Neos Kosmos Hooligans

By the blow of a whistle the Tournaments began.  Kentro 68 (the name of the Community Center) puts on a 2 week long "Futball" Tournament for the guys of the Neos Kosmos neighborhood.  There are younger and older boy’s brackets, so when the Tournaments come to an end, the winners will be awarded.  But they are all incredibly talented!  My favorite is watching the younger boys score a goal – they treat this Tournament like it’s the World Cup… their dads get all excited and yell from the bleachers, and even their friends run down to celebrate a goal! This has also been a fun time for the girls in this community.  Courtney (a worker at the Community Center) told us that for the past 3 years, they could never entertain the girls well during the tournaments, so we wanted to make it happen!  We brought materials for jewelry making, face painting, caricature drawings, and supplies for an art contest – the girls and small children absolutely loved it… even the parents and grandparents are excited to see us each afternoon!  (Thanks again to my supporters – these materials came from our team’s ministry funds and you helped put smiles on their faces!)  When the awards are given to the boys for Fut Ball, we will announce winners for the girls who entered the art contest.  Also, the teenage guys who were playing in the tournaments became interested in the jewelry making and asked for us to make them some “boy” bracelets.  God really opened doors for us in communication with the guys and allowed us to share a little about our ministry, the Camp Kalamos, and ourselves.  We are still in prayer that some of these kids will join us at camp.
I love seeing God at work – even through the act of breaking communication barriers.  Hardly anyone here speaks English, with some only knowing single words or simple phrases.  But all of these activities have given each child smiles and laughter.

As many of you know, there have been many strikes in the city of Athens due to the economic crisis Greece has been facing.  Most of the strikes have only had violence on the front line of the protest in front of Parliament.  However, the recent 48-hour strike (the largest protest since 1974) has resulted in several injuries, fires, and tear gas throughout the city.  This has prevented our team from putting on the Tournament the past couple of days.  Please pray for God’s work to continue for these kids and that the people of Greece will seek God through this trial, as it effects each family economically as well as emotionally.  Thankfully, this has been a good time for our team to rest and get to know each other better.  We have had this time for devotions, games, story-telling, and laundry.

"Love what is sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving in the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality...Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud..." Romans 12: 9-16


The Pursuit

On Monday, Dina took us to a different side of the Red Light District than where we’ve previously visited.  Most of the Madame’s on this street have never let Dina enter.  And as many times as Dina told herself that she was never going back there, she continues to find herself on that street in hopes that God will somehow open doors here.  We went with the hopes of softened hearts, for the Madame’s to not see us as a threat, but we saw Satan’s attempts to prevent the Gospel from being spread right before our eyes.

As soon as we entered the district, every single one of us felt the instant heaviness and presence of spiritual warfare.  We prayed as a group as we usually did before entering the brothels but during our prayer we all saw a few Madame's step out the door, throw salt on their steps and walk back inside.  Dina said that is a superstition in Greece to keep bad spirits away.  How ironic.  Then a man came up to us and told us that we needed to leave or else it would upset the women and their clients.  When we didn't leave he came back to tell us he would call the cops to arrest us for evangelizing.  We chose to stay.  Each brothel we tried to enter turned us down.  The last one we went to ended with the wife of the Pimp who runs that street screaming at Dina for us to leave.  The lady was harsh, but Dina remained calm and extremely composed with love and grace.  So we left.  We tried not to feel let down or upset about the lack of success (in our eyes), but discouragement was there, nonetheless.  And I can understand why Dina wouldn’t want to go back to that street after all that happened…but she finds herself going anyway.  This reminds me of how God continues to pursue us, even when we yell at Him to go away, when we are too stubborn to listen and obey Him, when we slap Him in the face with our sins, when we completely break His heart…He still returns to us with open arms, ready to bring us back to Him… back on the path towards Home.

God explains in His love letter to us why He keeps pursuing us.  In Hosea chapter 11, we are shown a beautiful glimpse of this love:
 “(2)The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols."
“(8) How can I give you up, O Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?  How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  (9) I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
He continues in Chapter 14:4…
“I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.”

It’s hard when I want to see fruits… to see people change… to see quick results in God’s work.  But though it’s not always the results I want, or my kind of success, God is succeeding and He is working in His good and perfect pace.  So we will praise Him under all circumstances and continue praying for softened and open hearts, that one day they would allow God in.


"Your Shirt...It's Happy"

“…From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”  Ephesians 4:16

I was reminded of this verse over the past few days.
As a team, we have been learning that we must first love each other before we could ever be effective to the people in Greece.  And on Sunday when I woke up with the stomach bug leaving me unable to join the group to church, Elise kindly sacrificed her day to stay behind with me.

On Monday, we began working alongside a community center that is set up in a neighborhood primarily populated with Albanian immigrants.  Missionaries and volunteers from First Church in Athens have run the community center for the past three years providing the youth with a safe place to play games, learn to use computers, and interact with the volunteers from First Church.  Most of this neighborhood’s residents have no religious affiliation, as they come from a country that was communist for almost half of the 20th century.  But as the missionaries and volunteers have built relationships with these kids, they have had the opportunity to teach the youth about Jesus and even see some kids start coming to church.

