World Collide in Old Athens
Tonight we walked the entire circle around the Acropolis. Throughout its history the Acropolis marked the centered of Athens. It was a fortress, a kingly palace and a temple. Around its slopes stretched the marketplaces and the homes of town folk. During the last century Athens sprawled out across the plain in all directions. The administrative and economic activity is now centered elsewhere, but the slopes around the Acropolis remain the heart of the city. Tourist flock him from the far corners of the earth. Street vendors from Africa and Southeast Asia scratch out a living, joined by beggars from Eastern Europe. The native Greeks are here as well, enjoying the night air as the shadows lengthen.
Tonight we had set out after dinner to find ice cream and look for souvenirs. It was supposed to be a short walk, but our youngest child mutinied. After Chrissie escorted her back to the confines of our house the remaining four of us were set free to roam without constraint.
We walked through the streets of Plaka, a high end tourist destination. The buildings here are some of the oldest still in use and the government subsidizes their renovation. Restaurants and souvenir shops line narrow cobblestone streets. (See picture above.) High end leather, silver, and pottery are displayed next to tacky t-shirt shops. Tables on the sidewalk and terracotta roofs make this look like a scene from the Discovery channel. A glance down a side street reveals the towering cliffs of the Acropolis and the soft hues of sunset. The kids have stopped in front of me, staring into a t-shirt shop. They were surprised to read a t-shirt that was display. Twenty five centuries prior Sophocles shocked theater audiences with a play about murder and incest. Today Oedipus and his mother are a coarse joke on a t-shirt for tourists. Worlds collide, the ancient and the modern, the timeless and the vulgar. I offered a brief word of explanation and we keep moving.
The trendy shops of Plaka give way to the grittier buildings of Monastiraki Square. there are still tourists here, but the square is full of young Greeks out with their friends. We skirt the edge of an ancient ruins and walk past the entrance to a subway. We must stand out as tourists and the busy square is a place where the vendors are more agressive. An African man rushes to greet us and welcome us to Greece. "You must stay for the music", he says as he drops to a knee and shakes the hands of my kids. He is holding bracelets and it is clear that he wants to sell one. I smile and tell him that we are not interested. He ignores my completely and begins to attach a bracelet to Norah's hand.
"We don't want one, thank you."
"You are from America, that's great."
(He begins to tie the bracelet on Norah's hand.)
"We don't want one one, thank you."
"But we have drums tonight, she will need a rasta bracelet."
"We don't want one, thank you."
"I love America, I am glad that you are here."
I reach down and untie the bracelet on Norah's hand.
"Oh no, I want her to have it."
(He implies it is a gift, but I know that the price tag will follow if I leave it on her hand.)
"We don't want one, thank you."
(I have untied it now, and hand it back. I persist longer than he does and he takes the bracelet back and moves on.)
I pull the kids a little tighter and we press on down a side street, past musicians who play the electric guitar through small amplifiers. This part of the walk feels more like Atlantic City. We buy slushies from Ben and Jerry's and eat them at cafe tables in the twilight.
We are now half way around the Acropolis and we could take the subway home, but the kids vote to press onward and complete the loop. I have never walked through this section at night and don't know what to expect. We skirt the edge of an ancient temple and begin to climb the hill on the Western flank of the Acropolis. Between this main road and the cliffs of the Acropolis lies the ancient agora, the ruined foundations of a marketplace from the first century. It is now a public park and can be accessed for a small fee. The streets are now lined with small tables where tinkers and merchants sell their wares. Shoes from China are laid out on blankets. LED lights cast shadows on handcrafted trinkets. The street is wide and made of cobblestones. Young people and families with children stroll through the early evening enjoying a break from the oppressive heat. It seems to me that this section of the walk has more locals. I hear more Greek being spoken and few people seem interested in souvenirs.
Music again permeates the air, this time from a trio of folks musicians playing classical Greek folk songs. The accordion, guitar and flute weave together sounds that have echoed in these hills for many years. The lead vocalist sings with conviction and I wish I knew what he was saying. A crowd has gathered to listen in respect. Dozens of people sit on a wall by the side of the street with their backs to the ancient marketplace. Between the audience and the performers the crowds lurch by. Motorcycles and bicycles occasionally meandering through the people. Two young women gather near them and start to dance. At the close of the song an old man limps over and begins to talk to them. I am too far to hear and I am sure I would not understand if they did. As the next song starts, the man begins to shift his feet from side and side, then he lifts his arms to dance. I think they are playing his request. A young boy rushes forward and jumps up and down. I imagine that this is a song the old man has been hearing since his the day his own young legs bounced along the hills of Greece.
