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News Item: Hanci Topalli in the Church News

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Hanci Topalli in the Church News 02 Nov 2010
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Albanian Mormon convert tells all of her love for the Savior

By Brooke Larson
Church News contributor
Published: Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

"Amen" was the sole word I siphoned from a flood of sound the first time Sister Topalli Hanci spoke to me. It seemed I had barely touched Albanian soil before I was lifted up again in the arms of this riotously staunch member of the Church.

Somewhere between her rapid Albanian and exultant gestures, I caught the pulse of her greeting. She loved the Church and the missionaries. She communicated this to me because she loved Jesus Christ. She swept me up like a force of nature then surged on, leaving me to reel and wonder and echo another amen.

In this confusion, I whirled my head and met a missionary's knowing smile. "You look like someone who's met Sister Hanci." I think each missionary in Albania has the experience that is Sister Hanci in common.

Sister Hanci attended sacrament meeting for the first time on April 6, 1995. She could not have known the significance of that date in Church history, or the personal significance it would soon have with her. Having lived all her life in a state that recognized no religion, Sister Hanci had never been inside a church building before.

Four years earlier, when Albania's communist regime fell, the first deluge of missionaries from various denominations poured into the country. Faith, in all its many appearances, overwhelmed this land of demolished chapels and mosques. Within the loud crowd of religious outreach, it was the unassuming figure of two women wearing black name tags that caught Sister Hanci's attention. After greeting her in the street one day, they invited her to join them on Sunday to worship.

When Sister Hanci woke up Sunday morning and told her husband she was going to church, he thought she was crazy. She couldn't explain the desire herself, but not knowing what to expect, she just had to attend.

It was fast and testimony meeting. She had never experienced anything like it. The testimonies both paralyzed and propelled her.

"I sat there and a hundred thoughts ran through my head," Sister Hanci said. "I said to myself, 'Are you ready to know God? Are you ready to give yourself to Him? To keep all His commandments? Are you ready?' "

Suddenly, Sister Hanci found herself on her feet sharing her own testimony. She vowed before God and the small congregation to come to Church every week and do anything God asked of her. A few weeks later, she was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church.

"Jesus said to love everyone," Sister Hanci said, rather matter-of-factly, "so that is what I do."

This means taking her iconic handshake and smile on tour, braving the bumpy distances between Albania's far-flung branches to greet the saints. Neither rough roads nor poor health slow her down.

Her enthusiasm is felt before she enters the meetinghouse. Sister Hanci lives to be an answer to someone's prayer. Within minutes of entering, everyone in the building receives an unforgettable welcome. She'll trot to the pianist simply to shake hands and kiss cheeks. In every encounter with this woman, the lines between greeting, testimony and prayer swirl into a blur.

To Sister Hanci, there is no difference between conversing and testifying, mingling and ministering — it's all communion to her. This manner can catch an unsuspecting visitor off guard. Some smirk or balk or maybe both — as was my first reaction. But before you know it, her sincerity disarms and befriends.

Zechariah prophesied of a day when even bells of horses and house jars would bear the Lord's name (see Zechariah 14:20). I see this scripture personified as Sister Hanci busily goes about making consecrated chit-chat and sealing hugs in the Savior's name.

For 15 years, Sister Hanci has stayed true to the self-imposed promise she made that first fast and testimony meeting. She has never missed a Sunday of Church meetings. She did miss part of one Sunday when she was hit by a car on the way to sacrament meeting. With both her legs badly injured, she stubbornly refused to go to the hospital until after she had greeted everyone in the chapel and shared her testimony.

The same determination defines her temple activity. The nearest temple is the Frankfurt Germany Temple. Though Sister Hanci doesn't speak a lick of German, she was not deterred by making the journey alone. She simply hung a sign around her neck saying, "Take me to the Frankfurt Temple." She wandered the airport until meeting someone, according to her prayers, who seemed to know what to do. Though she doesn't always have means to put bread on the table, she has found ways to make this trip seven times.

Life in Albania is not easy, especially as a Latter-day Saint. Sister Hanci's optimism sticks out like an anachronism; in many ways she is alone. She has journeyed from her orphan beginnings through four decades of history's most isolated communist regime to her place now as the lone Church member among her loved ones. Her three children were already grown when she was baptized. Like many Albanians, they find it hard to understand the place and purpose of religion after so many years of its instituted obsolescence. Her husband, though uninterested himself, has never hindered her faithfulness, which she counts as a great blessing.

Her commitment spills over into every facet of her life. Her husband says he hasn't been able to make a weekend visit to his hometown in 15 years because his bride will not miss a Sunday of Church. She nods to confirm, and with an impish grin, tells about her newest grandchild, "Moroni." The influence of her faith crops up bright, alive and irresistible between the cracks of what she cannot change.

Of course, this is not how she sees it. Her singular intensity strikes me as more than just quaintness, or even faithfulness. It is a survival tactic; a lens for seeing the world and a vision for changing it. With the bold strokes of her handshakes, from one corner to another, Sister Hanci paints the room. Here she goes, buzzing up and down the aisles, spraying God's designs on every cement wall of her world like some audacious artist.

In Albanian, when you understand, contemplate or consider something, you use the expression, "I have it before my eyes." With the understanding of the gospel in her life, Sister Hanci has a fundamentally different reality in front of her. It is by living this gospel that she paints the scene for those around her who cannot see it. In a land so long overshadowed by atheism, the light that she and other Albanian saints communicate is made all the more incandescent.
Joe D. Harris Send Email

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