:


Elena |  Getting away to Macedonia was such a peaceful time. Walking, talking, and drinking good cappuccinos along with the license to be just tourists made for true rest . We feel so blessed to be able to live in Europe so near to beautiful places! It also turned out to be a really great time to process the last couple of months and give us new excitement and vision. I also really loved getting to experience our first New Years with our good friends the Docis in Tirana. New Years is THE holiday of the year, so come midnight, there are fireworks 360 degrees around you and it is magnificent. And spending it with people we love wasn’t so bad either.


nowhere but somewhere (no man’s land between Albania and Macedonia).


Ohrid, Macedonia

                20151227_175856  20151227_173127 (1)  20151227_153938_HDR

winding around the old Ohrid streets at night.

Nathan and the patron saint of Ohrid.

walking out onto the lakefront bridge with a friendly pack of wild neighborhood dogs.

                 20151227_155751  20151226_201225  022c24c2-c3fa-458f-ab65-78a7d382bd96

enjoying the sunset at the idyllic St. John’s Church in Ohrid.

celebrating with half of the Docis in Tirana.

“emergency medical treatment” after Elena stepped on a nail in Tirana (no actual puncture, no actual treatment).


gate-crashing a televised Albanian singing contest with the Docis


Christmas lights in Skenderbeg Square in Tirana.

Nathan |  Christmas celebrations in Shkodra were awesome! I got to preach at our Christmas service, which was a huge honor. Students were already off of school for winter break but many stayed in town to celebrate with their church family. That night we celebrated with our staff team by playing a white-elephant style game and then eating at a great traditional restaurant. The icing on the cake for the season was our first visit to a community member’s house. A man I’d met in our neighborhood invited me and Elena over to celebrate the New Year. He and his family are from a Muslim background and don’t speak any English, but he’s friendly, hospitable, and willing to work through the language barrier. We got to meet his wife, mom, and two cute daughters. There were definitely times where language failed us, but it was an encouraging and life-giving experience nonetheless.


the men of Team Shkodra:

Nathan, Gusti, and Kujtim


the women of Team Shkodra:

Visa, Anita

Elena, Era, and Angji


the Guri i Themelit Shkodra Team

1471152_10208404325923941_9000875863744405598_n  20151220_191749

Shkodra’s huge Christmas tree.

just us for the Christmas Celebration.

For the New Year, we are looking forward to the great things God will do in and through us. We are excited to start afresh with renewed vision and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of many guests this year (start you trip planning now, ya’ll).

And we’re looking forward to more warm cuddles with this girl:





Expat Holidaze

Amazing Firsts

Hey all,

We’ve had an amazing set of firsts since our last post.

We’ve had our first American houseguest, Cornerstone Ames’ very own Troy Nesbitt! Nathan also got to be part of Cornerstone Shkodra’s first teachers’ meeting, and that night Nathan and Elena hosted one of the two connection groups the church has started.



The outreach project just finished last week, and over the course of the three weeks and follow up 20 students expressed trust in Christ – AMAZING! The team is doing follow up to make sure they understand and help them begin walking with Jesus. A lot of pressure can come early on, but we hope opportunities like connection groups and fellowship in the church provide support, encouragement, grace, and good doses of the Gospel to our new brothers and sisters.

Cornerstone Shkodra celebrated our two year anniversary with a guest message from Troy and a great meal. Troy talked about birthdays from John 3 – talking about our first physical birth but also our second birth in Jesus. It was a great birthday celebration!




That following Sunday we took around 40 students to Tirana to celebrate Cornerstone Tirana’s 20th anniversary with Troy and Brent Haverkamp – an elder at Cornerstone in Ames. It was a blast and an awesome opportunity for our students to catch a big vision for their lives, for the church, and for our city.




Last but not least, Elena and I have a new addition to our family – a new puppy named Iliria. She’s a rescue dog from a group here in Shkodra. When we got her she was quiet, scared, and had a bad case of worms. Now, a week and a half later she’s full of energy, and getting better every day. Puppy training brings a whole lot of work and stress to our lives, but in return we get a whole lot of love and cuddles. Its a trade off that is good for us right now.12308169_10208258085868031_1343348628470846605_o


Amazing Firsts

Fall is Here

Hey all,

The fall ministry season is here and in full swing.

The university has been going for about three weeks now and we’re a week into our Fall Outreach – a three week sprint of games and activities to draw students, particularly freshmen, into the ministry.

Elena and I each have a team we’re on led by a student leader. The teams meet up during the week to (hopefully) discuss articles from a magazine CRU put together. About twice a week there are big events like games at the castle, photo race, or frisbee. I.E.MinuteToWinIt.10.2015.115 MinuteToWinIt.10.2015.142 MinuteToWinIt.10.2015.158

It’s a pretty different model of ministry for us, but we’re glad to be working with students and getting the chance to meet English speakers.

