(Matt) When Chrissie and I were in seminary we went on a summer missions trip to Zimbabwe. It was a challenging and wonderful experience. One of the things that was stipulated by Gordon Conwell is that the Overseas Missions Practicum (OMP) be at least 6 weeks long. The reasoning was that a shorter term trip would fail to adequately prepare students for the realities of missions. A short term trip can offer helpful ministry assistance in "the field" and it can be great exposure to new lands and exciting ministry frontiers. But a shorter trip can often feel like a whirlwind of activity. It is one long adrenaline rush that you don't come down from until you return home. A shorter trip fails to replicate the real challenges of living overseas and struggling to adapt to a foreign culture and context. A shorter trip is all honeymoon. The OMP needed to be long enough for the honeymoon to end and the real challenges and joys of overseas living to begin.
Today was a day in which Chrissie and I looked at each other and said, "The honeymoon in Greece has ended." I thought about using that as a title of the post, but I feared it sounded too negative. I don't mean it that way. Nothing is wrong. Things are still beautiful and there are still very encouraging and fruitful things happening in ministry. But the newness has worn off.
This past week we were in Corinth helping with a conference. It was a lot of demanding work, but also quite beautiful. We stayed near a pool with a constant view of the Mediterranean Sea. I had a better than expected time as a youth group leader (which brought back memories) and was delighted to see God at work in the midst of our time. We visited ancient Corinth and walked through the streets where Paul spent 18 months of ministry. And then we returned from what felt like a retreat only to arrive at our "old apartment" in Athens. It is everything that we prayed for, and in many ways a perfect fit... but the reality of our situation is less fresh and a bit more gritty.
There is still fresh bread at the bakery around the corner and still a view of the Acropolis from our rooftop and still daily interactions with people from all over the world. There are still daily glimpses of God at work.
But... the national language is still Greek and my ability to engage with modern Greek is developing more slowly than I would have hoped. My mind still churns when I read every sign. Most people speak English well enough for us to get around, but there is still the ever present humiliation of needing to ask someone to accommodate to your language. We have made new friends, but the support network that develops over a long period of time spent living with others is not here. The complexity of current relationships has begun to emerge, once you get past the initial newness. The apartment is adequate, but it is still small, with no yard and the kids are still restless quite often. (See picture.) The temperature has cooled from last week's heat wave, but it is still quite hot and hard to exercise except for the early morning hours. There are still new things to see, but it is hard to know how to find quiet time in the morning to read and pray.
I wrote to my brother-in-law and told him that the honeymoon was over. He lived in Kurdistan for 4 years so I knew he would understand. He did, but also reminded me that the honeymoon (in general) is fun, but real life is where the action is at.
And so, here we are... real life in Athens. Life on life with people. Praying and longing for God's fresh work in our circumstances. And developing a bit of a wistful feeling for a certain little city nestled into the mountains and rivers of western Pennsylvania. And all of our friends there. And perhaps that is, after all, one of the things that a sabbatical is intended to do.
Love you all. Keep us in your prayers.
From Every Nation
Worship on Sunday has been a highlight of our trip. We attended both the morning and evening service at the Omonia Square Church. The morning service was in Greek with some translation and the evening service was in English. Each service was filled with people from all over the world. We were introduced to missionaries who were passing through Athens are their way to furlough from Tanzania. There were Greeks, Americans, Egyptians, Philippinos and Ukrainians. Prayers were offered in many languages. Were were joined for parts of the service by Muslim background friends.
Please pray that the gospel would be clearly heard and understood.
Chrissie quickly made friends with a couple of women from the Philippines. They have been members of the church for years and work as live-in domestic help for Greek families. It is not an uncommon arrangement for many southern European countries. Though we come from very different backgrounds we find common ground at the foot of the cross. We have relished the space to worship with people who live out their faith in very different walks of life.
On Wednesday we go to Corinth to help the local church with a church conference that they have been doing annually for several years. We are going to help with childcare and I may be getting slotted in with the youth group. It has been awhile since I have done youth group programming and they will likely be speaking about five different languages - but I am looking forward to it! Please pray for us!
And well... yes. We will be in Corinth. Pretty cool.
This year, there will also be several refugee families that will be joining us for the conference. It is an amazing opportunity and represents the fruit of faithful care and relational investment on the part of the local church. Please pray that Christ would be known, glorified and embraced!
Interview with Theo
Matt: Theo, tell me about your time in Athens.
Theo: It is great. And, the metro (subway) is very close.
Matt: Do you like riding on the metro?
Theo: Yeah. I goes really fast.
Matt: What have you enjoyed seeing?
Theo: Looking at the acropolis from the roof of our apartment. Also, we went to Mars Hill. The rock was all marble. It was somewhere that Paul preached at.
Matt: What has the weather been like?
Theo: It has been hot the whole time. It has gotten up to 106! It is exhausting.
Matt: Have you learned anything about the refugees that we are serving?
