On almost any given day in Athens, Greece, you can find church members volunteering somewhere to help the steady stream of refugees passing through this gateway city to Europe. Whether it’s Filipino or Greek congregations taking turns preparing some 500 portions of food to feed people at a transit camp or a handful of Afghan believers working after dark to unload a 23-tonne container of donated items, the church in Greece has rallied around the refugee crisis.
While the church’s involvement with the refugees arriving in Greece did not start this summer—indeed, Greece has received refugees for over 15 years, 20 by some estimates—“this crisis has tremendously helped the unity of the church,” explained Fotis Romeos, general secretary of the Greek Evangelical Alliance and volunteer pastor of a small Greek congregation.
This summer alone, more than 300,000 of an estimated 400,000 plus refugees entering Europe journeyed through Greece, Fotis said: “From the very first day, all the churches have been mobilised all over Greece.”
Not only Greek congregations have woken up to this opportunity. There are over one hundred migrant churches in the Athens area, about the same number as Greek churches.
“We see churches from different backgrounds, different denominations, different theological structure and administrative structure to come together with the same food packages,” Fotis said. “We may have a church providing 100 dishes, another church providing 200, another organisation providing 300, and all come together just to serve the refugees. That helps create a movement of unity among the people and also a movement of enthusiasm because we see that together we can achieve more. Together, we can be more effective.”
“The refugee crisis only magnified our effort and our work with the churches,” said Gabby Markus, country leader of OM Greece and chair of the steering group for the Evangelical Alliance relief effort. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for the church to serve and build its relationship with the community.
Kostas Polyderakis, who volunteers said, “There’s a huge opportunity for the Greek church to go out, for people to wake up, to see the opportunity.”
Although the church he attends took months to move from discussing a potential response to actually donating items for the refugees, Pavlos said even a small response is monumental, especially for a church like his that lacks missional direction. Why? “It’s the way to show that Jesus is alive, the way to show we care,” he stated. “What you say, it has to be connected with what you do. There are so many opportunities to share the Gospel with refugees.”
“We didn’t come here to do these things,” admitted Yong Tai Yang, better known as Pastor Philip, who came to Athens in 1990 and preaches at the Samaria Centre church to a largely Afghan congregation. Since 2001, however, when he encountered a group of 200 Afghan refugees sleeping outside in a park, his ministry emphasis and, consequently, the church’s, shifted.
Practically, his church has mostly focused on food preparation and distribution. “I have great joy and expectation because through this preparation, we can make opportunities,” he said.
Most encounters with refugees are momentary, as single men and families seek to push forward quickly, leaving Greece within days of arrival, headed for the next six, seven or eight country borders they will cross before reaching their destinations.
“We don’t have time to preach to them, but we are preaching very loudly with our smiling faces and our love,” said Fotis.
Pastor Edwin Cardenas, in Greece for over 20 years and pastor of Word International Ministries since 2006, said his church, a Filipino congregation, started its feeding programme at the end of September. First they distributed meals at Athens’ Victoria Square, a common refugee gathering point. Now, they partner with OM, which resources the church to prepare food.
“I really thank God that even though we are a small church, it’s been wonderful putting into fulfilment the command of God: love your neighbours,” he said.
With tears in his eyes, Edwin talked about the men, women and children he’s encountered passing through Greece: “It’s so sad. They are not even sure of their future. They thought they were coming to a better place, but is this really a better place?”
Indeed, for most of the refugees, Greece only marks the beginning of the journey. But for the church in Athens, it’s a “place for us to express our love,” Edwin said. “God moved us to move. God has put this compassion in our hearts.”
The church’s response since this summer—50 to 60 Greek and migrant congregations uniting to serve the refugees—has encouraged Gabby and the OM team.
“This has never happened. This is a huge answer to prayer,” said Selina Greenow, communications facilitator for OM Greece.
Of course, despite good intentions, hitches still happen in the on-going relief work. Recently, one church cancelled its scheduled food preparation, lacking resources to prepare dinner for 500 people.
For OM, behind the scenes work is best, according to Gabby. “OM Greece exists in Greece to work in partnership with the church and to support the church for a sustainable Christian community,” he said. “It’s the whole idea of walking with the church in a way that even if we leave, the church will continue doing what God calls them to do.”
Right now in regards to the refugee crisis, that means helping three churches provide 1,500 meals every week at one transit camp in Athens. The organisation wants to increase that number to 2,000, as well as raise funds to supply churches who have volunteers willing to cook but lack monetary means. OM also runs a children’s programme at the same camp once a week, with local churches offering another two programmes throughout the week.
“We are all part of a big job,” Edwin explained. “It requires working hand-in-hand with other ministries.”
Pray that churches in Greece will continue to unite to serve the refugees in Jesus’ name. Pray that this ministry will lead to new relationships in the community that can lead to revival in Greece. Pray for small congregations to receive the resources necessary for them to serve the people passing through their country.