Robbie mentioned a few times in the Slovenia blog post how much travel days stink. We didn’t even know the half of it until we left for Greece. A friend we often volunteer with in Omaha, who has spent several years on the mission field in Africa (and will actually return soon forever), Becca, told us about Helping Hands ministry in Athens and the amazing work they were doing there. Because of Becca’s many years abroad, she has spent considerable time making and developing relationships with a multitude of other Christians who have sacrificed privileged lives in the Western World for one of less glamour and more serving. Becca had gotten to know Robbie and me over a year and a half of working with refugees in Omaha. Our hearts definitely break for the same things. She told us she’d connect us with Nick, one of the head guys at HH Athens, since we were going to Europe anyway, and we could try to figure out a time to serve there.
From the get-go, Nick (an American Greek who moved to Athens from Finland after marrying his Finnish wife) was incredibly supportive and generous to us. From the very first email, he expressed such a genuine receptiveness to our story and the call we were following from the Lord to travel in this season. With his pure sincerity, he opened the door for us to volunteer absolutely whenever worked for our schedule or when we felt the Spirit leading us. For Robbie and me, following the Spirit’s guiding is a lot like believing that we are making the right choices to be in certain locations and for certain amounts of time based on the sincere seeking, reading, praying, yearning we do with the Lord daily. There isn’t a magical formula where as soon as Nick said, “come when the Spirit guides you,” we suddenly hear a voice that says, “The week of October 30th would be best.” (although, more than anything, I wish that’s how it worked). We have to believe that as we seek God’s will, and strive to live in it every day, with our focus only on Jesus, that our decisions on where we end up have had the Lord’s hand on it every step of the way. Our original trip to Athens had already been planned before I made contact with Nick, and for one, the length of time was really too short to do much, but also randomly the exact dates we were there in early October were the only dates Helping Hands wouldn’t be open this fall. So we took that as a sign the Lord was asking us to return at a later date and dedicate more than three days. So we would be returning from Saturday October 28th through November 9th. Nick recommended we spend one week with Helping Hands (his ministry that provides meals, English and Greek classes, showers, and a safe place with activities for Afghan and Iranian refugees–all while preaching the Gospel throughout every program they do) and another week with another ministry called Bridges (focused mainly on helping Syrians and Kurdish people establish asylum, giving psychological counseling for free, along with groceries and clothes). With his wisdom, we okayed the plans and have prayed and prayed and prayed about these couple of weeks for some time now.
We awoke at 5:30am to catch a GoOpti (basically Slovenia’s Uber for rides to and from the airport) to catch a morning flight to Turkey for a 7.5 hour layover in Istanbul and then on to Athens on an evening flight. We already knew it would be a long day, but it was really our only option when looking at flights… in fact our other options were having overnight layovers in other airports across the southeast of Europe instead. And since trains and public transport throughout the Eastern European countries is not reliable or frequent the way Western Europe is, this felt like our only option.
We got to the Ljubljana airport, quickly got through security, and waited for our section of the airport that had our gate in it to open up. We were surprised to see the gate we needed to get to required us to go through passport control since we hadn’t had our passports stamped or even looked at since entering Norway months ago. But no big deal, right? Wrong. We were the first in line when passport control opened their booth for travelers to start making their way back to their gates. Robbie hands over our passports to the tall, thin blonde woman, about 40 years old behind the glass. After some time of her flipping through our pages, mumbling under her breath, typing away at her computer, double checking our passports, and giving out a couple sighs, Robbie and I had a sinking feeling in our guts. “What could be wrong? We’re Americans traveling in Europe.”
We apparently didn’t do our research enough and had no idea this could potentially be an issue. So most of the countries of Europe are part of what’s called the “Schengen Area”. It’s named this because of some passport agreement that was signed between those countries. Americans (and likely residents of many other countries) can only spend a total of 90 days out of a 180 day span in the Schengen Area. Because Iceland is a part of that Schengen area and we traveled there in the last 180 days, that means we have just barely passed 90 days in this area of Europe. The passport control woman told us we should technically be fined a hefty fine and potentially be sent back to the U.S. or even banned from traveling in the EU for 1-5 years. It seemed shocking. How had we overlooked this detail?? In all the long-term travel blogs I read, all the travelers I’ve spoken to in person, all the information I googled, and never had I heard of this law. We felt stupid, embarrassed, and sick. Here we were about to embark on our last stop in Europe, in the only place on our trip so far that two ministries were actually really counting on us to be there, to serve, and to be present– and we might be shamefully heading back to the United States with a ban on traveling in Europe for years to come. We wanted desperately to go to Athens, to do the Lord’s work, to open our eyes to a refugee population we’d never been exposed to and to see the crisis from a different continent– and if God would be so kind, to also gain more clarity on our next steps.
The Slovenian lady could not believe we had never heard of the Schengen law as we looked on to her from the other side of the glass with the most authentic of clueless looks and with no way to explain ourselves. “You’ve really never heard of this?” “No! We are so sorry, but we really truly have never heard of this in our lives.” “No other border cop talked to you about this?” “Umm, we haven’t gone through border patrol in two months.” We proceeded with dialog about fines, and us telling her we would just pay whatever the fine was as long as we were allowed to get to Greece. We felt desperate as the line behind us grew longer and longer and everyone stared curiously at our trouble with the cop (this was the only window available for all the gates for flights exiting the Schengen Area).
She had pity on us and didn’t even make us pay the fines because 1.) she could tell we genuinely had no idea about any of this, and 2.) because we were leaving her country, not coming in. A border cop never told us about this because within the Schengen area country’s borders, they don’t have passport control– that day it mattered because we technically left the Schengen countries by going to Turkey for our layover. But we would be returning to a Schengen country when we arrived in Greece that night. The Slovenian lady said that Greece border patrol are some of the most relaxed border police you can encounter– that was good news for us. She said it is possible they may not “count our Schengen days” and let us in with no problem. But the other likely possibility is they could make us return to Turkey and maybe send us back to the U.S. and ban us from Europe.
After we made it to our gate, we took big breaths in our seats and fell pretty silent. We got connected to wifi and immediately started googling this whole thing. Sure enough, it’s all accurate (not that we thought it wouldn’t be). While Robbie and I were sitting down, arms around each other praying out loud, the Slovenian border patrol woman had walked out of her booth over to us. We stopped praying to pay attention. She wanted to double check some dates in our passports. The fear that she was about to deport us all over again returned. We expressed how stupid we felt, how sincerely sorry we were for our mistake, and how thankful we were that she didn’t fine us and that she was letting us get on that morning’s flight. Although at that point her assertive and somewhat aggressive demeanor had softened to pity, she was still very firm in warning us that if we were coming IN to Slovenia that day, she would not have spared us. That if we run into a Greek border cop anything like what we would in Slovenia, we would be going back to the states with some bans on our “record.” She told us she wished us luck in getting into Athens, but that we needed to understand the realistic possibility that this may not work out the way we wanted it to. We heeded her warning, got on board our flight to Turkey with the most anxiety either of us have ever felt brimming in our guts, and prayed.
