This article first appeared in Albanian, in the magazine “Ilira Revista” under the title “Rrugëtimi i Sonila Potter”.
By Marie Notcheva
Twelve-year-old Sonila wanted ice cream.
Quietly, she slipped her hands into the pockets of her daddy’s old coat, looking for a bit of money to buy some. What she found instead intrigued her: a metal necklace, with a man attached to a cross. Perplexed, she went to her mother, who was cooking dinner. “What is this, mama? Who is this man?”
Her mother turned from the stove, a look of fear in her eyes. “Where did you find this?” she asked. Sonila’s mother Liliana had good reason to be fearful in 1989: the family had hidden Sonila’s father’s Greek Orthodox background, for fear of punishment under the Hoxha-Alia regime. “Put that back, Sonila! It’s a contraband item,” Liliana warned. “Later, my mother explained to me in secret that the cross portrays Jesus Christ, and that He died for our sins. She told me, ‘If you pray to Him, Jesus will hear you,’” Sonila recalls. “She strictly forbade me to tell anyone about him, because we could all get arrested.”
A Mother’s Quiet Example
Although Sonila had a child’s faith and wanted to know more about this God Who loved her, it wasn’t until she was 15 in 1991 that she was able to hear the Gospel and understand the Person and work of Jesus Christ. “I would pray as a child, when my parents told me about God, but I didn’t have a knowledge of sin,” she says. “In 1991, after the changes started, missionaries were handing out the translated Gospel of Luke at a church in Tirana, and I took one. I was so hungry to read it! There was a prayer in back, and it was as if my eyes were finally opened,” she says. “As I prayed, those words were coming straight out of my heart. Finally, I had understanding and I cried as I confessed my sin to this God I could finally know. I literally felt God’s love wrapped around me.”
Now free to attend church, with her parents’ encouragement, Sonila attended one of the first evangelical churches planted in Tirana. Despite the difficulties of life in the early 1990’s, both Sonila and her brother Genti became followers of Christ in part thanks to their parents’ courage and faith. “My mother was the best counselor for me,” Sonila says. “At the end of her life, when she was suffering from cancer, she told me ‘Don’t cry for me, Sonila. I’m going to see my Shepherd.” It was an example the young woman never forgot, and her mother’s legacy inspired a deep love for God and others in Sonila.
By age 20, she had a passion for missionary work and longed to see the Gospel brought to unreached people groups in Asia and around the world. “By age 20, I barely spoke any English, and I didn’t have much money. I thought, ‘How can God use me, an Albanian girl without English?’ So I prayed that He would simply send someone else,” she recalls. “But God had other plans. That same year (1998) He opened a door for me to serve him in a Christian Youth Hostel in Amsterdam, Holland. I was able to reach out to guests with the Gospel, and minister to their emotional needs.” At a Christian conference she attended with an American friend, the two decided to be missionaries and served for two months in the Philippines with YWAM (Youth With A Mission). Soon after, Sonila had short-term missionary opportunities in ten different Asian countries, where she served children, teens and young mothers living in extreme poverty.
Study to Show Yourself Approved…
As Sonila’s passion for serving God grew, so did her desire for learning. “The Lord sent me to Bible school in Germany for more training, and a deeper knowledge of His Word,” she says with amazement. With increased proficiency in English by this time, she was able to volunteer as a Wycliffe Bible translator and at Capernwray Bible School in England. “While I was serving in Asia, I developed a concern and compassion for people, but I lacked a broad [doctrinal] knowledge,” she says. “I thought of studying psychology to become a therapist, thinking this was a good way to help people. Fortunately, however, the Bible school offered biblical counseling courses. I read online about the difference between counsel that is biblical, and what psychology is based on…and I really felt that God protected me from going down that road.” Sonila completed a Bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling, and later went on to earn a second degree under Wayne Johnston, the President of the Biblical Counseling and Discipleship Association by doing online courses and studying independently.
Coming to America – the Challenges and Opportunities
In 2006, the man who would become Sonila’s husband was serving in the United States army in Afganistan. Sonila, living in England, “met” Emmett Potter in an online Christian community. Two weeks after their first conversation, Emmett and Sonila met in London. A friendship already in the making, Emmett gave her creationist Kent Hovind DVDs to watch just before she returned home to Albania.
“We stayed in touch for a few months, then Emmett traveled to Tirana for three days and met my family,” Sonila says. “Each time he had vacation time he came to Albania, and we married in November 2007. It took eight months for me to get a visa, but once I arrived in Michigan (USA), we had a second wedding ceremony.” The couple lived for six months in Michigan before moving to Massachusetts, where they have lived for the last seven years. Living out one’s Christian faith in the United States is not easy, and the couple, who now has three small children, has faced challenges.
“In Albania, there is a much greater sense of community; when you have friends as guests in your home, they are almost family,” Sonila explains. “Here, that is missing. There is a coldness, a feeling of detachment – especially here in Massachusetts. The church says it is a family, but people come and go….you rarely see them a second time. There is nothing like that true sense of friendship; of being invested in each other’s lives, like we have in the Balkans. We have been here for so many years, but cannot really feel like part of a church ‘family,’” she says.
Raising children in the knowledge of the Lord is another matter. Christian school is expensive in the United States, and Sonila acknowledges there is peer pressure all around to compromise her family’s convictions. “We do not celebrate Halloween, nor do we teach our children to believe in Santa Claus,” Sonila explains. “The holidays are to glorify Jesus and Him only. Others do not always understand or respect our decision in this regard.” Currently pursuing a Master’s degree in religious education, Sonila has even taught in a Christian school where her convictions have been challenged.
No Compromise Christianity
“I love reading the Puritans,” says the Albanian woman who has a library filled with English-language commentaries. “The writing of Thomas Watson and Thomas Brook are my favorites, and Richard Baxter’s “The Cure for Melancholy” is one we use often in biblical counseling. Today, they preach a ‘soft gospel’. In the past, these great men talked about sin,” she says. “Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, was not afraid to warn people about evil.” Sonila cites the aversion many American pastors have towards preaching about sin as one of the reasons compromise and moral laxity is such a problem in some American churches.
Nevertheless, it was through coming first to England and later to the United States that God opened many more doors of opportunity for Sonila Potter to serve Him. Nowhere do greater opportunities for theological study exist, which Sonila now uses in her ministry as a biblical counselor. She is able now to minister to other women in two languages, which is a valuable asset (there are 16,000 Albanians living in her state of Massachusetts, and few, if any, Albanian evangelical churches). And by the grace of God, this mother of three is freely able to raise her children in the love and knowledge of God – without having to hide symbols of their faith in coat pockets.