I don’t think it was Christmastime. Too many years have passed for me to be sure. But I do remember it was cold outside. I was walking from the Stephen Center, the Christian diner operated as a ministry in Tirana, Albania. The congenial atmosphere, the prevalence of spoken English, and the simple, truck-stop fried food made missionaries from the U.S. feel almost at home.
Janice and I were living there. Our sole purpose was to study hard, watch carefully and listen well, to learn the Albanian language and culture before moving to Athens, Greece, to forge a new ministry with the half-million Albanian immigrants in the old city.
Cold as it was in that early winter day, I walked briskly, headed to our apartment on Musa Agoli, the “inner city” road that would, in the second year of our time there, finally get paved. Rumor had it that a local community influencer lived on our street and his pressure had paid off, at last, with paving.
Asphalt soon would cover the dirt which so easily became mud when the rains came. And the rains came often. Once, I joked that in the Albanian language “Tirana,” the name of the country’s capital city, must certainly have been an ancient folkloric word meaning “too much rain.”
On that day, it was not raining, but nearing dusk, when I turned a corner and came upon two boys who looked to be somewhere close to ages 10 and 12. Perhaps they were brothers. As I fast-stepped, hustling in the frigid air, moving briskly to catch up with them and soon pass by, I noticed something in one hand of the larger boy. The beautiful, brown-haired, soon-to-be man-child was holding an ancient pair of roller skates. They took me back to my own childhood when, in about 1955, my brother and I got some clamp-on roller skates for Christmas. The bigger boy held them in one too-small hand, their metal wheels clanging against each other and the nearly rotted shoestrings waving in the cool air. I surmised that he had retrieved the skates from some ex-pat’s trash.
Although I was still learning the language, I knew enough to understand that the younger boy was pleading with the older one, wanting to try on the skates and experience the power, drama and magic of rolling across the broken pavement that served as a pedestrian walkway. I sensed their dilemma. Two little boys, four feet, but only two roller skates.
“I sensed their dilemma. Two little boys, four feet, but only two roller skates.”
In a moment, with the ingenuity characteristic of the Albanians whom I was coming to love, the big boy stopped and said something to the smaller one. Then, the tiny boy leaned against a non-working light pole and lifted his left foot. The big boy bent down and hastily fastened one roller skate on the small left foot of his fellow-traveler, which caused him to stand at an incline, with one skate on his left foot and the other unshod foot resting at an angle on the footpath.
I thought I was soon to watch a rare and supreme act of gracious sibling generosity, when the older boy would allow the younger one to skate first. But no, I was wrong. I saw that dumpster-diving big brother lean against that old decrepit lamppost and lift his own right foot. With skilled hands, he affixed the old skate to that right shoe and then, he too was leaning like an ancient tower in Italy. And then, “what to my wondering eyes should appear,” but the two boys reached across and grabbed each other, with the bigger boy holding the other around the waist.
And now you know what happened next. Those two boys held on to each other and with their inner feet pushing forward and lifting off the ground, began to roll forward together, sharing the skates and the thrill. I stopped in my tracks, forgot about the cold, and felt all warm inside.
Maybe it was Christmas, after all!
Bob Newell has served as a university professor and administrator, a local church pastor and a cross-cultural missionary. He and his wife, Janice, now live in Georgetown, Texas, and he serves churches as transition coach and intentional interim pastor. They were the founders and remain advocates of PORTA, the Albania House in Athens, Greece.
The timeless power of standing in someone’s winter, helping them see spring to come | Opinion by Charles Qualls
The Worst Christmas Pageant Ever | Opinion by Susan Shaw
What The Little Prince taught me about Christmas | Opinion by Phwanda Moore