Now begins the two and a half hour flight to Turkey, the seven and a half hour layover in Istanbul, and then the one hour flight to Athens. This would already be a crummy long day of travel, but this day it felt like the most dreaded eleven hours of our lives. With absolutely no guarantee that we would be sleeping in Athens that night, and having no control over figuring it out any faster, we sat in our anxiety and fear for hours upon hours. But let me tell you something– I’m so so thankful this happened to us. Yes! Robbie and I praise Jesus that He allowed us to be in a situation that would require such faith from us, that would push us into complete reliance on Him. We took turns praying out loud to one another on the flight in. We probably prayed fifteen long prayers just on the flight into Istanbul, the nerves in our bellies and bodies never subsiding. (Just writing about this experience 6 days later is causing some serious acceleration of my heart rate). We prayed and prayed, “God, we know you long to show your glory. We trust in you! Protect your children today. Protect us and be our provision, that we might brag of your unfailing mercy. You’re in control and we have faith in your mighty ways, whatever you decide. Calm our spirits and allow us to trust. We can’t change the mistake we made, but you knew we’d make this mistake long before we made it and you know the outcome. We ask your spirit to fall on the Greek border patrol. We ask for mercy today, that we might be able to serve in Athens and do your work. Help Robbie and me to be a team, to support each other, and remain calm, to make you proud. We love you no matter the conclusion. We praise you no matter the ending.”
We made it to Istanbul and I texted my sister Brett and my brother Austin. Robbie had me text our friends and refugee ministry partners back home: Quinn and Neal. Each of them displayed Jesus to us in unique ways in their responses. For one, Brett had been surprisingly woken up around 5am that Saturday morning (for no reason that she knew of. No alarm was set or anything. Clearly this was the Lord.) when a few minutes later my texts came through (it was afternoon for us, early morning for her). She vowed to us that since the Lord had already woken her up with divine timing, she would pray ceaselessly for one hour and then continue to pray throughout the day. She returned an hour later FULL of faith that we would be admitted into Greece with zero trouble. She wrote out four specific ways she was praying for us repeatedly and she heard the Lord tell her: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” and “No power of hell, no scheme of man will get in the way of it.” What a blessing. After reading these texts was the first time in hours my body didn’t feel out of control. Praise God. Brett and Austin both reminded Robbie and me to remember through this process to remember the plight of the refugee. To not take for granted being given an opportunity to feel the awful feeling of not knowing if you had a place to sleep that night, not knowing if you’d get rejected from a place you longed to be, not knowing if you’d be deported when you had done nothing “wrong.” Their wisdom was so important, for this was a lesson we may have missed if we didn’t have outside voices whispering truth to us in the chaos. Quinn and Neal both responded with confidence the Lord would be our provision, Quinn even saying, “For HIS glory, I believe He’s going to do it!” and Neal was a source of love and a reminder that he was constantly praying.
The Turkey airport had no wifi. Well they had wifi that neither Robbie’s phone nor my phone would connect to. So that left us without even the distraction of facetiming family, surfing the internet, or looking up more information on the situation. I don’t know how many times we prayed in that airport, but we sat in some seats near large windows looking out at the greyest day in Istanbul, waiting more than 5 hours for our gate to show up on the screens, and then two more for the departure, just praying and praying, talking about our situation, talking about the anxiety we were feeling, talking about what we would do if we were turned away and ended up back in the U.S. in the next couple of days and were banned from Europe for years, and then praying and praying some more. One of the worst parts is knowing there’s no one to blame except ourselves, and that it would be completely reasonable and just for them to reject us. We knew it was more likely we’d be sent away than be let in, but we prayed with bold confidence in our God who had a plan for us the next couple weeks in Athens and a plan for us in Asia after that. Robbie and I really did remain a team through it all. Even in the stress that Robbie said was the most stress (over the longest amount of time) he’s ever felt in his entire life, we were loving and patient with each other. We gave soft kisses on the cheek to one another, kept laying our heads on each other’s shoulder and reminding ourselves that we were thankful for the other one and thankful we didn’t have to do this alone.
We clung to the story of Ezra all day. I had just finished 1 and 2 chronicles and landed on Ezra our week in Slovenia. I ended up reading it three times. The first two times I think I was too distracted and rushed through it, not really understanding it or applying it. If you know me, I work really hard to figure out the application to my own life before I move on from a chapter or book. If I’m confused, I will read it again, and I will study the study Bible material until I’m in a better place of clarity. So I read Ezra a third time. This time it clicked with me. And God continually brought his story to mind while we waited in the airport. You see, Ezra, a scholar on the Law of Moses, was living under the king of Persia when he asked permission to lead a multitude of Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem. The Spirit fell on the king and he granted Ezra permission to go. It was going to be a 4 month, 900 mile journey to get there, long and exhausting, and the road to get there would open up the potential danger of outside enemy armies or pirates bringing about destruction to the people when they were vulnerable and unprepared. Ezra was too embarrassed to ask the king for military protection because he had bragged about his God being a great God who protects His children. So Ezra buries his head in his hands and pleads with God for that protection and providence, having faith that his God would come through for his people. And sure enough. Ezra 8:23 “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.” Robbie and I were comforted by the reminder of this story in our minds that we had read about just a day before. We KNEW God would listen to our entreaty.
After what felt like a millenium of time had passed, we boarded our flight from Turkey to Greece, around 8:30pm, after the sun had long gone away. We had this unknown in our heads from 8 in the morning when the sun was fresh to now when the sky was dark and the airport was quiet with other sleepy travelers. The flight was conveniently pretty empty and we didn’t have anyone sitting next to us in our row so we could relax and spread out. This flight was fairly luxurious, for no reason I could think of, and I distracted myself with episodes of a silly tv show on the screens attached to the seat backs while Robbie attempted to sleep with his head on my lap. I rubbed his shoulder and prayed over him and us in my head several times in that hour. Robbie prayed for us when he woke up and we knew it was out of our hands, but in our God’s.
We got off the plane, shuffled into passport control along with everyone else on the flight. We were one of the last people in the non-Greek passport line–only one guy at the counter, just like in Slovenia. We waited with thumping hearts and hopeful faith. We watched as many many tourists ahead of us were getting paid way too much attention to– waiting 5 or 8 minutes to be allowed through when it should usually take less than sixty seconds. This border cop was paying attention to the details, and he was taking his time with each person. Stress settled in, yet we prayed and knew whatever happened, our God’s story is better than anything we could write. We are used to the usual questions (what were asked of us in Jamaica, Iceland, Ireland, and Norway up until this point) of “Why are you traveling to ‘xyz'”, “How long are you staying here?”, and maybe a “Where are you traveling FROM and what did you do there?” We were prepared to answer those typical questions, as we could tell everyone was being stopped. Our turn comes, we walk up to the glass, pass over our passports, and as soon as the cop flips to our back stamp pages, he gets interrupted. Two Greek travelers have knocked on the back door of his patrol booth for some reason. He drops our passports, rolls his office chair backwards, opens the door and exchanges some Greek words with some men with suitcases. After a minute, he comes back to his desk and our passports. He flips back to the stamps, presumably to count our days– when he realizes the travelers who he’d interacted with had left without closing his booth door. He drops the passports again, gets up and closes the door. By the time he comes back, it’s almost like he can’t remember if he’s asked us any questions, looks up at us and back down at the passports and just sort of quickly stamps them assuming that he had. Without a single greeting exchanged, we had our passports stamped and back in our hands. We were completely free to enter. Two divine interruptions that kept the border patrol man from staying focused on what he was doing. Eleven hours of stress and panic and anxiety led to the Lord’s complete and smooth utter provision. I had laughing tears when we got to baggage claim, as our backpacks were the very first luggage to come onto the belt (which never happens). It was almost like, “grab your bags and run.” Haha Just Kidding.
