(This June, I led a nine-day mission trip to Greece, visiting the historic city of Athens with a team of 15 leaders and young adults. Our role was to support a strategic partnership between Global Service Initiatives (a US-based short-term mission group) and Streetlights (a Greek-based mission in the Kypseli neighborhood of Athens). The experience was eye-opening, surprising, and thought-provoking, and did not lend itself easily to the question, “How was it?” To help others understand the trip, and to help me make sense of what I experienced, I invite you to process the journey with me through a series of 7 blogs called THE GREEK DIARIES.)
“What did you do in Greece?”
We danced the Hokey Pokey.
The Hokey Pokey. You know, “You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out, you put your right foot in, and you shake it all about…”
“I thought you were on a mission trip.”
I was. That’s what it’s all about.
I was tired, confused, a little frustrated, hoping for the best.
A few hours earlier, Hailey, our American hostess and the ex-pat member of Streetlights, had taken me aside. “You guys have had a long day,” she said. “Are you sure you are up for this? Would you rather just go home and get some sleep?”
I thought for a moment. Yes, we were tired. Yes, sleep sounded heavenly. But we were also in Athens. ATHENS! It took two days of travel and $2500 to get here. I’d never been in Europe before, let alone in Greece. This was the trip of a lifetime. And we were missionaries, you know, people on a mission. We came here to DO something. YOLO.
“Nah,” I said. “We’ve been in tourist mode all day. We will do whatever you want us to.”
It had been a long day. After being up late the night before, we got up early for team devotions. Then we attended two church services (I fell asleep in the second one), ate lunch, toured Mars Hill and the Parthenon, and strolled through the quaint tourist district in a nearby neighborhood. We had probably walked 5 miles. After all the activity, we were ready to chill. Patrick and I had dinner at a little café – one of a million where the proprietors stand in the street and beg you to come inside. Our kids were enjoying themselves in the festive Greek atmosphere. There were thousands of people bustling about, buying souvenirs and taking in the exotic sights. We were ready to wind down.
But the day wasn’t over. The plan was to meet at 8:30 at the McDonalds near Syntagma Square, about 10 blocks away. We were told we were throwing a party. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, or where we would find the energy.
As our team gathered, we saw the Streetlights team huddled together around a speaker and the drum kit. Whenever I see a speaker and drum kit on a street corner, I get nervous. I imagine angry street preachers or begging one-man bands. I was having second thoughts about my earlier decision.
When the idea of a mission trip to Greece was first proposed to me, the two strongest draws were the location and the opportunity to serve refugees. Surprisingly, the Hokey Pokey wasn’t on the list.
As the sun fell, we made our way to the Syntagma Square, a sort of “Washington Mall” of Athens--in the shadow of a giant government building with a huge fountain and throngs of people everywhere. The Streetlights crew carried the speakers and the drums. We Americans trudged along, trying to look positive but grumbling a little under our breath. “What in the heck are we doing?” was our general demeanor.
“We are throwing a party, having a festival,” Philemon beamed. “We are going to spread some love and good will. Come, circle up.”
Antreas grabbed the mic. The speaker turned on. And it began.
We put our right foot in. We put our right foot out. We put our right foot in, and we shook it all about. We did the Hokey Pokey and we turned ourselves around.
Left foot. Repeat. Head. Repeat. Whole Self. Repeat.
It wasn’t going well. Nobody joined us. People were staring at us with curiosity bordering on pity. We couldn’t blame them. Who goes to the main square of a major city carrying drums and speakers and starts playing the Hokey Pokey? Can you imagine the reception we’d receive in New York?
“Hey Youz, whaddya doin, ya losers! Get outta here! Go back to California, ya freaks!”
Like I said, at first it was just us and the Streetlights crew. We put on our ‘let’s make the best of this’ faces and soldiered on. After the Hokey Pokey, we did a rousing edition of “My Big Fat Body” (yes, it’s politically incorrect, but they don’t seem to care in Greece). Then we did another staple of Philemon’s festival, the Dance Off. By the time we were finished, our numbers had grown by…
Two? Maybe three? This is dumb, I thought to myself. I should have told Hayley we wanted to go to sleep.
But Philemon was undaunted. After a quick break, we started again. The crowd was a revolving door, so not many people realized we were doing the same thing twice. This time, we caught a break. Some lively teenage boys with skateboards joined in. They got into it, too (unlike most of the kids at my youth group back home when I try to organize a game and everybody suddenly has to use the bathroom). They were dancing and laughing with great fanfare, and trying to impress any girls who happened to be watching. By the end of the second round, things were starting to take off. We had about 30 people, including the 20 of us.
We took another quick break. And then it happened.
As we started into round 3 with bemused smiles plastered on our faces, people started grabbing our hands. They entered the circle like sperm breaking an egg. It was like the water behind the dam of the crowd’s inhibition had finally reached its breaking point and tumbled over the wall. Our circle grew into 50, 60, 80, and more. The Hokey Pokey was like a magnet, drawing all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, backgrounds and ages.
The diversity was unbelievable. I found myself holding hands with a 75-year-old Greek man wearing a sweater and tie. He looked at me and shouted, “Where from?” I said, “United States.” He yelled “Trump good! Trump good!” I smiled and kept my political opinion to myself. I grabbed the hand of a somewhat scary-looking Iranian fellow who held a beer and cigarette in his other. He joined only because his friends encouraged him to, but to be honest he didn’t look like he thought Trump (or anyone from the US) was good. He moved on. Next, I hokeyed with a young blonde Greek woman in a red dress who was obviously out for a night of partying, and then I pokeyed with parents holding children too young to drink. By the end, I found myself holding hands with a 20-something guy from Cyprus who wanted to be my friend and hear all about life in the United States. (see Greek Diaries, Part 2).
The Hokey Pokey had become a living creature, a giant amoeba ebbing and flowing over a huge portion of Syntagma Square. No one was safe from its celebratory clutches. Even the doubters on the fringes were smiling like they were watching Greece win the World Cup.
When it ended, people laughed, hugged, high-fived. We instigators headed back to the Hive, exhausted and confused. Later, I learned that the teenage boys who were the first to join the party asked Antreas how they could get involved in the Hive. They were drawn to--wanted to hang out with--people who could turn an ordinary Sunday night in a city square into a multicultural flash mob.
As I’ve thought about that night since, I’ve wrestled with the purpose of the festival, and even the purpose of our trip to Greece. I’ve come to realize profound things.
The ministry of Streetlights isn’t about feeding and clothing refugees. It isn’t about street evangelism. It isn’t about youth ministry or young mother’s ministry. It isn’t about whether you are on the left or the right, whether you are Greek or Jew, whether you are American, Syrian, Turkish, or Iranian, whether you are a teenager with a skateboard or a blonde club-hopping model wannabe. It isn’t about structure, order, or predictability. It isn’t about results. It isn’t about anything you can measure or anything that fits the mold of ministry in Frederick, MD. It certainly wasn't about us.
It's about taking our motley, awkward selves into the heart of humanity and forming a circle--joining hands with those who know Jesus and those who don’t—and inviting them to this party we call the Kingdom of God. There, we dance and laugh with such ridiculous joy that others can’t help but wonder what the heck is going on, and they’ll ask who we are dancing for. “Jesus,” we’ll say. “He’s the Lord of the Dance.”
The Hokey Pokey really is what it’s all about.