Saturday Night in the Korca Gym*

© 2000 by Neta Jackson


 Margo White dribbled the ball in a zig-zag pattern toward the goal, taking her time. “Focus! Focus!” Her college coach’s drills replayed in her mind like the Albanian language tapes she listened to every day. She focused, shutting out the commotion along the sidelines of the gym until the only sounds she heard were the thud, thud of the basketball and the soft squeaking of her athletic shoes on the old wooden floor.

            She picked up the pace . . . pulled up, faked a pass . . . then in two quick steps drove all the way to the board—two points. Her mind’s eye saw the crowd leap to its feet. “Mar-go! Mar-go! Mar-go!” . . .

             “Margo! Give me a hand, will you?”

            Lida’s voice cut into Margo’s solitary replay of that last championship game at Lincoln State University. With a quick glance to see where the ball rolled off to, Margo trotted over to her Albanian teammate, who was struggling with a flimsy ladder. Half the gym floor was already covered with mattresses, and Berti and Petrit, the other two members of their team, were dragging in stacks more. At the other end of the gym, a gaggle of middle-aged ladies—the Welcome Committee of Korca’s Consortium of Churches—fussed over a long row of tables holding big pots of coffee and lemonade and trays of sandwiches. Stacks of blankets lined one wall. Everything looked almost ready for their “visitors,” as Margo had dubbed the expected busloads of travelers.

            Question was, was she ready?

            “Just stick to the game plan!” said the voice in Margo’s head. Right. She grabbed the other side of the unwieldy ladder, and together the two young women got it resting more or less upright against the wall of the gymnasium. Lida—her dark hair, pale skin, and bony shoulders a strong contrast to Margo’s sturdy American build and flushed complexion—pointed upward. “Found another broken window. Your turn to go up.”

            Margo rolled her eyes. That made five broken windows so far! But tonight, getting the gymnasium ready for overnight visitors was the game and fixing broken windows was her play. She grabbed a hammer and a couple nails from the tin can, picked out a scrap of plywood that looked about the right size from the pile against the wall, and gingerly made her way up the wobbly ladder.

            At least the ten minutes of exercise had sent blood rushing through her cold hands and feet—the temperature inside the cavernous gym seemed little different from the chilly March evening outside—and it had felt good to handle a basketball again. It wasn’t that long ago that she had played point guard on the women’s basketball team at Lincoln State. She had had a couple offers, and her coach had encouraged her to consider turning pro or maybe go into coaching after graduation. But she’d chosen Albania instead, and there was no turning back now . . .

            Margo reached through the rungs of the ladder, positioned the plywood scrap against the broken window, and tried to hold it in place with her left forearm. Why did so many things in Albania seem old, broken, or barely functioning? It had definitely been culture shock to leave her typical midwestern surroundings and land on the campus of the University of Korca as part of an overseas Christian campus ministry. Albania had only recently re-emerged on the world map after decades of isolation under Communism’s grip, and everything from the pothole-pocked highways to decrepit buses to knowledge of the Bible suffered sadly from neglect. Why, even the practice gym back at Lincoln State was a palace compared to this dump. And this building was the main sports gymnasium in Korca!

            The ladder swayed menacingly as Margo tried to pound in an uncooperative nail. “Lida!” she squeaked, grabbing a ladder rung with her hammer hand. “Hold the ladder!”

            “Sorry. Thought I heard the buses.”

            Margo caught her breath and listened. The sound of a heavy vehicle passed the gym and faded. She let out her breath slowly. “Jo,” she said brightly. “Besides, they’re not due till nėntė.”

            “But it’s nėntė now!” Lida’s voice was high-pitched, anxious.

            “Lida! Just hold the ladder. It’s going to be fine.”

            It was going to be fine, Margo assured herself. After all, as a college basketball player, she’d been conditioned to be prepared for every eventuality. “Practice! Practice! Practice!” her coach had drilled into the team. And even though doing campus ministry in Albania was like “being on the road” rather than on her “home court,” at least she’d had experience doing Bible studies in her dorm, leading Sunday night services in nursing homes, even serving meals to the homeless. All good practice for missions.

            Of course, tonight their team was being asked to do a whole new play, and it was hard to know what to expect. Still, they had a game plan—get the gym ready as temporary housing, make the “visitors” as comfortable as possible, look for opportunities to share the Gospel. A big job, sure, but all the Christian groups in Korca were working together to reach out to their fellow Albanians from the north. That in itself was a good thing. At least she didn’t have to make coffee . . .