It was in these moments we knew the Lord was telling us, “I know you’ve been crying out for clarity. I know you’re longing to know what your next steps are. I hear you. You are HEARD and SEEN and KNOWN and NOT forgotten. But remember that I am in control. I hold your future. This is my tangible reminder to you that I’m still here and I’m for you both, children. In my timing, it will be revealed, but be patient and know that I am GOD.” We aren’t proud of the fact that we’re in a country technically illegally. We would never purposefully do this. It was never our intention. BUT through this situation, God’s love and glory was seen in powerful ways for us. We know He is near, and He has great plans for His children (us– and you too! He has great plans for those that seek Him with their whole hearts).
We flagged a taxi outside the airport, made a chaotic drive to our airbnb during Athens’ Saturday night traffic on a popular futbal game night. Robbie and I squeezed each other’s hands in the backseat of the taxi in the dark, breathing more easily than we had all day. I whispered into Robbie’s ear, “We are going to praise God big time when we get to our place.” and Robbie whispered back, “DUH”. ❤ hahaha It was pretty obvious we were on a fairly sketchy road when the taxi driver dropped us off. After a weird interaction with our host to get the keys and her just leaving us by the front lobby door of the apartment outside and telling us “your room’s on the third floor,” we hauled our backpacks and bodies up there, dropped everything inside the door and celebrated. Praise you Jesus for your provision, for listening to our entreaty. We adore you!
We got a church recommendation from Nick Dimakides, our Helping Hands guy, and walked the kilometer to get there by 9:45am the next morning. International Christian Fellowship is led by an American man and his wife (Pat and Brenda) who were missionaries in Mozambique for 18 years, but felt God asking them to lead in Athens six years ago. We arrived at a building that was the right address but it only led us into an alleyway with a door leading only to an elevator. We noticed a sign on the wall nearby (along with a handful of other paper advertisements) that said “ICF-Athens 7th floor”. We got off on the seventh floor and went straight into a small room with a stage. We were excitedly greeted by a sweet woman at the back, as we were twenty minutes early. The worship team was still practicing as Robbie and I took our seats. (Come to find out, it was daylight’s savings time but we had no idea until the pastor remarked about this, so it’s a great thing my phone switched times on us automatically otherwise we would have been more than an hour early and so confused!). There couldn’t have been more than thirty-five people in attendance, but the congregation was the most diverse we’ve ever been in. It was amazing. Filipinos, Kenyans and Somalis (I overheard a couple conversations), and people from all over the Middle East. Besides the pastor and his wife and another missionary couple, we were the only white people there, and we loved that. Even though the worship setlist was straight out of a 90’s church service, Robbie and I felt so refreshed to be involved in corporate worship again (for the first time in 3 months), singing and praising our King together with the body of Christ. The sermon was all about the love of God, how He loved Peter even when he denied Him and just the same when Peter swam to Jesus after He was resurrected. Praise God He loves us when we are stupid AND obedient. Afterward, there was optional fellowship upstairs on the eighth floor. We opted to go, and ended up being rewarded with cake for pastor appreciation month (homemade moist carrot cake and chocolate cake by a congregation member). 😉 We got to speak with an Iranian man who kindly approached us! He was probably close to 40. He told us he’s a refugee living in a refugee camp just outside of Athens (I had no idea there were refugee camps in Greece!!). He told us how the Lord has changed his life, how he spends his days writing screenplays and looking for work.
We also connected with Amanda and Kennon, a sweet couple from Texas (probably late twenties) who just moved to Athens three weeks earlier to pursue missions focused primarily on Greek university students. So pumped to meet people who were so fresh into the missionary life, I asked Amanda a million and one questions. She was so precious to answer them all with such patience. They had gone to Thessaloniki, Greece for a short trip together with a team from Chi Alpha a couple years ago. While there, they really broke ground with a couple of Greek college kids during an in-home Bible study. These teens were so interested in God and they were fascinated with the lifestyle of Amanda and Kennon, saying they had never met anyone who was so kind, so loving without wanting anything in return. One of the boys told Kennon, “I need you to move to Greece so I can have someone who can hold me accountable to living a Christ-centered life, since I have no example of that in my life.” So that was the sign they had been praying for. They fundraised for a little over a year and they’re here now with their two small children, with no intention to leave. They’ve stayed in touch with the boys and they said they’re living for the Lord. Praise God. Their heart is for Greek nationals, and they said we all need to be praying for the Greeks. Apparently a majority of Greeks will say they’re Christians, but upon further conversation, you really find out they’re atheists. They have a strict history of orthodox living that’s caused a burn out in faith and many have rejected religion and their hearts are hardened. They need the Gospel to know it’s not religion we are preaching, but a life lived walking alongside a Savior that loves and cares for them, not a distant spirit that demands them to follow laws and rules. Amanda and Kennon also spoke into the reality of a large percentage of Greeks (and Greek “Christians”) really rejecting immigrants. There’s rampant racism and prejudice here, just like anywhere else.
It was 12:30pm when we were finally getting kicked out of the building since we stayed talking so long. Sounds a lot like our typical Sundays in Omaha. 😉 We found Helping Hands on our way back to the airbnb to make sure we would know how to get there the next day. (I should also mention that both Amanda and Kennon and the pastor and his wife warned us heavily about the neighborhood we were staying in when they found out we had a place in Omonoia neighborhood. In fact, they continually told us to watch our pockets and belongings and implored us not to be out past dark. They seemed very serious about this, so we trusted them.) We chose our place because it was going to be within walking distance of both the ministries we were serving with, even after also being told from Nick to stay away from booking a place nearby. But Robbie and I didn’t want to purchase metro tickets every day and we also wanted to be in the place we’d be serving, to have a better picture of the realities of the refugee crisis. We weren’t there to have a luxurious stay by the sea. We were there to do God’s work). Robbie and I grabbed some food from a Greek bakery (along with what turned out to be my favorite Greek dessert so far– no idea what it’s called but it looked like a big circle pretzel, but tasted like a shortbread cookie with crunchy buttery layers).
This blog post is already going to be way too long as it is, so I’m going to really attempt to streamline our experiences. Sunday night we got an email from Kenn, the short term teams coordinator with HH, saying he had made a scheduling error and the Monday “extended prayer day” (which was literally going to be 6 straight hours of praying with the team) was actually just a staff meeting day and so nothing would be happening until Tuesday. I won’t dwell on this too much, but we were devastated. We were beyond pumped to spend that kind of time praying and interceding and bonding with the team. I bawled my eyes out and Robbie sweetly held me on the bed (literally like a baby haha), wiped my tears and told me that we could have our own extended prayer time regardless and that it would be great.
