(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.)
How on earth did I get here? I laughed to myself. What in the world were the circumstance that brought me to this place?
It was Monday morning. I was sitting in the main room of The Hive, the ministry center for Streetlights, our Greek partners in Kypseli. The Hive is a former bank that has been reconditioned into their base of operations. The main room is a much-smaller version of the youth center at our church, with a tiny stage, a countertop, a foosball table and a pool table, a sofa and a couple chairs. Down the hall there is a decent-sized bunk-room, a tiny kitchen, two closets they turned into bunk-rooms, and some bathrooms that might scare suburban American folk. I’ve never been inside a Bee Hive, but I’m pretty sure this is what it would look like if all the bees were teenagers who never cleaned their room.
The Hive comes by its name honestly. Kypseli means Bee Hive in Greek. Wikipedia says there are 50,000 people in Kypseli, but I heard someone say there might be as many as 100,000. It’s one of the most densely-populated neighborhoods you’ll ever find, filled with Greeks and refugees from all over the world. The Hive is located just off Kypseli square, where six streets (and the people who inhabit them) come together like strings converging on the nail of your 7th grade string-art project. Thus, the Hive is always buzzing--with activity, with disarray, with dreams. And with flies. The dumpster sits just outside the front door.
Anyway, it was Monday morning. I hadn’t slept much, but at least I had good coffee (more about that in Part 3). I also had this one mind-blowing thought swirling around my head.
How on earth did I get here?
The day before had been a whirlwind. We attended two churches--a traditional Greek Orthodox and a small evangelical store front. We toured Mars Hill (where the Apostle Paul addressed the Athenians in Acts 17), and the Parthenon, Athens' most famous landmark. After that, we walked to the local market district for sightseeing and dinner. But we weren’t finished. At 8:30 pm, the whole group of us--Americans from Mountain View and Greeks from Streetlights--met at Syntagma Square, another major center of the city. Syntagma Square is a bit like our DC Mall, with government buildings, statues and fountains. And there, out of nowhere, we threw a giant party (more about that in Part 7). There was music. There was dancing. There was laughter. And as the party drew to a close, I found myself on the edge of a giant circle of 100 people, holding hands with some 20-something Mediterranean dude. Quickly letting go of his hand, I awkwardly chatted up my new friend. His name was Omed. He was from Cyprus. He was a university student. He invited me to get a drink with him. Against my better judgment, I ran with him across the square to a street vendor. He chose beer. I chose iced tea. He fumbled in his pockets for money. I thought I was being scammed. He finally pulled out a few euros. We talked a few more minutes. He was studying economics and psychology. He told me how someone stole his phone when he first moved here. He told me I should be careful. I told him I had to catch up with my team to get my ride home. It was now 10:30 pm.
Eight hours later, I’m sitting in the Hive, caffeinating myself and thinking? I'm in Greece. I'm in this crazy place with a bunch of crazy people. Eight hours ago, I was playing the Hokey Pokey and talking to a guy from Cyprus. How on earth did I get here?
I thought about where I came from. I grew up in a little town called Indiana. Population 15,000. It’s in western Pennsylvania. We are famous for Christmas trees and Jimmy Stewart. I never lived anywhere else until I went to college, and even then, I was only 80 miles from home and my college had only 2500 students. How did a kid from Poplar Avenue end up in Syntagma Square holding hands with Omed from Cyprus?
I started to trace my steps. The steps kept going and going and going. I realized it wasn't my fault.
It’s Bryan’s fault. It’s also Brian’s fault. And Phil and Karen’s fault. And Philemon's fault. And Trevor's fault. And God's fault.
Bryan Doyle is from Manchester, United Kingdom. His wife Tracy is from South Africa. He lives in Texas. I met him in Maryland.
Bryan used to be a pastor in London. Twenty years ago, his church was hosting a conference and invited Brian McLaren to speak. Brian was the pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. He was coming into prominence as a writer and speaker, thus the invitation to London. There, Brian and Bryan became friends.