            With the ladder steady once more, Margo took aim with the hammer and drove the last nail through the plywood into the worn window frame. A chilly draft still snuck through along the edges, but oh well, it was better than before.

            Berti and Petrit dropped their last stack of mattresses beside Lida just as Margo backed down the ladder. Petrit flopped on the mattresses with a weary groan. “Did you girls hear? They now think it’s going to be dymbėdhjetė before the buses arrive.”

            Midnight! Margo shivered. Three more hours to hang around?

            Berti, the older of the two young men, eyed the boarded-up window. “Good job. Maybe by the time they arrive it’ll be fifteen degrees in here instead of five.”

            Margo screwed up her nose and quickly tried to translate Celsius into Fahrenheit. “Oh, hooray,” she snorted. Guess sixty degrees was better than forty, but not much. Leave it to Berti to see the bright side. But that was the quality Margo loved most in the campus ministry leader. Berti’s encouraging words had helped Margo weather bouts of homesickness, frustration with learning the Albanian language, and discouragement at the spiritual indifference of many university students, who’d been raised on atheism. He reminded her of her college basketball coach, who never let a setback affect the team’s all-out efforts to reach their goal.

            Except . . . this was the game of life, and the goal was to win Albania for Christ, starting with Albania’s future leaders on college campuses in Prishtina, Korca, and other major cities. And they were inching toward the goal, “one basket at a time,” as her coach used to say. After all, there was Lida, who was shy but eager to share her new-found excitement about Jesus with students . . . and Petrit, the newest Christian and youngest member of the team, only twenty, but his odd sense of humor kept them laughing and attracted a lot of students whose stereotype of Christianity was the somber Orthodox priests in their ceremonial robes who had been allowed to function as Communism’s nod to religion. And the four of them were leading several Bible studies on campus, and the girls in Margo’s study were asking a lot of thoughtful questions. So Margo was encouraged.

            No, she didn’t regret choosing missions in Albania over a career in basketball. Still, this was a gymnasium, and it was too cold just to sit around . . .

            “Hey, as long as the buses are going to be late, let’s play some hoops.” She pulled Petrit to his feet. “Whaddya say? Vajzat kunder djemve?” Girls against guys. She laughed.            “Uh-oh, watch out. Miss Chicago Bulls T-shirt thinks only Americans can play basketball.” Lanky Petrit struck a ludicrous “muscle” pose. “Has she forgotten Toni Kukoc is from Croatia? Does she know that under this skinny disguise lurks his high flying cousin?”

            Really lurking,” Margo said dryly. She laughed and ran over to rescue the basketball from obscurity under a table of first aid supplies, soap, and toothbrushes donated from local shops. “Tell you what, Petrit,” she called back. “If you win, I’ll let you . . . um, wear my Chicago Bulls T-shirt for one whole day.”

            “Ha. I thought we’d have to bury you in that thing when you’re eighty-five.”

            Lida frowned, as if playing ball under the present circumstances was like fiddling while Rome burned. “What about the rest of the mattresses?”

            Margo dribbled the ball back to the little group. “We’ve got two hours to kill, remember? It’ll take all of ten minutes to put them down later if we all pitch in. Besides, we need a little floor space.” She pitched the ball to Berti. “You in? Play to fifty?”

            Berti grinned. “Why not?” He grabbed Petrit by the sweatshirt and went into a huddle. Margo did likewise with Lida.

            “But, Margo,” Lida protested, shivering. “I’m not that good at basketball. And shouldn’t we pray or something? I mean, what if the buses have run out of benzinė?”

            Margo felt a stab of impatience. Lida worried too much. But she had a point. “Pray. Absolutely. We will. But, Lida, we’re all going to go crazy just waiting unless we do something to take our minds off whatever is delaying them. Come on. Playing a little ball will warm you up. Okay?”

            Lida nodded reluctantly.

            “All right. Now, don’t worry about shooting the ball. You just guard Petrit, try to keep the ball away from him. And don’t let him shoot. If you get the ball, just pass it to me, I’ll move in for the basket. Got it?”

            The two mini-teams broke. Margo snatched the ball out of Berti’s hands and tossed it to Lida as she grinned at him. “Ladies first, right?” He rolled his eyes.