We continue to climb and the drums grow louder. Ten men are sitting in the middle of the street, drumming and chanting. The sound is repetitive, but invigorating. At the top of the hill we reach familiar terrain and begin a slight descent back towards our apartment. We are less then ten minutes from home and have been out for nearly two hours, but when the kids asked to detour to Mars Hill I agreed. It is nice to be outside and not roasting in the sun, so I don't want to hurry home. Also, they seldom ask to extend a walk, so I don't want to let the moment slip. And... no matter how often we go to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) it never gets old. It requires a short climb into the shadow of the Acropolis. As we walk up the ancient marble steps we pass by the Herodian Theater. This stone Ampitheater was built in the second century and is nearly as famous as the Parthenon. But unlike the Parthenon it is still functional. Tonight there is a live performance and I remember from the a subway poster that it is the classic opera "Carmen." I was hoping to hear the staccato notes of "Habanera" as we passed by, but a song had just finished and the applause rises above the ancient stone walls. In this historic Greek theater, opera singers belt out French lyrics, mourning the ill fated love affair of a naive Spanish soldier and a zesty Gypsy woman.
Just as we reach the steps to the Areopagus a voice calls out a greeting. Under a nearby street lamp our friends have gathered. The other four members of our current SGI team and two young Syrian families are lounging around a park bench, drinking sodas and eating sunflower seeds. There is a festive note in the gathering, in part because our Syrian friends have received good news about job options. But there is a somber side to is as well. Two of the team members will return to America tomorrow evening, and the other two will follow next week. Although we still have two and a half weeks here, our time is drawing to an end.
In this corner of the world the nations gather and the pulsating rhythms of modern life echo over the same stones walked by Pericles, Plato, and St. Paul. Near and far, new and old, our stories weave together for a for moments and we laugh and smile. And then our courses shift and we are launched back into our prior path of life. We hope and pray that the time we have spent has a lasting impact. (Matt)
Today will be another hot day. After a brief respite in which the temperatures dropped into the low nineties with a few scattered clouds, we are expecting triple digit temperatures for the next couple of days. I am not used to this sort of weather. I don't actually hate it, but it requires adjustments that I am unfamiliar with. For one, it is really impossible to exercise during the midday heat. It is hard to do anything in the midday heat. As a result it makes sense to rest in the afternoon and shift your active hours to later at night. This is quite common among Greeks and friends from the middle East. Greece has a version of siesta from 3-5 pm which they call "Quiet Hours." It is considered quite rude to be loud during this time. I haven't fully embraced this lifestyle change, but I do go to bed later.
Another change in my life has been the way that I look at shade. When choosing a course on the street, shade is a factor. I will alter my path to find a few moments of shade. This morning, I was sitting on our rooftop reading the bible and I realized that I felt hot in the shade with a slight breeze blowing. I thought, "Dang, I can't imagine having to sit in the sun right now."
This has given me new insight into some biblical passages. In my morning reading, (Hosea 4), God speaks of Israel's unfaithfulness and their desire to offer sacrifices under the shade of every spreading tree. This is turn caused me to think of one of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121. It reads in part, "The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night."
The contrast between God's shade and the false refuge of idolatry is particularly vivid when I consider the importance of shade on a steaming day. The question is not shade or sun, but rather... in the sweltering heat, where do you find shade?
The Lord is our keeper. Our Lord is a refuge.
Omonia Church has become a place of refuge for the weary. (Side picture is from a nearby building.) Refugees from Syrian, Afghanistan, and Iraq find their way to this small second story floor for a few hours of food, conversation and air conditioning. They are met by members of the local Greek church and volunteers from a variety of American ministries. Some of their physical needs are met. The food is always good, and there are extra clothes given by Christian NGO's. During our time, the attendance has tripled and this part of our ministry takes nearly all of our time. Our numbers have grown because people bring their friends and neighbors. There are many places in Athens to get food, but we think that people come here because they find that an even greater need is met. Today our good friend from Syrian said, "Every time I come I bring new friends with me, because I want them to be part of the family."
Most often our Greek hostess offers a few words of welcome before we pray for lunch. She has poured out her life in selfless service, so when she talks... people listen. She does a great job balancing bottomless love and bold faithfulness to our Lord. Today seemed like a particularly good example. I have paraphrased some of her words below - words which we then translated into Farsi and Arabic.
"We want you to know how much we care about you. We hope you believe that we love you and we have been praying for you. Not a moment goes by that you are not on our hearts. We want you to know that when you walk through that door the passport does not matter any more. Whether you are Syrian, Afghanistan or American we are all part of the human family. We have one blood. If I was hurt and my Syrian friend gave me a blood donation I could live. We have one blood.
I want you also to know that Jesus said that he is the way, the truth and the life. If you are confused and lost and frightened, you can go to him and he can help you. If you don't believe me, you can read it for yourself in the book. We have copies of the Bible in Arabic and Farsi.