Monday looked like grocery shopping at “AB City” (the supermarket a block away), making food together, and reading our Bibles and praying for four hours. We felt invigorated and ready for the week ahead, hoping God would bring His Grace on Athens. Tuesday morning we went to the “optional” prayer time before morning activities. Helping Hands is located on Sofokleus Street, a street known in the city for its prostitution, drugs, and criminal activity. I was told not to make prolonged eye contact with men and to walk quickly. As we got closer and closer to Sofokleus, the smell of urine and feces was fairly overwhelming. Business owners were out on the sidewalks opening up their shops for the day and hosing down their portion of the sidewalk, to make it walkable from the mess that occurred the night before. Everywhere you look in this part of Athens (and really in every part of Athens we have explored) there is graffitti in all directions. There’s not a building in eyeshot, anywhere you look, anywhere you are, that doesn’t have the first floor drenched in spray paint. This was a daily occurrence, walking in to that smell, being met with a crowd of mostly men congregating along the street doing who knows what, and me hurriedly walking into the alleyway to ring the HH doorbell, avoiding eye contact with everyone as much as possible. I’m sure I’ll touch on this more later, but if I don’t, I want to be sure to mention that fear is not manufactured by God– we were not given a spirit of fear. No, this is an emotion made by man by the influence of Satan. I let human’s warnings really get to me (as many of the HH staff also gave continued warnings about the neighborhood and not being out past dark too). I should say that Robbie was never scared and was super confident in our safety. And by the end of the first week, I wasn’t scared at all either. We actually are incredibly grateful we chose to stay in Omonoia, right in the midst of the people struggling the most. We ended up truly seeing the charm in the streets and the alleys. As everything became familiar to us and we didn’t need a map anymore to get around, it felt like home. It felt comfortable and beautiful in its own right.
We met the other short term team (from Lifegate church in Omaha! Total coincidence, but so fun to be in the presence of people who have mutual friends with us and live on our same streets), and many of the staff from HH. Now I’m going to give an overview of our week there, so as not to drag this out and to make sure I highlight the important parts.
+We cannot even begin to express how inspired we were by Helping Hands’ staff. The reader must understand I have done a TON of volunteering in my life. And consistent volunteering at that. (Two full years of twice weekly volunteering in a struggling English class in a high school, two plus years of weekly volunteering at the Hope Center, two years of mentoring an at-risk youth, 8 months of weekly volunteering at the Open Door Mission, a year and a half of weekly time with refugees, etc.) The best parts about this ministry that makes it stand out high above every other place I’ve dedicated time to is their extreme and GENUINE commitment to PRAYER. This is no joke. Prayer is interwoven into all they do and we prayed for hours every day we were there. One or two hours in the morning, and half an hour or hour in the evenings after the refugees went home. Prayer time wasn’t a burden, but a joy. Not an item to check off their list, but a choice they made because they wanted to do it. These prayer times were fluid and everyone built on each other’s. There was freedom to just shout it out as the Lord led you, and as I would open my eyes to the room around me praying I witnessed tears, arms raised, and hands in receiving position. It struck me that these people pray this much all the time, even when we’re not there, and they’re not weary of it– instead they’re seeing amazing fruit come from it. Prayer is so important to these people and their joy and dedication to prayer points to their utter reliance on the Lord, their letting go of control, and makes so much sense why their ministry is as blessed as it is. God is in that place, that’s for sure.
+That brings me to my next point: the staff is so genuinely full of JOY! Robbie and I have never seen people doing this hard of work day in and day out who still have the fervor, kindness of spirit, and joy that these people have. They are MARKED by it. Ruth, a fifty something American woman who lived fifteen years in Afghanistan, learned Dari (a language of Afghans), moved back to the States for one year before realizing she needed to get back onto the mission field (Ruth really had a soft spot for Robbie, constantly treasuring him for his dedication to the children that came through the door. She kept acknowledging the huge need they have for grown men to play with the children and how uncommon that is), Tasha and Christy, two early-thirties single American women who gave up everything 9 years ago to move to this spiritually dark place, learned Farsi and haven’t looked back, Chris, a sixty-something British woman who also lived in Afghanistan near Ruth for more than a decade, working with blind people, knows the language (she loved that Robbie and I were called on this adventure because she said she was called on a similar adventure around the world in the Seventies, finding her faith along with her calling to the Middle East), Marta, a woman in her late twenties from the Czech Republic who went against her parents wishes to move to Athens two years ago because she couldn’t get Afghans off her heart, Alex and Sabrina who left their comforts and privileges in Germany to serve refugees, and of course joyful Nick (the man who wraps his arms around you every time you see him, telling you he loves you so much even when he knows nothing about you). And then two of the most precious 17 year-olds from Finland who have taken a gap year to spend three months serving in this ministry. Annakaisa and Erika are their names and I grew to really love them both. Their hearts are so full, so willing, and their smiles speak of Jesus. We called each other sisters by the end of the week and Annakaisa and I had the longest emotional hug our last night there, her generous spirit explaining how overwhelmingly sad she was I wouldn’t be back next week. We promised to pray for each other (which we have been) and that we’d follow each other along the journeys the Lord has for us on instagram and one day Robbie and I would make it up to Finland and stay with them. All of them– marked by JOY. It’s inspiring to see people who have been in ministry for years and years who are just as pumped for the Gospel as anyone I’ve ever seen fresh to the faith. What an impact these people made on us. Robbie and I can’t seem to stop talking about this.
+ALL of the staff knows Farsi. If that’s not a commitment to their people group, I don’t know what is. Language is something that I’ve been playing around with in my head since the very beginning of this trip. I’m obsessed with the thought of learning a language, and I think I know why God has laid that on my heart in this season more than ever. It’s so intimidating to think about learning a language, as Robbie and I have never done that before and feel like we are so bad at that, but I can feel God calling us into that desire for the future. There’s a statistic of how much more likely a person is to understand and make personal their decision to follow Jesus if the Gospel is preached to them in their heart language. My girlfriend Quinn gave me this encouragement as I caught up with her this week, “What language would Jesus use to speak to each of His people?— Their own.” Quinn moves to Japan next week for permanent full time missions work. And she knows this more than anyone as she will be embarking on two full years of language training before she actually starts her official mission. Pretty amazing. There’s no way for me to adequately express how badass it is to see American women sitting down at a table of Afghan and Iranian peoples, jumping into their conversations in Farsi like it’s nothing. These people have worked SO HARD to meet these refugees halfway (or more than halfway) and to bridge the ever-wide gap between races and cultures. And you can tell how loved and known they are for it. The refugees walk into that space and know they’re at home with people who can speak to them, who hear their hearts and know they are understood on some level.