            Lida passed the ball in to Margo, who dodged Berti, danced the ball around Petrit, and shot a clean basket.

            The older women at the far end of the gym whooped and clapped, which brought a laugh from Lida who yelled, “Go, Margo!”

            The four friends played hard. Petrit and Berti were better than Margo had expected, and the score leapfrogged, nip and tuck, but Margo sank the last basket to make fifty points.

            Laughing and sweating, they all fell out on the bare mattresses. “Guess I get to keep my shirt!” Margo panted.

            Petrit wrinkled his nose. “It’s all sweaty now, anyway.”

            “What time is it?” Berti groaned, spread-eagle on his back.

            Lida squinted at her watch. “Um . . . eleven-fifteen.”

            Berti pulled himself up to a sitting position. “Guess we better put out the rest of these mattresses. Then let’s pray those buses in. Where’s the rest of the ‘Welcoming Committee’?”

            Petrit jerked a weary thumb at the other end of the gym. The coffee-and-sandwich ladies were nodding off on thin folding chairs sprinkled here and there around their tables.

            As Margo had predicted, it only took ten minutes to spread out the rest of the mattresses. She wondered vaguely whether they had too many . . . or not enough. No one had told them how many were coming . . .

            Maybe no one knew.

            Word must have gotten around about the new time of arrival, because several other folks from the Korca churches were wandering in to be part of the midnight welcoming committee. Margo saw Berti talking to a couple of men—probably local pastors—and soon the “welcoming committee” had become a prayer meeting at the coffee end of the gym. Lida pulled her down on the floor, and Margo sat, hugging her legs and resting her forehead on her knees.

            First one, then another prayed out loud, an undercurrent of murmurs from around the circle riding beneath their voices. Margo’s stomach growled—hadn’t she earned a couple of those sandwiches?—but she tried to ignore it. She could understand most of what was being said in Albanian—prayers for safety, for servant hearts, for an end to hostilities—but she was a little surprised by the growing intensity. One woman’s voice was almost keening, like a grieving mother. Margo raised her head to see who it was. It was one of the coffee ladies, head thrown back, tears pouring down her square, mannish face as she prayed for “justice for the crimes committed against our people!”

            Margo squirmed. She hoped they weren’t going to get political here. That was out of her league. Albania was a mess, that much she knew. The country was just recovering from months of anarchy and economic instability, and now ethnic hostilities between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo to the north was creating a flood of refugees across Albania’s borders.

            Refugees on buses, heading to Korca.

            Margo suddenly felt short of breath. Refugees . . . the word provoked images in her mind of naked Sudanese children with bony ribcages and extended bellies . . . or boatloads of desperate Cambodians adrift in the Pacific. Surely the word was too strong.

            It was easier to think of the coming busloads as “visitors” to Korca, who needed some temporary food and shelter. They were Albanians, after all. This was their home country. They spoke the language. They would be welcome. And her mission was to share the Gospel with Albanians. That was the game plan.

            She began to breathe easier. Yes, this she could do. Keep focused. Stick to the game plan. She even took a turn praying aloud that the hearts of their visitors would be open to the Gospel, and felt comforted at the familiar words.

            The prayers continued. Margo glanced at her watch. Twelve-thirty, and still no buses!

            At one o’clock, the prayer meeting ended, and people stood around talking quietly in anxious voices. Where were the buses?

            No one dared leave for fear the “welcoming committee” wouldn’t be there when the buses did arrive. But Margo could hardly keep her eyes open any longer. She followed Lida and Petrit’s example and flopped down on one of the bare mattresses, pulling herself up into a cocoon inside her zippered sweat jacket and trying not to think about her empty stomach . . .

            A hand shook Margo awake. “They’re here,” said Berti quietly.

            Dragging herself to her feet, Margo stumbled after her teammates, who were heading for the parking lot outside the gym along with the rest of the welcoming committee. She could hardly focus her eyes, but gradually the face on her watch came into view.

            Four o’clock.

            Groggily, Margo joined the others outside the gym, hunching her shoulders against the early hour’s damp cold. The first bus had pulled in—a “city bus” pressed into cross-country duty—and another was right behind it. Margo quickly calculated. How many people on a bus? Forty? Times two . . . eighty people. Well, that was a lot but they had plenty of food and mattresses for eighty.

            And then another bus pulled into the lot . . . and another . . . and another.

