(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.)
Greeks don’t sleep.
Their bodies move to a different rhythm. They eat late, move at their own pace, live without many boundaries around their schedules. We were warned. Bryan Doyle told us in our pre-trip training that we should be prepared for long days and odd meal times. Breakfast at 9:00, lunch at 2:00, dinner at 9:00. “They like to stay up late. They like to hang out. The restaurants are open late. It’s like a 24-hour party.”
We began “Sleepless in Athens” the day we arrived. After a red-eye flight through Amsterdam, we arrived in the middle of the afternoon (7 hours ahead of our body clocks). The Streetlights team picked us up and whisked us to The Hive, the ministry center where we would be staying. Within an hour, we were out on Kypseli Square helping to lead a street party. We had a late dinner, talked to our new friends, and grabbed a few hours sleep. We were up by 8:30 am (1:30 a.m. for us) for a trip to the Good Samaritan Refugee Center. We sorted clothes and played with children. Then lunch, then more time in the street, then “Open Mic” night at The Hive. People were coming and going constantly. Saturday, it was more of the same. There was noise and activity everywhere. During any downtime, the Streetlights team was jamming on their instruments right outside our room. It’s okay, I kept telling myself. You can sleep when you’re dead.
That moment came Sunday morning. We were sitting through our second church service. The first was at the Greek Orthodox church with wooden pews, chanting, incense and nothing distinguishable being said. I kept awake by trying to recognize words in the bulletin from my two years of New Testament Greek that I hadn’t reviewed for 17 years. The second was an evangelical service, but it was still Greek to me. Our entire team was sitting in the side balcony of store front chapel. I was in the 4th row. I could not see the pastor or the band and they could not see me. It was hot. I was sitting on a hard plastic chair. There was a sofa in the backroom behind me. That’s all I remember. Being the old guy has its privileges.
It’s a good thing I napped that morning. I already mentioned Sunday’s schedule in Part 2 – two church services, a day of sightseeing, and a street party late into the night. No rest for the weary Americans. More nights than not, we received imploring offers to hang out with our new friends after the day's events were finished. “Come, let’s get gelati!” they would say at 11:59. “Let’s talk. Why not? You are only here for one week!”
It may be Midnight, but it’s 5:00 somewhere.
I have no idea how Philemon, our host, survived. He was only getting a few hours of sleep a night. He never had any time to himself. Yet there he was, every morning, cheerful, energetic, ready to lead a street party. The whole Streetlights team seemed to have access to an inexhaustible energy source.
And then we discovered it. It's black and frothy. It comes from an Island. Greece has lots of them.
Coffee Island is a Greek coffee chain. Think Starbucks, only better, cheaper, more delicious—and decidedly Greek in friendliness. If I’m ever shipwrecked, I pray that God will see fit to wash me ashore on Coffee Island. Anyway, there was a Coffee Island near the The Hive. We were hesitant at first--not sure what to order and how to communicate. But I recognized cappuccino. And espresso. And only two euros? Hallelujah! Just hook up my IV now and keep it flowing. We were now speaking in the tongues of caffeinated angels!
Greeks love their coffee. Everyone is a barista. After church on Sunday, the pastor served up custom-made cappuccinos and espressos. I’m pretty sure it’s a required course in Greek seminary, as it should be. What better way to reach a culture that doesn't seem to have a word for sleep?
So that’s how we survived a week in Athens, the city that never sleeps, with Streetlights, the ministry that never stops. We drank coffee and forged ahead by the power of God. By the end, I was so wired I couldn’t even sleep on the 15-hour trip home. I guess I’m officially Greek now.
On second thought, I need a nap.
(Next: Part 4: The Surprising Value of Chaos)