Theo: Most of them have lost families members in their home country, but not all of them. Some of them know a little bit of English.
Matt: Have you been able to remember any Greek words?
Theo: Yeah... "Efharisto, parakalo, yasas, kailmera, kalispera."
Matt: Have you used any of your Greek words in conversation?
Theo: Yeah. Yasas (hello) ... that is about all.
Matt: Anything else that is notable about Greece?
Theo: A lot of things. The food is really good. There are a lot of restaurants by us.
Matt: What do you enjoy eating here?
Theo: The gyros, and ... pretty much everything else.
(Matt) There are three types of places that refugees are staying in Athens. Some (a few) are placed in hotel rooms or apartments paid for by UN agencies. Many are in official refugee camps. Others are living unofficially in abandoned buildings in Athens. These are called "Squats." I think the term relates the idea of a "squatter" as someone who lives in a building that they don't own. The structure of the squats is a bit confusing, because there is some order there and they have electricity and running water, but they are not run by a particular government or NGO. Their presence is tolerated and perhaps even appreciated by the Greeks, because their simply isn't enough room in the official camps.
The two squats that I have visited are abandoned schools. Each classroom typically has multiple families living in it. The other members of our SGI term have been here a bit longer and visit two of the squats regularly. These four young women do an amazing job of building bridges with the refugees who are living there in pretty desperate circumstances. I admire their courage and compassion. Over the last few days I have tagged along and tried to be helpful.
Last Friday I visited a Squat with my two boys. We were recruited to help organize and re-box donated clothing. After entering the front door, the children usually are the first to greet you. It was too hot to play outside, but our teammates will typically bring pages to color and some crayons. That we descended into the basement of the old school. The walls were graffitited and there was some trash on the floor, but it was generally organized. We worked under the direction of a Syrian man who is himself a volunteer. He had worked as a veterinarian before the war broke out. He mentioned in passing that he misses the animals and that after the fighting he has seen he prefers them to people. He asked me to explain the American dream. I told him that it meant that all people had opportunity to advance if they had were willing to work. He responded by telling me his version of the Syrian dream: "All you need is to gather a small army and you can be as rich as you want - by taking things from other people."
No one thought twice about smoking in that small un-ventilated basement room. Unfiltered cigarettes. I'm not too squeemish about those things. I figure it won't hurt us for short exposure and lung cancer is probably the least of their concerns. The large bold print reading, "Tobacco leads to a shortened life span" caught my eye. Tobacco is nothing compared to civil war.
The boys joined another missions family who had joined us for the day. We matched hundreds of shoes and boxed up winter clothing. Other members of the team cleaned rooms so that the boxes could be stores away from prying hands. I admire their willingness to serve. (See picture below.)
Today I visited a second squat. Apparently it is one of the older ones and seems to be forgotten as new camps and squats emerge. Generally speaking, there are many other teams of volunteers that visit the camps and squats. Some from other missions groups and others from various NGO's. I don't know who is who, but I admire the willingness of so many people to give their time and energy to reach out to those in need.
Again, we pass through the gate that used to control the flow of traffic for a school. The courtyard has the familiar smell that comes from too many people in too small of a place. Is it the latrines, or the gray water, or the waste containers?
My teammates are greeted by enthusiastic hugs from little arms. As we sit in the courtyard some of the mothers come out and join their children. Its really hot and many people are staying in their rooms, close to their fans. (See picture above.) I pondered the easy manner in which the women connect. It seems to be always harder for men to meet as strangers. I am thankful to ride the coattails of these young women.
Soon we are invited upstairs to someone's home. There are three families living inside of an older classroom. They average 4-5 people each family. The classroom that we enter has two families are living in a tent (each) and a newly arrived family is behind a screen. We remove our shoes and sit on a blanket that is spread on the floor. Tea is boiled in a hotpot and offered to us. The restless young boy brings in plates of sweet cereal. I am touched by the generosity and wish that we had something to give in return. I think about the call to incarnational ministry. It is an honor to share this food with people who have so little right now. Another part of my brain calculates whether the water is hot enough to sterilize the glasses that we are given.
Internally, I reflect on Philippians chapter 2. Jesus left the glories of heaven to enter the poverty and squalor of a middle-eastern village. "He took on the form of a servant." I wish I could love more freely and serve more willingly.
A Typical Day
(Matt) I have been thinking about a couple of blog posts that I intend to write about some very interesting things that we have been doing. But, this morning I woke up and had a very typical day. It was the first time since arriving here that everything didn't feel new. I thought that this would be a good way to give a picture of the ordinary parts of our life in Greece that we could easily take for granted.
I slept in this morning a little bit. I had been getting up early to jog the last 4 or 5 days, but it is so blistering hot here now that if you don't start exercising by 8:00 am you will dissolve in a puddle of sweat. It has been a long, demanding week and full of so many new experiences that it would good to finally have a morning to rest a little.
Isaac made eggs for breakfast. That was not typical, but a welcome surprise. I walked to the bakery around the corner to buy fresh bread. It only cost .80 euros and was still fresh when we picked it up.