            The doors of the first bus opened and a man in a blue windbreaker got out, turned, and began helping people down the steps. A little boy, his eyes huge and frightened, clung to the hand of an old woman. A mother with a baby. Several teenagers, one holding the hand of a child about three. Two young women about Margo’s age, their arms around each other, one of whom was weeping. The people kept coming off the first bus, and the second. Some clutched small suitcases or duffle bags with Adidas or Nike in leaping letters across the side; others were empty-handed.

            Berti and some of the pastors began shepherding the people inside. Margo stood rooted to her spot. Her first impression of the people getting off the bus was that they looked so . . . so normal. So ordinary. Polo shirts and Nike athletic shoes. Sweatshirts and windbreakers. Jeans and rumpled khaki pants. Sweater vests and turtle necks. Like any crowd getting off a bus to see some sports event.

            Her second impression was that they looked anything but normal.

            Exhaustion etched every face. Dark circles framed their eyes. There were no smiles or greetings. Dirty streaks on nearly every child’s face betrayed both tears and the lack of a washcloth. The hair of both men and women was lank, greasy, unwashed for . . . how many days? And the smell of old sweat and unwashed clothes clung to them as they passed, cattle like, through the double doors into the gym.

            But it was the eyes of both young and old that troubled Margo the most. Guarded. Frightened. Alone. Almost unaware of their surroundings, yet seeing something . . . something they had seen and couldn’t forget.

            And still the buses pulled off the road into the parking lot, until Margo lost count.

            She knew she should go inside. But she wasn’t prepared. Not for this. There had been no way to practice for this. It wasn’t just an unfamiliar defensive play. It was a different game altogether! As though she had suited up for basketball, but had been asked to play quarterback in men’s football.

            “Margo?” It was Berti’s quiet voice. “We need you brenda.” He jerked a thumb inside.

            She found her voice. “But there’s too many. Look, the buses are still coming.” Still more headlights crawled along the road.

            “I know. Just find one family. One family. Help them get settled.”

            Another bus had pulled up near the gym. The driver and one of the Korca pastors were trying to help an old woman get off, but she was resisting their efforts, fiercely holding to the edge of the bus door and shrieking, “Jo! Jo! I don’t want to get off! I saw the cross! They’ll kill us! Kill us!”

            Margo turned bewildered eyes to Berti. “What does she mean?  The big cross on the Orthodox church coming into Korca? Why is she afraid?”

            Berti steered Margo back into the gymnasium. “She is Muslim.” He waved a hand at the dozens of bus passengers already wolfing down sandwiches and dropping their bundles on the bare mattresses. “Most of these Albanians are Muslim. The Serbs who are driving them out of Kosovo are supposedly Christian. Muslim versus Orthodox in decades of bitter conflict over land in Kosovo. Unfortunately in the Balkans, ‘religion’ is more often an excuse for ethnic hostilities than genuine faith in a reconciling God.” The team leader pushed Margo toward a small group huddled uncertainly against the wall of the gymnasium. “Now go, Margo—there’s a family who can use your help.” Berti turned and disappeared back outside, where yet another bus was pulling into the parking lot.

            Margo walked slowly over to the little group. A hollow-eyed woman in a red pullover sweater clutched a wailing infant in her arms. A little girl around eight years old, dressed in jeans and a Barbie T-shirt, pressed close to her side. Beside the sagging mother and exhausted children stood a dark-haired man, unshaven, his arm around another young woman, probably in her twenties, who was crying silently into his rumpled shirt.

            Tungjateta. My—my name is Margo,” she blurted, hoping they understood Toskerisht, the dialect common in southern Albanian. “Si e ke?

            “My name? Shemsi,” said the man grimly. “These are my sisters, Bukuri and”—he nodded at the woman with the screaming baby—“Adelina. And Adelina’s children, Arianit and Jetmira.”

            The dialect was different, but with relief Margo realized she was able to understand the basic Albanian words. But if this Shemsi was the brother, where was the woman’s husband? She looked around. “Are there others in your family you are waiting for?”

            At Margo’s words, the young woman’s shoulders shook even more violently against the man’s chest.

            When Shemsi spoke again, his voice was flat, heavy. “Adelina’s husband—he disappeared before we left Kosovo. And our baba . . .” The muscles worked in Shemsi’s jaw as he mentioned his father. “He was shot by Serbian soldiers because he did not want to give up his passport. They would not let us stop to bury him.”