+Helping Hands proclaims Jesus. They’re not a ministry that never mentions God, just hoping that their actions speak louder than their words (although I KNOW without a shadow of a doubt the Lord is using ministries like this just the same– especially those that have to hide Jesus’ name due to restrictive laws that could cost them their lives if Jesus is spoken about). HH puts it bluntly with every morning announcement (in both English and Farsi) to the room full of refugees, that they are feeding them and clothing them because of Jesus’ love. That we love because He loves us, and died for us. They are unashamed and they don’t live in the fear that by proclaiming this Truth that it could offend people and they won’t return— in fact they live in the truth that God continues to bring hundreds and hundreds of refugees back to that building every week and they come back ready to hear more of the WORD, ready to hear about Jesus as the SON OF GOD and not just as a prophet, ready to hear about the freedom this Savior offers. In fact just this week while we were there, a refugee man came in saying, “Two weeks ago I came here with chronic leg pain that has lasted for years and you all prayed over me in the name of Jesus. I was too scared to tell you at the time, but the pain went away immediately. I’m having back pain now and I’m back because I want to ask you if you would pray in the name of your Jesus. Your Jesus listens.” I feel like we Americans are so afraid to open our mouths and preach the Truth because it “might turn someone off.” I just don’t think when we’re face to face with Jesus we’ll ever be able to justify ourselves, our keeping this good news to ourselves. I don’t want to have regrets over whose lives I could have a hand in transforming if I just speak joyfully and humbly about my Jesus. The Jesus who heals and redeems and makes brand new. There was a woman without her hijab who came in, that the women staff knew well. They had never seen her without her scarf on. I got to hear the story afterward of her telling them in Farsi that through continued return experiences at Helping Hands, with exposure to the Gospel, she felt she had the FREEDOM to take her scarf off, that she was safe. She said, “It was whispered into my ear as an infant that I would always be a Muslim. But I have come to Greece and I know now I have a choice.” GUYS what blessing and redemptions is the world missing out on by not being preachers of the Gospel in our daily conversations and interactions??
+By now can you tell that Robbie and I were influenced by the staff at HH more than anything else? They gave us a picture of the daily life of a missionary and how to choose to walk in that title with grace, class, passion and kindness. We quickly realized we wanted our roles there to look more like serving behind the scenes in ways that would make the daily role of the long-term dedicated missionary lighter and easier. We know that being there one week won’t do a ton of good when we don’t know the language and our relationships with the refugees will not continue on past Friday, but if we could pitch in in the kitchen, cooking and doing dishes, or sweeping the building and mopping or playing with the kiddos, it could give the full time staff the opportunity to not think about those details but focus entirely on sitting across the table from the refugees and investing long term. So we did a lot of just that, purposefully, and we were so graciously appreciated for it. But we also got to serve 140 Afghans food [one day it was homemade falafel with french fries (this is their inexpensive option of a potato side dish), another day it was salad with thick pita bread and french fries, and another day it was baked chicken with pita and fries.] we got to help a bunch of kiddos craft paper baskets to put two little paper fishes and 5 small pieces of naan bread in them after we sat with them and watched a video depiction of Jesus feeding the 5000 in their language, I got to color adult coloring book pages with many Afghan women and children for hours one day (apparently most of these adult women have never colored in their lives and they have discovered how much they love it and how therapeutic it is– I think so too!–and it was precious to see them not be able to color in the lines. I loved watching them learn a new “skill”), and Robbie got to play chess with several Afghan men and got to have a great lengthy conversation about life with an 18 year old Pakistani kid who knew great English. What a blessing!
Our week at Helping Hands ended with a truly emotional prayer session. Ruth prayed for Robbie and me that God would deliver us clarity in our future as the whole group sat in our nightly circle after the refugees had left, debriefing the day, talking about what we had seen the Lord do that day, and praying. I cried to Nick about our cherished and treasured week there, as he stood with his arm around Robbie’s shoulders for ten minutes sharing encouragements. As Robbie and I told people at HH how confused we still were about our future, we were told by staff, “Remember that YOU may be confused, but the God you serve is NOT confused at all! Get ready for big things! He HAS a plan!” TEARS TEARS TEARS. This place was a vulnerable and safe place for us to come, to serve, and to shockingly be loved like family in return. Praising Jesus for it. Praising Jesus for examples of people fully surrendered. Examples of people completely sold out for Christ. Examples of people who don’t care what they’re missing out on in the States or the Western World to live and be immersed in what God’s doing.
Robbie and I had Saturday to ourselves. We spent it sleeping in and then finding a place in the city to take passport photos because we realized we needed extra ones to be able to get into Cambodia in a couple of weeks. We ran by a Greek bakery (or two) to grab some goodies, and enjoyed the drizzly day inside doing laundry, reading, and having long winded conversations about our future. These 12 days here in Athens have housed an unbelievable amount of hard conversations for us. We have spent every night coming home to our place in Omonoia just before dark, grabbing groceries at AB City (specifically need to mention how obsessed we became with these Greek biscuit cookies that had a dark chocolate top coating. I am ashamed to say how many boxes of these we bought these two weeks and how many cookies I consumed. The funny thing is they’re called “digestive biscuits” so even Greece, like America, attempts to make something unhealthy seem healthy by the name or the way it’s advertised. You’d think that repulsive name would have kept us from originally buying them, but definitely not! haha), cooking, and sharing our hearts with each other and with God. Every night we have exchanged our emotions with one another in beautiful and tough ways. We are both beyond eager to do the Lord’s will, in fact our every fibre aches to be in it. We feel confused and tired on one hand, and yet totally sold-out for Jesus, giddy and joyous on the other. God is humbling both of us, stretching us, and making us brave and giving us good communication. Our talks are never tear-filled, they’re optimistic and kind, like everything that our relationship stands for. We are loving and patient and unnecessarily apologetic. We pray with heads buried in each other’s chests, hands squeezing hands, and crying out to God. We got another reminder of God’s sweetness Sunday evening (I’ll touch on that soon).
Sunday we went back to ICF and loved seeing faces of people we knew and talked to from last week. These people immediately remembered us and it was so sweet. One of the faithful HH volunteers, Ella, a petite Filipino woman, was there and recognized us also. We took some time after the service to aimlessly wander the streets around the church, walking through a market and a shopping district. The sun was out and it was a beautiful day. At four o’clock we walked to Bridges. Bridges is an NGO (non-government organization) that is run by Christians, that has Arabic Bibles all over shelves on the walls that are free for the taking, and offers church service Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings but doesn’t technically speak of God to their “audience” daily. Voula is a Greek woman married to Ilias, a Syrian man who relocated to Athens when he was 15 in 1989–so though he is Syrian, he was not a refugee. The two of them started Bridges in just 2013. Their story is magnificent. Ilias, in his early forties and starting to bald, has broken English and the biggest smile. The man RADIATES Jesus. He moved to Athens at 15 after he had an evil group of peers pour gasoline on him and light him on fire. Can you possibly imagine?? He spent months in the hospital recovering. In fact he was even blind for some months due to the tragedy– and the Lord restored his sight completely. And it reminds me of my own dad’s plane crash miracle story, because, like my dad, Ilias has zero visible burn scars on his body. You’d have no idea he fought for his life 30 years ago as his organs were waiting to fail on him due to burns. So somewhere during the fight of his life, Ilias gave his life to Christ and he met Voula soon after at a church in Athens when they were young. He made it clear to her then and for many many years after that he did not want to speak Arabic. He would only speak Greek, even forgetting some of his native tongue (because he viewed his home in Syria as evil due to the violent incident, ridding himself of all ties there. Voula told us that they’ve only been to Syria four times in their multiple decade marriage to visit his family because it’s still tough for him.) They even raised their children without ever teaching them Arabic (Voula doesn’t know Arabic, just to make that clear). Then the war in Syria started, then the refugee crisis. “His people” were flocking to Athens, good people who didn’t deserve this terrible struggle, desperate and needy. He had gotten a job in Qatar in 2012 after suffering a bit from Greece’s financial crisis. The new job was really good and had wonderful pay. They planned to move the family to Qatar. And then the Lord spoke. God asked him to give up his job and his financial stability to stay in Athens, be the hands and feet, and to start a ministry helping the very people he had worked so hard not to associate with. And they were obedient. He “relearned” or at least resolved to restart using Arabic again after years of non-use. Four years later and their ministry that helps hundreds of Syrians (and now Kurdish people too) every day actually only employs Syrian and Kurdish refugees. Voula is the only Greek there. She is a licensed counselor and gives free psycho-social therapy to these people in need.
