Greek Diaries, Part 6: Commitment to Hard Places

(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.)


Greece is beautiful.

We drove north from Athens along the coast of the Aegean Sea. We saw pristine waters and fishing villages along the shore. We saw Mt. Olympus rising into the clouds, and shipyards full of boats and vessels of every shape and color.

That's Greece. But so is this.

This is what happens when financial crisis leaves 45% of the country unemployed, as it did a few years ago in Greece. The government was broke and in debt up to Zeus's ears. Poverty, idleness, unrest, anger -- these things boiled over into riots, gang activity, and a frightening stew of weird political ideologies. 

That's Greece. And so is this.

Athens is densely-populated. There's not a lot of green space. The streets are tightly woven together, and there are people everywhere. Kypseli, the Hive's neighborhood, is packed fuller than the ingredients in one of those delicious gyros we bought on the street. It's fun, and it's full of energy, but it's also claustrophobic. Throw in a hundred thousand refugees, and it's like playing a citywide game of Sardines. It's a far cry from my backyard.

That's Greece. And so is this.

We left on a Thursday. On Monday, the garbage workers went on strike (not the first time, we were told). "Somebody is always on strike," Philemon said. He told us the former strikers were now running the government, and things were no better than before. Greece's economic condition is getting better, and Athens seems to be rebounding a little, but it's still not exactly the paragon of financial stability.

Our Greek friends seemed nonplussed by the garbage collecting in front of their building. Perhaps they were just trying to ignore it for their own sanity, or maybe they were embarrassed. I tried to imagine the reaction we would have if that garbage was piling up in front of Mountain View, or in the suburban sprawl of the Urbana VIllages.

My friend Antreas is part of the Streetlights team. He was the one driving our minivan through the narrow streets. He was the one leading the massive Hokey Pokey and Dance Party in Syntagma Square. Antreas is 25. He's a college graduate with a degree in telecommunications. His dream is to move to Berlin and become a record producer. Berlin is everything Athens is not--trending upward, full of youthful opportunity, a city built on the future, not the past. Antreas spent some time there last year, and doors seemed to be opening for him.

But for reasons he can't explain, he senses that God is keeping him in Kypseli. He can't seem to leave Streetlights. We talked at length about God's calling, dreams, desires, and patience. He's wrestling, to be sure, and he still hopes to go to Berlin someday, but he knows that God is using him in Athens in ways he could not have expected, and he's finding it impossible to leave.

Maybe he is there only to be a point of contact for the four teenage guys who joined our Syntagma party and later reached out to Antreas on Facebook, hoping to connect to the Hive.

I've already written about my friend Philemon. He's the leader of Streetlights. He's also a computer programmer. He has worked in London. He has lived in Thessaloniki. He's talented, creative, and smart. He could be making a really good living elsewhere, more than he ever could leading a street ministry in Kypseli. When we were there, he was living in the vault of the Hive (it's a former bank, remember). Talk about claustrophobia! I think he wore two t-shirts the whole time we were there. I sensed a heaviness in his heart for the hardship of his circumstances, yet a deep resolve to remain in this community and bring God's hope and healing to it. He is making sacrifices I would not make in a million years.

These are just two of the extraordinary people we met. I could tell you about Spiri and Ery and Stefan and Hailey and Ares and a few whose names I can't remember. The entire Streetlights team works for next to nothing. They are a hodgepodge of a family, all young and creative and full of potential. They are devoted to being salt and light in a place that, though it is in some ways beautiful and full of life, can also swarm you with darkness and a sense of panic. The only way they can do that is to live there. To stay there. To take up residence in the streets. They cannot incarnate Jesus from a distance. They are gospel dreamers, burdened by realism, and committed to hard places.

Our team squeezed into the Hive for a week. It was hard. It was tiring. It was tight and uncomfortable. It was, as I've written, chaotic. But we got there by flying on a jumbo jet with movies in our seats, hot towels on our faces, and unlimited drinks in our hands. We returned home to our comfortable neighborhoods, wide streets, fresh laundry, and uninterrupted garbage collection. Yesterday, we met in a church surrounded by ball fields, next to a destination luxury golf course, set on 20 acres of Frederick County green space. We have a lawn service. We have a cleaning service. We just spent tens of thousands to repair minor cracks in the sidewalks and repave our parking lot. I'm not saying we should feel guilty. I'm not saying we should all move to Kypseli. I'm just saying the truth -- we have it easy.

I'm burdened by the gospel dreamers who are committed to hard places.


(If you want to listen to Antreas' music, click here)