            Margo had been about to say, “Would you like something to eat? Some kafe?” but she was suddenly speechless. Sandwiches and coffee seemed utterly irrelevant in the next sentence after “disappeared” and “shot.” But she had to say something . . . do something.

            “Let’s . . . let’s find a couple mattresses for you before they all get taken,” she finally managed. On impulse she held her hand out to the little girl. “Would you like to help me lead the way, Jetmira?”

            The little girl hung her head but placed her hand in Margo’s and let herself be led among the long rows of mattresses until they came to two empty ones together.

            “Is this all right?” she asked the child’s mother, pushing the mattresses together. “You can put your bagazh here.”

            The family group just stood there. And then Margo realized: they had no luggage. Not the man, not his sisters, not the children.

            No suitcase. No bags. No purses. No diaper bag for the baby.

            No passports. No driver’s license. No identification.

            Just their names and the clothes on their backs.

            Margo wanted to weep. What an utter fool she’d been! As an American she hadn’t even been able to imagine what the word refugee meant when applied to people who looked like they could be her own brother, or sister, or father, or aunt. She’d thought of them as “visitors” who needed a little hospitality, and gratefully they’d listen as she shared how they could know Jesus and be saved from their sins.

            But how did one share Jesus with a family who had been driven out of their homes, out of their town, out of their country, at the point of a gun, under the sign of the cross?

            A tug on the sleeve of her sweat jacket jolted Margo out of her spinning thoughts. It was Adelina. “Please,” the woman whispered. “Help me . . . my baby . . . see?”

            Adelina fumbled with the baby’s clothes and began peeling them off. The little romper suit and diaper were utterly soaked and reeked of urine. Margo saw that the little boy’s bottom was an angry red and covered with sores, the accumulation of days with no clean clothes, no sanitation, no water for washing.

            Again Margo wanted to weep. Water for washing your baby’s bottom. How much she took for granted, even here in neglected Albania!

            Water. Well, at least that was something she could do. She went in search of the washbasins donated by the churches of Korca, and then stood in line for fifteen minutes at the women’s lavatory to get water. By now the gymnasium was overflowing with traumatized refugees, and she could hear some of the men on the welcome committee shouting to one another outside about diverting the remaining buses to the nearby soccer stadium and other emergency shelters. The number of refugees rolling into Korca on this night alone must be into the thousands by now. Thousands of refugees multiplied by thousands of basic human needs.

            Margo threaded her way back to where she’d left Adelina and her family, careful not to spill the basin of water. She couldn’t think thousands. She had to focus: one family, one baby, one basin of water to wash up a baby’s bottom. Hadn’t her coach taught her to ignore the thousands of yelling fans or opposition in the stands and just focus on the play? And hadn’t Jesus said that even giving a “cup of cold water” was worthy of God’s favor? And that if we welcome even a little child in His name, we welcome Christ Himself?

            Well, it was warm water, and more than a cup, but this was the next play for Margo White, ex-basketball player, campus missionary. She almost giggled as she set the basin down on the small space of floor between Adelina’s family and the next crowded mattress. Standing in the line at the restroom she had already anticipated the next two small crises: No washcloth. No diaper. But her mind was focused now: give Jesus what she had—just like the boy who gave Jesus his five loaves of bread and two fish—and let Jesus take care of the five thousand.

            She bent down, pulled off one of her Nikes, and handed Adelina her sock. “It was clean yesterday,” she shrugged hopefully. A slight smile softened Adelina’s face for a brief moment as she took the sock and wrung it out in the basin of water.

            As Adelina gently washed the baby’s angry bottom with her sock, Margo pulled the T-shirt she’d taken off in the lavatory from the pocket of her now zippered-up sweat jacket and held up the Chicago Bulls logo for Jetmira to see. “Do you know what this is, Jetmira?”

            The little girl’s tear-streaked face lit up in recognition. “Michael Jordan shirt!”

            Margo smiled. “Jo. Not any more. It’s a diaper.”


The End


NOTICE: This story is protected by copyright (© 2000 Neta Jackson). You are permitted to print ONE copy for personal enjoyment. Any other copying, printing, storage, or transmission by any means without the written permission of the author is prohibited. That means it is illegal. DON’T DO IT!


* Neta Jackson, “Saturday Night in the Korca Gym,” The Storytellers’ Collection (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2000), pp. 49-62.