Today we welcome our friends from the camp across town. This young woman is here (in her wheelchair) because he mother pushed her across the city so that she could be here. When they fled from Afghanistan her mother carried her on her back. These are people that we love and we want you know that we will never stop loving you. No matter what pictures we see on the news or no matter how many people ISIS blows up, we will never stop loving you. No one can convince us to stop believing that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. And no one can convince us to stop loving you."
Reflecting on the Current Crisis
In the last month since we have been in Athens it seems that the unraveling of American community life has picked up speed. The recent outrage over the deaths of two black men at the hands of the police and the attacks on police in Dallas and other cities seems to mark a frightening escalation of violence and distrust.
I spent several hours reading about the events yesterday. It is strange to observe them from the other side of the world. It's like watching the television without the sound. You can see what is happening, but the surrounding chatter is silenced.
It is somewhat ironic that our family wrestled long and hard about the safety implications of coming to Athens to work with the refugee community. From my current vantage point, America looks far more dangerous at the moment. I know that everyone is writing their thoughts on social media, but I have a few observations to make from outside of the thought bubble of North America.
Policy solutions will be necessary and complex. It seems clear that there need to be policy solutions that address the concerns of the black community. The website https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killingsshows that blacks are killed at roughly twice the rate as whites. It also would seem that these numbers correlate strongly with poverty rates. Blacks are much more likely to live in poverty than whites, and this is particularly true in the city of Pittsburgh, which has a comparatively small middle class. Black children are nearly three times as likely to grow up in poverty as white children. (See: http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/)
At the same time, we cannot forget that police offers are real people who are struggling to do a very difficult job. They are regularly put in harms way and experience the cutting edge of all social tensions. Attacks on police have risen in the past year with nearly 25 officers being shot. The current crisis is not good for the black community, it is not good for the police, and it is not good for our country.
The background for this crisis is complex and does not seem to lend itself to easy solutions. While it might make a good slogan to say that the police should "stop being racist" or that the black community should "stop making a big deal about the police" neither are realistic. There is a (near) complete breakdown of trust between the black community and the police. This is fueled by layers of historic problems. We can't ignore the past oppressive practices that leave a lasting legacy on the black community in America. There is no "easy button" to push. Careful and thoughtful analysis is required for necessary action.
We must seek paths for personal action. I think that the big temptation is to focus on the things that other people need to do differently. As I outlined above, it is reasonable to call for policy changes, but those changes will not be simple or easy. I fear that what is lost in all of this is the call to personal action. It is much less costly to call others to make a change. It is more costly to seek change in yourself.
Perhaps you are asking the question: What would it look like for me to pursue personal change? We have been wrestling with this question as a church for the last two years. As church leaders we have taken steps towards forming an action plan on a call for personal and congregational action. (This has not been finalized, but the bulk of it has been discussed publicly.) As a denomination we have taken steps to repent of our past racial sins and we are seriously seeking steps for active repentance. Let me boil all of this down to a simple Christian concept. There is one easily identifiable problem that lies squarely at the feet of the church. Addressing this problem is necessary for our obedience to Christ and it would make an impact on the world around us.
The problem is the ongoing (and mostly unintentional) segregation of the American church. Black and white Americans still live relatively segregated lives. This is particularly true in churches. That means that when a crisis begins to boil, the American church cannot respond as a unified whole, but rather as two fairly separate entities.
I believe that it necessary for us to address it. I believe that there are four areas in which we can address this problem.
1.) We can seek to make City Reformed a more accessible place for people of color. 2.) We can seek to build better relationships with black congregations.
3.) We can support black Christians who are called to leadership in our denomination.
4.) We can engage in ministry in underprivileged minority neighborhoods.
Our church has taken small steps in all of these directions and we need to continue the process. All of these steps require energy and sacrifice. They cannot be pawned off on someone else and they cannot be mandated by the government. They require personal action.
We must prayer together. For years otherwise secular Americans would respond to a crisis by saying, "Our thoughts and prayers and with you." But we knew what that meant. It was a solemn way of saying, we are thinking about you. But no one was really praying to a God who would answer prayer. Not in the public realm.
Is it different in the church?
I have noticed a growing cynicism about responding to tragedies with prayer. Some have begun to see prayer as a pious dismissal of a problem. "Oh, I will pray about it. Now let's stop talking about it." I fear that the church may have given the world reason to believe this. During this sabbatical I have come to the painful conclusion that my personal prayer life is woefully disobedient. I have been shaped by our modern secular culture to believe that God is not really present and that solutions to major problems are to be found in merely physical actions. I have surrendered my prayer life to modernity. That needs to change. It is changing.
Let me ask the reader a personal question. If you are a Christian, then you believe that God calls us to prayer and answers prayers. Are you actually praying about this situation? Are you on your knees begging God for his mercy at a time of national crisis? Are you seeking ways to pray with others? Have you looked for opportunities to join your African American brothers and sisters in prayer?