I read a bit after breakfast and left the house at 10:30 to head to the church office. We live in a residential neighborhood, but it is very close to the acropolis and full of tourists. The walk to the subway proceeds along a cobblestone street full of nice restaurants with outdoor seating. Each restaurant has a worker who stands on the sidewalk and attempts to convince the tourists to come in and eat. One of the men knows us now and smiles when he sees us. We have promised to stop in before we return to the states - but not today.
The subway offers a welcome relief from stifling heat. I have already bought a 5 day pass and I know which way to go and how to get there. It is a good place to practice my Greek, because the words are written in Greek and phonetic English. The electronic voice on the car speaks in both English and Greek so I can practice sounding out a few phrases. I have a head start in Greek because I am familiar with ancient, Biblical Greek, but the modern language is pronounced differently and has a much different vocabulary range. I know how to tell people that "I am the bread of life"or that they should "put off the deeds of the flesh", but neither have come up in casual conversation.
As I exit the subway into Omonia square, the heat hits me again. This past weekend, the temperature rose to 105 degrees. It won't be as hot today but it is close to 100 already. Omonia Square is a very different place from where we live. Refugees are more common than tourists here. Although this was once an important commercial hub, it was subsumed by darker elements and a few years ago had the reputation as the center of drug trafficking. Locals say that it is improving again and hope that better days are ahead. It is fine during the day time, but the women have been warned against walking alone at night.
Beggars are more common here and as I ride the escalator up out of the darkness, street vendors offer Greek sim cards for cell phones. The food is less expensive here and cheap foreign goods fill the streets side markets.
I walk a few blocks to the church and wait outside as other members from the SGI team arrive with the keys. After they arrive we talked a little about our upcoming trip to Corinth and what we will be doing to help. We are going to manage the child care as a team and Chrissie and I want help as much as possible.
My first class is with a Kurdish man who volunteers with the church. He speaks Syrian, Greek and Kurdish and is a helpful resource for the church. He has lived in Greece for over two decades so his Greek is good, but his English is still at a rudimentary level. After working through a level one workbook for most of the hour, I ask to use the last 5 mins getting help on my Greek. I want to do a better job asking for things at the store in Greek and he helps me to ask for the price.
The second class is with a young girl from Syria. Her English is better than I first thought, but it is still level one. (In the books that we use.) She is a bit shy, but this is our third time meeting and she is beginning to warm up. Sometimes the biggest step is just finding out what she does not understand. Google translator is immensely helpful with words that we do not know.
The third class is with a young Palestinian man who is married with a child. His English vocabulary is very good, but he wants help with his grammar. We spent most of our time talking about the various way to say things in the past tense and the way that we use the subjunctive tense to describe thoughts that are potential. For instance, the difference between saying: "I would like to meet you tomorrow" and "I will meet you tomorrow." In the midst of doing this I am painfully reminded that my own knowledge of the official rules of the English language is a bit spotty. Like most native speakers I learned the language by ear and forget the name of various tenses.
The day ends a little earlier that normal and I spend a few minutes trying to locate a music store to buy a cheap guitar for Chrissie. The church hopes she can acquire one before the retreat in two days. She debated bringing her own, but didn't have a good travel case. If we can find one here we will buy it and let the church keep it. It is hard to locate a Greek music store on the internet, so I decide to walk part of the way home and pass by a place where someone remembered seeing one the other day.
The backstreets around Omonia Square are even dirtier than the main streets. I see Asian immigrants who are unloading produce and imported goods. The dirty jobs in Greece are done by immigrants from Asia and Africa. A delivery truck is stopped in the middle of street completely blocking traffic. A motorcycle slows down then ramps up onto the side walk in front of me and dodges the street vendors as he circles around the truck. The rules of the road are fairly flexible here.
The heat is bearing down on me and I try to find the shady side of the street. Something that looks like a pawnshop has a used guitar hanging from the roof. I tried to recall the Greek words for "How much?", but in-between Arabic and Farsi and English grammar pushed it right out of my head. I bartered a little in English and took a picture of it for Chrissie to see.
On my way to the music shop I stop into two supermarkets. I am looking for two items that we can't find near us - raisins and peanut butter. Again, Google translator helps me pull up the words and I asked for them in broken Greek. No luck. And no luck at the music store when I finally find it. It is closed today because of some Greek Holiday. I will try again tomorrow. My shirt is soaked through by now and I am happy to retreat back into the subway. The day finishes a bit earlier than normal, but we have a meeting planned for the morning, ESL lessons tomorrow afternoon and the schedule will likely be demanding at the retreat in Corinth this week. I am happy to get home a bit earlier than usual and spend some time writing. I have completely sweated through my shirt and no one wants to hug me when I return. (See picture.) I guess it turned out to be a fairly typical day.
Matt Koerber is the senior pastor at City Reformed Presbyterian church. This is his personal blog that he also asks guest writers to participate on.