We had set up a meeting with Voula Sunday at 4pm and then would attend their Sunday evening church service at 6. The building was right on the corner of a square in Omonoia with a multitude of homeless people sleeping near and around the building. We walked inside and admired the floor to ceiling windows that lined two of the four walls, and really, just overall how well they had furnished the place. It was the furthest thing from what you might expect. The space was lovely, clean, spacious, and modern. Voula told us when the building was given to them not too long ago, it was far from what it was currently. They had put a lot of work into it to make it what it was, but it was clearly worth it. Our hour long meeting was wonderful, Voula asked us a lot about our journey and where God was leading us and we loved learning about her and Ilias, Bridges, hearing stories, and gaining a perspective new and different from the things we learned at HH.
Church was great. We sat in chairs along the long window wall of the building, halfway back, listening to Ilias preach about Samson in Arabic (and then waiting every other sentence for his English translator to translate what he was saying for their half-English speaking audience). He spoke with such enthusiasm, hand gestures, and excitement that I would have been totally fine just listening to it in Arabic without the translation. We met Shamah, a Kurdish man our age, stylish and with a mighty nice beard (or so Robbie thought. Robbie was so impressed with it. hahaha). He is employed by Bridges, translating Arabic to Kurdish both in therapy sessions and in church services. His translations went into the ear pieces of the Kurdish population of the tiny congregation. Shamah knew very little English but it was so cool that he approached us to make us feel welcome. He pulled up a chair to our spot in the row before service began and we got to hear about how he was baptized two years ago after coming to faith due to Voula and Ilias’ influence, and how his family is still in Iraq and he’s praying for their salvation. Will you pray for Shamah’s family with us? He also tried to teach us hello, good morning and good afternoon in Kurdish but we are downright terrible at pronouncing things without seeing it spelled out, but we had some good laughs. He was really awesome and he left Robbie and me smiling. He said he came up to us because he recognized us from church that morning (apparently he had been at ICF!). So sweet!
Right as the message was starting, a girl around our age sat down next to Robbie for the service. The whole time she sat there, I kept feeling like we needed to talk to her. I can’t explain why, except God. After service was over, we immediately jumped into conversation. We were kindly served tiny key lime pies (like not a small slice of key lime pie but like a whole mini key lime pie topped with baked whipped cream DELICIOUS) and chocolate covered sesame sticks (sesame sticks are everywhere in Greece) by a refugee man who noticed we were hanging out without food. So precious. Lucy was this girl’s name and she also served us right away by grabbing three hot teas with sugar for each of us to enjoy with the new desserts we all had in our hands (this Middle Eastern tea is so good. Has a slight spice like chai but not too strong and perfect with a little spoonful of sugar. I had one or two cups a day while we were there for the week). Such loving people. Anyway, Lucy is a 27 year old British woman with curly brown hair tied into a braid, who is humble, with a small voice but commanding confidence. Her story is stunning and brave and wonderful. She has lived in Athens for the last nine months. Her family is not believers and a year ago she told them, “I think God is asking me to be more hands on in the refugee crisis. I’m going to quit my job, sell everything, and move to Syria.” Her family was incredibly unsupportive. She fairly quickly realized maybe her desire to move to Syria to help was great and all, but maybe wouldn’t be that easy. Could she even actually legally move there given the circumstances? She wasn’t sure, but she gave her desires to God, and felt the Lord pushing her toward something, but just wasn’t quite certain exactly what it was. So she went forward with selling everything she owned. It came down to the very last day she was allowed in her apartment. She had no plan at all. She had no idea what God wanted her to do or where to go. While she was moving out on that last day she got a call from a friend saying, “Lucy, I got word from my brother who is in Athens working with Samaritan’s Purse that they need more help as soon as possible. Can you move to Athens?” Lucy knew that God, in His perfect timing, gave her the answer she had been begging for– even though it felt like He wasn’t going to come through. She moved to Athens that week and hasn’t looked back. And she just keeps getting cooler to Robbie and me because Samaritan’s Purse a couple of months ago actually pulled out of Greece completely. The Greek government took over the rescue of refugees, so organizations like these are no longer present there, for better or worse. Lucy knew that God was still asking her to be in Athens with refugees. She’s been without a paycheck for four months– literally hasn’t made a dime, but volunteers most days at a ministry tea house that gives free coffee, tea and wifi to anyone who stops in (which is oftentimes refugees), and then gives the rest of her time to volunteering with a ministry that schedules her to make home visits to refugees that either desire to have an illness and would love emotional support and someone to talk to, someone to play with their kids or take them to and from school, or to just be in the home and share a meal with for emotional support given the trauma they’ve been through. Lucy talked about what a beautiful and humbling reversal of roles she’s found herself in where she doesn’t have a paycheck but gets fed large meals every day by refugees in their home who are so honored and privileged to have her there and to serve her. She gets to share with them the love of Christ. She plays with handicapped children and gives emotional support to a mom with cancer. She made a friend in Athens who has let her stay with her rent free. She’s living her life so sold-out for Christ, so dependent on Him that she would have ever right to be panicked every day and freaked out about the loss of control she has in her life right now. But instead, she’s sharing her heart with us over Middle Eastern tea and mini key lime pies in an Arabic speaking church with refugees surrounding us, with the most tender spirit and smile. What Robbie loved the most about Lucy is that she said she was literally selling wine at a wine shop for five years when God called her into this. Robbie loved that because he always thinks he’s so unqualified to do what we dream of doing. Meeting Lucy came at the perfect time for us. For one, she tried to convince us Athens was where God was calling us (haha, she was only kidding, but it was just really sweet), but she was quick to encourage us telling us how brave we are for doing what we are doing traveling and seeking a greater call on our lives (brave is honestly the last thing Robbie and I feel yet so many Christians we’ve met in Athens have said that very thing) and that we should “get ready” because when you give God everything like she did and we are doing with our prayers, He is “going to rock your world.” She was so kind to Robbie about him feeling unqualified as a Civil Engineer to do God’s work and she gave some of the sweetest words. We exchanged phone numbers, hugged tight and praised God for getting to meet each other. We ended up texting all week long planning to hang out and do some ministry together in the evenings either at the tea house or at a refugee’s house, but different things kept tying her up and keeping her from being able to commit to something with us. That’s okay, I thank God we met her. Her sweet voice of wisdom on a precious night in Athens.