A few years later, Brian M invited Bryan D to come to the States for a missions conference at his church in Maryland. Instead of putting his friend up in a hotel, Brian asked if anyone in his congregation would host Bryan in their home. A young couple named Phil and Karen Lazo volunteered.
Bryan Doyle and Phil and Karen Lazo became fast friends. They remained so for more than a decade, even traveling together on occasion with their families. Sometime during that decade, Bryan relocated to a church in Texas, and the Lazos ended up in Point of Rocks, and became heavily involved at Mountain View Community Church. Their sons Zack and Brett are two of the best kids you’ll find. They call me Pastor Steve. They call Bryan "Uncle Bryan."
For a reason I don’t know, Bryan Doyle was visiting the Lazos at their home on December 12, 2016. Karen brought Bryan to meet me after youth group that Sunday night. He's now the Director of Global Serve Initiatives—a mission group with contacts around the globe. Bryan wanted to tell me about a summer trip to Athens. “It’s an amazing opportunity, Mate,” he said. (I mentioned the "mate" thing in Part 1, in case that looks familiar.) I didn’t tell Karen Lazo at the time that I was pretty annoyed at having a meeting foisted upon me at the end of a 12-hour day. Being called "mate" took a bit of the sting away. It's the British version of "dude," which is youth-pastor-speak for "I don't remember your name, but we'll be friends soon." I knew we'd get along.
Eventually, I said yes to Bryan's offer, which brings us to Athens.
That's where I met Philemon.
Philemon is the director of Streetlights. I don't know how Bryan and Philemon met, but I’m sure it's complicated and wonderful. Bryan was impressed enough with Philemon and his team to make them a priority in his trip planning. For Streetlights, hosting teams is a symbiotic relationship. They get energy and money. Teams get an experience they never could have on their own. Both get new friends. God gets glory.
Philemon and Bryan met us at the Athens airport. Two hours later, we were in Kypseli Square, right outside the Hive. We were playing games with kids, with Philemon leading the way with his guitar. He was playing all the hits--you know, the Hokey Pokey, My Big Fat Body--the classics. A cherubic little fellow with a big toothy smile looked at me and said, “Where are you from?” “United States, Maryland” I said, surprised at his non-Athenian appearance and accent-free English. “How about you?” “California,” he said. “But we are living here right now.”
His name was Trevor Murray. He’s ten. His mother is Gina. His sister is Kaitlyn. The Murrays are traveling missionaries who just wandered onto Kypseli Square that day. They move from place to place, mostly ministering to refugees. They'd been in Kypseli for a couple weeks. Kaitlyn is 18 and has already been to 64 countries. It’s an extraordinary story that I couldn’t begin to accurately describe. But the laughter and commotion of a seemingly random party in Kypseli square on a Thursday afternoon attracted Trevor and his family to this odd conglomeration of Christians from Maryland and Athens.
By the time we left Greece, Streetlights (Philemon), Global Serve Initiatives (Bryan), and the Murray family had formed a new partnership. Together, they are renting two floors of the apartment building right next to The Hive. The Murrays will live on the first floor. Streetlights will rent the second floor and use it for housing future teams. Now guests will have a bigger (and much nicer) place to stay, and The Hive can remain a dedicated community center instead of a shoe-horned youth hostel.
These people did not all know each other two weeks ago.
People Bryan knows have already committed the money needed for the rent. Later this year, some retired men from Bryan’s church in Texas will mobilize to renovate the apartments. When they arrive, I’m sure they will ask themselves the same question. How on earth did I get here? And though they will never know it, the answer is the same. It’s Bryan’s fault. It's Brian’s fault. It's Phil and Karen’s fault. It's Trevor’s fault. It's Philemon's fault. It's even my fault, a little bit. And yours, too, if you gave money or prayed for us.
But really, it's God's fault. He's the one with that hilarious and kingdom-converging hand of providence. It makes no sense to us. It makes perfect sense to him.
Ever wonder how on earth you got here? Good luck trying to figure that one out.
(Next: Part 3: You Can Sleep When You're Dead)