A Man With No Country
A met with Khaled* for English lessons today. He is a Syrian refugee stranded in Greece. His English is decent, but rusty. He says that he was more fluent five years ago when he was using it more often. Until the Syrian Civil War he had worked for a Petrochemical company in Syrian. It was a good job. He was married with a son, a car and two houses. After the war started his job ended. As he watched, his homes falling bombs swallowed his homes leaving nothing but smoke ash. As food shortages swept over the land he looked for an opportunity to flee. His wife and son had a passport, but Khaled had a problem. Administrative affairs in Syria were often quite unpredictable to begin with and there was additional red tape in his case. Apparently, several other men shared the exact same name and the the passport was not issued. Eight months ago a window for refuge opened and his pregnant wife and son took it. They haven't seen each other since. His wife delivered a healthy baby girl, but Khaled has only seen her on face time.
His wife flew with friends from a nearby country into Turkey. They were smuggled into Greece and at the time the borders between Greece and Western Europe were still open so they made their way into Germany where his wife had their baby.
Khaled could not leave so easily. Without a passport he had to make his way there in a more circuitous path. He headed North from Damascus into the North Western part of Turkey which is control by the Syrian Free Army (non-ISIS rebels.) He paid smugglers to take him and city officials to let him pass. After slipping hundreds of dollars worth of bribes and fees into the hands of drivers and faction leaders he was dropped off at the mountainous border with Turkey. From there he had to cross on foot, scurrying past armed guards and dodging bullets. Turkey doesn't want border traffic with Syria because of the threats from ISIS and so the no-mans land between Syria and Turkey is particularly ruthless. Once he was into Turkey he had relatively free travel. He went first to Istanbul to try a land entry into Greece, but by then the borders were closing. The terrorist attacks in Paris had tightened the borders and narrowed the immigration policies of European countries just and they induced American fears.
The only option was a sea option. He paid a smuggler 700 Euros to take him by boat to the Greek Island of Mytilini. Interestingly, the price was 300 Euros cheaper for him than when he wife went because the borders between Greece and Western Europe are now closed. Supply and demand dictates smuggler prices and the demand for Greece has fallen now that it no longer offers access into Western Europe. Once at sea, their small overloaded ship bobbed along the waves as they crossed into Greek controlled waters. The Greek navy picked them up and shipped them to Athens on a Ferry.
Several attempts to cross into Western Europe illegally have not only failed, but have been met with stiff resistance. Without proper identification he cannot go forward and he cannot go back. He pays 300 Euros a month for rent, which his wife wires to him from Germany. I don't know how she gets the money. The land route that he took getting here would be just as treacherous to use for a return to Syria and with added risk. If he tries to cross from rebel controlled territory back into the lands occupied by the Syrian army he would risk being shot as a traitor or a spy. He is effectively locked out of his homeland with fewer prospects than he had envisioned when he first fled. He can't go forward and he can't go back. He is a man without a country.
I wrote this blog post in my head as a rode the subway home this evening. After dinner I met some other Syrian friends to play soccer in the park. It was a moment of laughs and playfulness for them. Like Khaled, they don't have immediate options for moving forward, but their prospects are not so dim. Still, they are waiting with no control over their future. Waiting and hoping next to gates that are currently closed.
As dusk was falling we walked to another section of the National Gardens. There are several animals and birds on display in a small public zoo. If was fun to show this little treasure to a young Syrian boy who was with us. He told us the name of each bird and animal in Arabic.
I noticed two types of birds. Some were caged on the side and the top. Others, like them were effectively caged (peacocks), because they were too heavy to fly over the fences. But there were other birds like the pigeons and the morning doves which fly back and forth into and out of the zoo. They are not bound by the fences and are free to move as they wish.
The image struck me as a picture of my current situation. As we kick the ball on the grass, we are not so different - my Syrian friends and me. And yet our futures are vastly different. Armed with my American passport, I can freely pass through nearly any border checkpoint in the world. Like the morning dove at the zoo, I can fly into the cage anytime I please. And in one more month, I will fly home. The fences don't keep me in. My friends cannot leave. The border stops them. In their own ways, striking as the peacock - and yet just as caged. At the border we are vastly different.
The roots of the refugee crisis are complex and the solutions are equally challenging. We offer to pray and we offer our friendship now, while we are here. We offer the hope of an eternal King who transcends national boundaries. Our prayers can cross over the gates, even when we are gone. But as I contemplate my eventual return to the United States I am reminded of the people we will leave behind. Real people like you and me. Waiting and hoping. And pacing. Like a bird in a cage.
* I share this story with his explicit permission, so I have done less to mask the details of his life.
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.