So back to Bridges: this is totally new info for Robbie and me, but apparently in order to make an appointment for asylum with the government office, the only way a refugee can do this is via a Skype call. Apparently also Skype calls made from an NGO office are given higher priority on the queue, so this is why hundreds flock to Bridges every day of the week for this instead of calling on their own phones at home or in the camps. As if these people didn’t already have enough going on and complicated enough lives, there are multiple additional factors that makes this process even more maddening. Here we go. Kurdish speakers get one hour of one day of the week to place their calls. This is the same for other lesser known languages like Farsi and Dari speakers. Arabic speakers have it a little easier getting one hour of a couple days of the week to make the call. So for instance, Mondays are the busiest day of the week for Bridges because Mondays are Kurdish people’s day to call the government office. So that means hundreds, if not thousands, of Kurdish people are trying to make a Skype call to Athens asylum office between 11am and noon every Monday. It’s the only time they’re allowed to. If they don’t connect in that hour, they have to wait seven more days (168 hours) before they’re able to attempt it again. And here’s the thing– it’s really unlikely you’ll get through. Athens doesn’t have enough funds to hire the government staff they need to process the amount of calls they have coming in each day of the week. Another inconvenience is this: Once you do get the Skype call to connect to a person at the government office, that’s simply just to get a time in the calendar that gives you a date you can come in to the office to process your asylum request. And then after that? Well it could take months more before you actually receive your official asylum. And that’s just good for one year of legal residence in Athens. That doesn’t mean you are good to go to get your family to another EU country or place of opportunity. I hope I’m doing the travesty and dire inconvenience of this situation justice.
So Monday morning Robbie and I are in the building with hundreds of Kurdish people waiting their turn to use the computers upstairs to attempt to make their Skype calls. At once, a man abruptly begins yelling loudly. In an instant the chatter of the waiting area falls silent. His voice is booming and carrying across the open floor plan. He’s very angry. It’s amazing you don’t have to understand the language of the person to understand the emotion behind it. A few male staff members rush upstairs to get ahold of the situation. More screaming, tables being shoved, chairs falling over. Things are still silent downstairs where I am. He starts making his way down the stairs with hundreds of brown eyes staring at him all the way down. He grabs a glass vase off the shelf lining the stair wall. He intentionally shatters it onto the marble stairs. Ilias escorts him out. As quickly as the space fell silent, the chatter picked up again. A million thoughts ran through my head. A scene like this would ordinarily push me to thoughts like, “Ugh! That man should just be grateful. He’s so disrespectful to the very people who are trying to help him!” or “Wow, what a jerk. He needs to calm down!” but to be honest, those were the last thoughts my head was swimming with. All I could think of as my eyes welled with tears was, “I wonder how many weeks he’s waited for that Skype call and he didn’t get in again” and “I wonder how many times he’s promised his wife, ‘I promise I’ll work so hard to get the appointment made. You don’t have to worry, I’ll get it today.'” and “He must be hungry and tired and sore from sleeping in tents on the ground for weeks or months.” I can hardly type this without welling up. I sympathize and feel for this man, not because his actions weren’t wrong, but because I would be so angry too. I’d be so angry a war that I didn’t choose destroyed my home, destroyed my chance at success and survival, destroyed my ability to provide for my family, and a war that quite possibly claimed the lives of dozens of my friends and family with the numbers climbing daily. I cannot look at these people without complete and total respect for the undeniable suffering they’ve all been caused.
A story Ilias told us that absolutely blew our minds was this. He said pretty quickly as Bridges became a real ministry and he and his wife were serving the Syrian refugee population, word in Syria spread back to family members about this man that was doing a ton of good for them. Someone who was on their team. He told us that his phone number is on the internet everywhere in Syria. People definitely know him now. And you know why? When Syrians are desperately fleeing their war-torn land where every day bombings and raids are claiming the lives of their children and fathers and best friends, climbing into an unstable raft that’s way too packed to actually be a safe option (yet going out into treacherous and unpredictable oceans like this is sadly and devastatingly the better option than staying, so they go anyway), they make it out into the sea far enough where they can’t see land anymore and they call Ilias. He has sincerely gotten hundreds (maybe thousands) of calls like this, he told us, at two in the afternoon or two in the morning. The refugees give him their location coordinates (because that’s what they have become in those moments. They’ve gone from being simply “Syrians” the week before to “Syrian refugees” which will impact their identity for the rest of their lives, if they are able to survive this journey) and Ilias makes the call to the Greek police who immediately send a helicopter to the GPS location in the middle of the ocean and rescue them all one by one. And then as the weeks progress, these refugees who only knew the phone number of their hero flock to Bridges to thank him and hug him and bless him personally. Many many lives have been saved and freed because of one man’s heart to care for the foreigner, to love the fatherless and the needy. Not only am I unbelievably proud of Ilias but I’m truly so proud of Greece. That even in their own financial crisis and problems, they as a country, have chosen to be on the side of history that will remember them for choosing to love the least of these, for advocating for the vulnerable.
Our days volunteering felt a LOT like us walking away blessed instead of us blessing them—sincerely, I hate it when people make this kind of statement because more often than not, it’s like, “Come on, you know you helped and served and blessed a ton of people with what you did, so don’t try to sound like this amazing person who acts like you did nothing.” But for real, in an honest sense– Robbie and I did very little. Voula told us that we would mostly be observing anyway, so there’s that, but for the most part the impact for Robbie and me, again, was the joy found in the believing staff, the optimism from everyone in the room even when hundreds were crammed inside waiting for their chance to get down to the basement for their monthly free clothing pick-up, or waiting their turn for their grocery bag (of oil, sugar, pasta, rice, and milk), or for a therapy or other aid service. The biggest impact was talking and hearing people’s stories. This came in the form of packing “love bags” (the grocery bags) with Amie, a twenty-something Syrian refugee whose brother is in Germany and his sister and her husband and daughter are struggling to live in Syria currently. He is staff at Bridges, he is never seen not smiling. He is stylish and easy going, and even though our language barrier made conversations tough, Robbie, Amie and I spent a lot of time laughing over the ridiculousness of our attempts to understand each other. Robbie and I loved Amie and he loved us. We had a special bond, goofing around and packing bags and folding clothes together, talking about life and asking lots of questions and using google translate and cracking up at google’s terrible translations. Our last afternoon Amie didn’t understand we were leaving for good. I think he thought we moved to Athens and were going to be sticking around for some time. That is always what’s tough for me. Amie and Abdul (there were two Abdul’s and they were both awesome) and Ilias and Shamah were all people we would hang out with by choice. They’re just freaking great people, who have found Jesus in the mess and the chaos of how life as a Syrian has unfolded. They’re funny, enjoyable to be around, and made “work” go by so fast. Both Abdul’s had much better English than many of the other staff. One of them shared much of his story with us one afternoon. He was on the Syrian Olympic water polo team but never got to compete as the war worsened. He ended up joining the war cause (on which side, I do not know) for a few years, acting as military and living life in the most dangerous trenches of Syria’s desperate cities. He finally decided he had to leave, that if he was going to live to see the end of this war, he had to run. So he did and in the process he became saved. Two years ago he was baptized in the Aegean Sea on the coast of Greece and now he works for Ilias and Ilias disciples him. Guys, I cannot say it enough, Robbie and I fell in love with real people with gut wrenching stories that have leaned on Jesus and now have true hope and true joy (that even if things don’t get better or they’re never reunited with their families, they are working for heaven. Not this temporary Earth we find ourselves in now.) I have to say, I came home every night and exclaiming, “I’m ready to give up everything to move to Athens, live in the scary parts of the city, learn Arabic –(this is key! Language is CRUCIAL)–and love on these people!!” Robbie, who isn’t quite as certain as I am, is ever still supportive. Robbie couldn’t get over these men either though– these men who know barely anything about him yet embrace him with full hugs and “love you man’s” and smiles every day, morning and afternoon. He trusts that God WILL be clear where we are to go and he IS willing to go when the call becomes overwhelmingly clear to us.
