Pillars of the Faith

The economic and refugee crises were a one-two punch for Greece. But believers there are standing for the bruised and broken.

A light wind blows the salt-and-pepper hair of Dimitrios Athanasopolous as he points to a small column in ancient Corinth. “Paul would have preached from that spot. Next to it is a spring that still bubbles to this day,” he says, the constant flow a living connection to the past. Behind him, the remains of a granite road run past the Temple of Apollos and down toward the sea. A pastor in Athens, Dimitrios often returns to this spot, proud of his country’s deep Christian roots. It reminds him of the early church, of its mission to share the gospel and bring comfort to the weary.

In Athens, Greece, the setting sun peers through the Parthenon, one of the most iconic temples in the world.

That afternoon Dimitrios joined his friend, affectionately known as “Grandpa,” for a food distribution event in modern Corinth, a few miles downhill from the ruins of the ancient city. Grandpa is a Roma leader who came to Christ three years ago through a relationship with Dimitrios, and in that short time, they’ve become family. The Roma, known to many by the pejorative “gypsies,” were already some of the poorest in Greece before the 2010 economic crisis. Dimitrios’s congregation collects donations each month to buy food staples for them and other groups, providing for basic needs as they build relationships. Following Grandpa’s decision to follow Christ, other Roma have become believers, and a house church now meets each Thursday night. And in addition to distributing food, Dimitrios’s team has given out microSD cards loaded with the In Touch Messenger content for cell phones, which are prevalent even among people living in poverty. For the Roma individuals who don’t yet know Jesus, Dr. Stanley’s sermons and the New Testament provide a welcome introduction to the gospel.

For the past six years, getting In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley broadcast throughout Greece has been Dimitrios’s responsibility. With a long background in television, he had been looking for solid biblical teaching to broadcast via non-Christian stations, as there are no Christian networks in the country. He estimates that the program now reaches 6 million people in the Athens area alone—at a time when the country’s need is especially apparent.

In the wake of Greece’s financial crisis, governmental measures to fix the economy have led to higher taxes and job losses affecting all corners of Greek society. One of the many unfortunate results was a 35 percent spike in the suicide rate over two years.

Mihalis leads worship.

One Sunday morning Dimitrios received a phone call from a woman who, distressed by her financial situation, had made up her mind to commit suicide but then sensed something telling her to turn on the television. She told him, “Then I saw that wonderful gentleman speaking about Jesus.” After listening to Dr. Stanley, the woman gave her life to Christ. What the woman couldn’t have known is, on that particular Sunday the program accidentally ran an hour earlier than usual. If it hadn’t, it’s probable the woman wouldn’t be alive today.

A Heart Opened to Need

Mihalis Litsikakis, a 30-something Greek with short dark hair and olive skin, drives south along the highway in a van he often uses for transporting new refugees. To the left, the Aegean splits lush green islands from the mainland. A cargo ship passes between, moving along the same waters boats have fished for millennia. Mihalis and his friend George are headed for Lavrio, a quaint port city about an hour southeast of Athens, where they operate a center for refugees.

Though Greece has offered sanctuary to refugee groups for decades, the financial crisis ultimately led to a massive influx in 2015 from neighboring Turkey. Talks of Greece leaving the European Union scared many people who were looking to migrate into western Europe, where they hoped to make a better life. They saw the door closing and risked the dangerous trip across the sea.

To Mihalis, much of this was just background noise a couple of years ago. A worship leader and church planter, he had his eyes on starting a congregation in a region east of Athens. But when he looked into Lavrio, he discovered several refugee camps. Their worn-out conditions were a stark contrast to the beauty of the town where he had vacationed as a child. As he spent time in the camps, Mihalis realized the refugees had nowhere to meet, no such thing as a communal space. So he and his friends opened Home Spot, a community center where refugees can congregate in a welcoming environment. In addition to handling food and clothing distributions, the center offers language lessons and other classes.

Pastor Dimitrios Athanasopoulos prays for a Roma family.
 

On a sunny winter day, several men sit at tables, using the center’s Wi-Fi to connect with family and friends thousands of miles away. Kids sink into couches, playing video games on a projector TV. There’s a separate space upstairs for women seeking a private place to talk or nurse babies. A Syrian man who recently became a Christian stops in to say goodbye to Mihalis and the team. He is leaving for relocation to Switzerland that day; the Home Spot team is as used to abrupt farewells as they are to new faces. Mihalis gives him an In Touch Messenger in Arabic, and the man returns a wide, stunned smile. They hug with mixed emotions, joy for the good news and yet sadness at knowing it may be the last time they see each other in this world.

Mihalis Litsikakis congratulates his friend Emad, a refugee being relocated to Switzerland.
 

When asked how the relationship with refugees has changed his faith in Jesus, the congenial, often joking Mihalis pauses and begins to tear up. “The church isn’t just about a worship experience and focus on self,” he says. “It’s about others.”

The Church Looks Outward

Wearing a blue fleece against the cool morning, Themis Sirinides reaches up to unlock the gate outside the Second Evangelical Church of Athens in the middle of a residential district. Here, old mixes with new, ancient ruins alongside apartment buildings. A crowd waits patiently outside, ready for a hot meal and a cup of coffee.

A Roma woman receives food.

The food distribution is one of several outreaches the church holds every week. On different days they open a center down the road for homeless residents to come take a shower and wash their clothes. On other days their center is open for the youth of the neighborhood, a safe place for them to play games and hang out. Ever since the beginning of the economic crisis, the church has seen a sharp increase in the needs of their community. “When we started focusing outward, we noticed the church began to grow both spiritually and in number,” Themis said.

In addition to the recent influx from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, refugees from places like Albania, Iran, and elsewhere have sought sanctuary in Greece for decades. For Themis and his team, meeting the physical needs of their neighbors is the first step in bringing them closer to Jesus. During one recent food distribution, they were able to hand out several Messengers to regular attendees. Vangelis, who fled Albania nearly 40 years ago, was shocked to hear the Bible in his native tongue for the first time. Though not a Christian, he’s like many of the people who accept the services of the church: willing to listen because of the genuine sense of care from believers. For Themis, this is what the gospel is all about.

Themis Sirinides talks with Vangelis, one of the men who attend a weekly food distribution in Athens.

The Light Shines On

Leaving behind ancient Corinth, Dimitrios pulls onto the highway headed east toward Athens. Except for headlights, the road is pitch-black until he nears Pireaus, a port city where he once walked freely in refugee camps. Today, government restrictions prevent ministers like him from accessing these areas. Dimitrios laments the recent turn of events, but the need is too great to stop. He’ll find another way to reach the refugees.

His last stop for the night is the station that airs In Touch With Dr. Charles Stanley. Though there are more modern ways to transport files, Dimitrios enjoys bringing in the subtitled disc each week for the technician to check. Once the file is good to go, he heads upstairs to say hello to the station manager, who has had a renewed faith in Jesus since airing In Touch, the only Christian program on his network.

Outside, hours past twilight, a bright glow from the three-story building reflects in large pools of water from the day’s recent rain. It complements the stars in the sky above, the same ones that hovered above Paul as he introduced Athenians to the one “unknown God” standing like a pillar among empty ruins.

 

Photography by Gary S. Chapman

Related Topics:  Christian Fellowship

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