Elena got to help kickoff the outreach with an event for ladies called “Dress for Success.” She designed T-shirts and flyers and set up a photo booth to help ladies feel connected and inspired.DressForSuccess.10.2015.102 DressForSuccess.10.2015.108 DressForSuccess.10.2015.81

Elena continues to take amazing pictures of everything around us, whether events or just amazing scenes of life in Albania and the landscape.

Cornerstone Albania is doing a three week series called “Foundations” that I totally borrowed (stole) from Salt – The Bible, Community, Mission. I hope focusing on these three will help the church grasp things that have been part of the church culture already, but highlight the need to intentionally center on good expositional preaching, to value the church as the Bride of Christ, and to see ourselves as a missional community to love and impact our city.

Then, we’ll start going through the Gospel of John which we did not steal from Cornerstone in Ames. I promise I thought of it last Spring. (I may or may not have peeked at Jeff Dodge’s teaching schedule, however). I’m so pumped on John. Before we came I was running through all of the passages on eldership, church structure, the authority of scripture etc. that I thought I might need, and was convicted hearing a message on 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. My brothers and sisters here don’t need my wisdom or experience as much as we all need more of Christ. We’ll talk about the leadership of the church or the best ways to be the family of God in this culture, but more than that I want us all to continually be renewed in the good new of Christ’s death on our behalf and His victory we get to be swept up in.

I’m loving preaching. I’ve gotten to speak four times at Cornerstone so far and I’m excited to see God continue to grow me and be faithful to grow the church through His Word.

Fall is different in Albania than Ames. There are fewer brilliant Fall colors, fewer Pumpkin Spice flavored things (none. they don’t even know what to do with pumpkins), fewer familiar signs of fall, and fewer familiar faces to enjoy the season with. On the bright side, we’re learning to love our brothers and sisters here, we got to see some beautiful Fall colors in the Alps, and we may actually have a couple of Thanksgiving celebrations in store for November.


Prayer Requests

  • God to work in students’ lives during the outreach, drawing them to Him and community
  • Unity with our Albanian team mates
  • God’s help learning Albanian (we started classes!)
  • Patience and trust in God’s timing as we continue to grow with the church
  • The Spirit to be present during our weekly church gatherings
Fall is Here

Scenes from Month One

I know you all are expecting some really accurate photojournalism of life in Albania and I promise you, as a photographer I am dedicated to this.  You know, sometime. But at the moment, we are taking the culture in with phone pictures of things that make us giggle. And we figured you might want to giggle too.

You can scroll through the full-size gallery by clicking on any image.

I will leave you with one last surprise we met as we happened upon our local roundabout.

Just a guy and his bear.
Just a man and his bear.
Scenes from Month One

The Blog Post That Got Messed Up

Its been a little bit since we blogged. We had about 2 weeks to get settled into our place and start regular meetings with the team here to plan for the year, and then this past week we hung out in Tirana. Sickness has made us have to slow down. We haven’t experienced any serious long lasting sickness, but it seems every other day one of us is struggling with some head, tummy, or throat issue. We are looking forward to being at 100% 7 days a week instead of 3 or 4.

I started to write that so far, 3 weeks in, we are still smiling, still laughing, still taking everything in stride. And then that night I had a real moment where I wasn’t. We had gone out for dinner for our date night and talked about all the good things and some of the frustrating ones, but even then we were still encouraged with where we were. And then the pins began to drop. I came home to find that all the photos I was putting into this post had not uploaded and had error messages. I tried to re-upload them and the internet wasn’t working. Then when the internet was back on, the upload failed again. And again. And then I remembered that I hadn’t been able to download zipped files correctly either, and I wanted to throw the computer across the room. (Just a side note– technology and I don’t get along).

Then I went to check on the laundry, where I was (foolishly) trying to get some denim stains out of my white canvas purse (said purse also has leather parts). I had done this before on a quick laundry setting, but it hadn’t pulled all of the stain out so I tried again on what I thought was a stronger and better setting. Did I mention our washing machine is in Italian? I pulled it out to find the denim stains replaced with tan leather stains, the leather bottom depleted of all life and color, and the leather straps starting to twist and stiffen. And this was the last pin to drop.

I got so upset at being THWARTED in everything that I just went and laid on the bed and cried. The crying didn’t last very long because, well, its just a purse, but it was one of the first times the struggles of living overseas had built to an emotional point. But thankfully God gave us (me) perspective pretty quickly and I could see some of the silliness of it all. I actually found a way to fix the leather bottom by conditioning it with oils and just accepted the new (not white) color of the canvas, and then this morning the stiff leather strap snapped in half. So there’s a new challenge 🙂 Said purse before and after:


Looks like someone needs to learn how to use a washing machine. Oh, and an oven (which is only half installed, btw). And a car (whose button decals have rubbed off and the manual is in Italian). And maybe even a microwave (which has no words, only symbols).

Pray that we will still be able to laugh these things off and not let them burden us as we continue to adjust to life here. Pray we would lean on God in those moments, not on our own ability to fix ourselves and the problems. Pray that God would get us to 100% health very soon. Thank God with us that we are loving this place and these people!


The Blog Post That Got Messed Up