I offered my photography for free and had so much fun serving in that way so Bridges could have some new advertising materials. This proved to be difficult though as I was really concerned with making them uncomfortable with a camera in their faces. I did my best. Robbie was the “guard” guy who had to be the bad guy only letting so many people into the basement to have their pick of free clothing, even when people were growing impatient. He had to maintain structure when there was little of it (which was actually a pretty important job). He had a Swedish buddy who’s living in Finland (Marcos) who was volunteering with us to do this job with most days, and I had Alyssa (an American volunteer who is living in Athens for two months–and Lebanon for one month–also seeking a call on her life about where the Lord was asking her to serve for life) and Rebecca and Amelii, two Swedish girls who were there with Marcos on behalf of their church. I gotta say, God encouraged us with these Swedish people because we had left Sweden so many weeks ago believing the worst about the secular nature of the culture there. It was lovely to spend so much time with these people (and Alyssa and Lucy) getting to walk alongside other people actively saying “I’ll do anything” to God and then saying “Yes” when He answers. It’s the coolest, guys!!!
Our last day volunteering was Wednesday. Ilias had made some spicy sausage spaghetti and wanted to share it with Robbie and me. It was so different than any spaghetti I’ve ever had. He said it mixed Italian, Syrian, and Greek styles together and I should mention it ROCKED. The sauce was really thin and liquidy–almost like a tomato broth?? I don’t know how else to describe it. It coated the noodles so well and then the herbs on top really stuck to the oily noodles so there was flavor in every bite, along with roasted peppers and tender juicy sausage. Oh man, I had a huge helping and was too embarrassed to go back for more when I finished that amount so fast (and since none of the male staff was going back for seconds. haha). This meal was shared with Ilias, Abdul (the water polo guy), Robbie and me. Ilias shared so much of his heart with us over this meal and it was such a special, spontaneous half hour. He shared how difficult it is everyday to make sure God’s name is being proclaimed even when there’s so so many dire things getting taken care of in these people’s lives. We felt grateful to have thirty minutes to listen to him and praise him for the work he’s done and encouraging him with how pleased we KNOW the Lord is with him. This is how amazing these people are– Robbie and I hardly did anything all week except lending a hand with a few tasks (and then asking a million questions) and yet when we were leaving that afternoon for the last time, Ilias welled up with tears and grabbed people to get a photo with him and Robbie and then him with both of us on his phone. Then he went and interrupted his wife’s therapy session (yikes! haha) to pull her out with us asking me to pray over them because he felt the Lord was strong with us and he wanted our words over him. WOW!!! What a blessing to Robbie and me!!! Man, so cool. So we tucked ourselves away in an office room, Robbie and I laying hands on Voula and Ilias, praying out loud with passion for God’s protection over their ministry and for the multiplication of redeemed hearts in that building and so much more. Praise God for Bridges.
Wednesday night was our last night in the city. We had planned to go with Lucy to this prayer house (really close to Bridges, actually). It didn’t work out because she was kindly taking a refugee’s children to art classes last minute. Robbie and I decided to go anyway. This prayer house is newly founded. It’s called “Lighthouse 24/7” and it is held along another dangerous street in Omonoia on the first floor of a humble building (well, second floor to us Americans). For the month of November Lighthouse was set up to have people praying round the clock for Athens twenty-four hours a day all thirty days of November. In order to make this happen, there were people from all over the world who heard about this and traveled over willing to devote their time to leading the most unwanted sessions like 2am-4am and on. One of those teams from around the world that came to Athens to do just that was our Swedish friends who live in Finland that were also volunteering with us at Bridges. They were leading multiple midnight to 6am shifts (a couple of them switching off sleeping on mats on the floor!!). They would tell us about how within just a day or two of being there, they could feel the atmosphere in the room change. Athens IS going to be different in the next year and the next decade because of the willing servants of Christ dedicating themselves to more than 700 continuous hours of prayer. What’s even cooler is the people who started this movement have a heart and a desire to see it continue on every single hour of every single day through December and on through 2018 and beyond. They believe that God will bless that desire and Athens will be turned around completely because of it. I believe it too. We serve a mighty God who celebrates when His children have big dreams of radically changing lives for the better.
Robbie and I spent our last evening in an hour of prayer with the Finland team there. Alyssa happened to also be there and it was a sweet time praying with them and with a handful of other people from around the world who flew in just to pray and be involved. There were tears for this city, there were people on their knees or on the floor asking God to move and make a way for the Gospel to spread, for Truth to be known, for Hope to break chains, that Greek nationals would lose their prejudices against refugees, for the Afghan people to stop being treated as “lowest” or second best among the Middle Eastern population, and that God would send missionaries to this amazing city that plan to stay long term to finish the work Paul started centuries ago.
I have taken a few days to get all these thoughts down on paper and I hope they are concise. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything too big or important and that I have done these two weeks the justice they deserve. I hope people who read this recognize that we didn’t fall in love with Athens because it’s cool to say you love Athens… because in all reality, it took me more than a week to warm up to it and I was having a hard time understanding why Robbie was coming home each night feeling the ache for this place–so the full heart, yearning feeling we felt leaving this morning was way more due to a combination of meeting so many people who are so alive in Christ that their infectious joy and passion for these graffiti’d, overcrowded streets and the people living on them is felt in every interaction we had. When you meet people saying yes to Jesus, you can’t help but want to say yes too, to abandon all and chase after all the good works the Lord prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). All we know is that God has asked ALL of his people to find Him in the least of these (Matthew 25:40), abandon our earthly possessions to follow Him (Matthew 19:21), love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), love lepers, tax collectors, the foreigner, the widow and the fatherless (Jesus did this over and over again), and show mercy (Luke 6:36). Robbie and I aren’t there yet— we have a ridiculously far way to go before we could ever say with confidence that we were. Sometimes living with conviction is the hardest thing in the world because my biggest desire and temptation in this world isn’t to have cute clothes and travel and be famous– but rather, and I’m being SO serious, my greatest temptation in this life is to have a home and fill it with people I know and get along with every night instead of strangers or socially awkward people or people I wouldn’t ordinarily associate with. I have a temptation in my bones that desires a life where no attention is drawn to me, where I would live the most normal, comfortable happy life blending in and never speaking up about my convictions. But the Lord gave me a burning in my spirit, and Robbie too, and we will follow God to the ends of the Earth every single time He asks us to and we will stay put in Omaha and continue to serve there if He asks us to (and hopefully be examples of this joy and excitement that comes when you’re right smack dab in the middle of God’s plan for your life), and we will drop everything and move to the Middle East or anywhere else He asks us to also. We still don’t have any clue where the Lord is leading us, and I know that’s completely intentional. God still has more left to show us. He’s not finished with us yet. ❤ Pray for us, please!!
Robbie playing chess with an Afghan man at HH. Amie at Bridges
Us with Voula and Iliashelping hands is on the second floor of the building on the right with the many floors of balconies. You enter through this alleyway to get to helpinghands.