Every summer, the community center moves its activities outside, for a series of festivals and sports tournaments in the town square.  Before we began, we sat down to discuss who would be doing what.  They asked if any of us could unicycle, make balloon animals, juggle, or stilt walk…  as if any of us had been in a circus before J.  Elise did face painting, Emily took up the Diablo, Trevin and Kelsey were on stilts, Jaimeson, Joanna, and Tyler were in charge of the water games and group events... Tyler also juggled, Rachel hula hooped, and I was in charge of Twister… and I must say, each person incredibly enjoyed their job!  It was neat to see all of our talents, or at least enthusiasm, being utilized to make these festivals a success.
As we headed to the Square, a parade of kids marched up the road with us, ready for the fun and games to begin.  As soon as I set up, there were kids ready to play.  At first I just spun the wheel and pointed to either feet or hands and the color, then a 12 year old girl named Anna came up and asked in English if I needed help… YES!  Precious Anna helped me with my Greek colors and translated the directions to the kids for me.  She didn’t leave my side other than for the group events every 15 minutes and face painting, and then she was back again, helping me with Twister.  She even helped me pick up, and hugged me goodbye at least three times.  She was definitely a God sent encouragement!
There was also a man who performed a magic show, which he used to share the Gospel in the most clear and effective way possible for the kids.
 Tuesday and Wednesday we were back to the festival!  Anna greeted me with hugs each day, faithfully stayed with me to help, and occasionally would drag me to meet some of her friends.  The festival was always ended by a circle of kids showing off their break dancing skills… And though my team has picked on me for my Christian rap, it came in good use these past 3 days!

We have gotten responses from the kids and their families during the past 3 days of Festival.  Parents have asked why this is done every year for the kids, why Americans always come to help, why it’s done for the kids for free, and so on.  They see the people behind this are different, and they are amazed at how generous the community center is. We even got comments on the t-shirts that the community center gave us to wear (hence the title of this post).

Each of us is a joint… a purposeful and necessary joint for the body to function properly.  We are each exceptional.  This is something that God focused my heart on during the festivals.  I didn’t think I was doing much for these kids, but Anna was an encouragement God sent to me.  She reminded me that just showing them love, just giving them some attention, smiles, and a taste of a God-given joy was sharing the Gospel.  I think of my sweet Anna and others like her and how much I yearn for these children to know Christ as their Savior.  I cannot save these children, but I, as well as the rest of our team and the nationals we are working with are vessels to guide them even a step closer to falling in love with the everlasting King. 

“…that Your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.  Let the people praise you, O God; let all the people praise You!  Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.”   Psalm 67:2-4


Only Christ offers Nea Zoi

Monday’s ministry was arduous, so much so that it is taking all of me to sit and write about it.  But here goes…
As we hurried off the metro into the Omonia Square, Dina (a courageous woman who’s been working with the Nea Zoi ministry for 8 years building relationships and leading a few women out) led our team into the Red Light District of Athens.  We reached a street that was lined with hazy lights that hovered over almost every door.  Dina needn’t explain anything as soon as I saw the numbers of men walking in and out of the doors, going from one door to the next and heard the scream of a girl behind barred windows…  These doors were the entrances to selfishness…brokenness...hopelessness.  These doors were the sinister entrances to brothels.

            Dina gave each of us girls the option of going into a brothel with her individually, so four of us took the opportunity.  As I followed Dina into the dark room that was lit up with pink and red lights, I felt my heart sink.  The Madame (usually ex-prostitute who is in charge of the girls, decides who is let in or not… this particular Madame is friends with Dina, so she let us in) greeted us as we entered the short hallway/waiting room.  We followed her into the small kitchen where a red headed, Albanian girl named Mary sat.  She was wearing nothing but lingerie and heels.  Mary looked to be only a little older than myself, and the Madame is 62 (she made me guess her age).  They were friendly, asking my name and how old I was, then politely exchanged pokerfaced smiles and emotionless laughs. 
            Whenever a potential client walked through the door, Mary hopped out of her chair, showed herself to the man, and returned to the kitchen smiling as if nothing had happened, as if she wasn’t just demoralized.  It made me angry each time I heard a new client walking in and out of the brothel, knowing that they had probably just come from another lighted doorway.  Many came just to look, because looking is free.  And many would come in groups, as if what they were doing was normal recreation.
             Mary’s face remained impassive during the rest of the conversation, and she rarely looked at me.  But I could tell by the way she and the Madame interacted with Dina, they trusted her.  They liked her and enjoyed her presence.  Dina seemed to bring a peace to them in this sadistic place.  She talked with them as equals.  She exemplified gentleness, compassion, humility and love to them, and they had probably never before seen these characteristics from another person.  I could not understand most of the dialect, but at one point, Mary began saying something and pointing to me.  Dina explained that Mary was saying that I was a beautiful young girl who had a life… that I had something going for me, a future… one that she did not.  Dina then told her that if she would leave this life, then she could visit me, learn and grow, and have a beautiful future too.  Mary replied, “No, no.  I am not deserving enough.”  Immediately, tears swelled my eyes as I laid my hand on her arm and told her that I, too, have felt undeserving and worthless.

The word “undeserving” put knots in my heart.  Film clips from my past played over and over in my head of all my different sins and all the times I gave in to Satan’s lies that I was "not deserving enough".  I can’t do anything for this young woman but show her grace and love, the same grace and love that has been shown to me by God.   And I pray that as she sees that grace and love, she discovers the overwhelming JOY that only God can fill us with.

My team was waiting and praying outside.  That’s what we did while someone was in a brothel…we prayed, always with our eyes open.  Prayer was our team’s strength as we were placed in this heavy, burdened ministry.  But God faithfully gave us glimpses of hope for the restoration He offers. And only Christ offers New Life.

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."  2 Corinthians 5:17

Basic Information on Nea Zoi

After my recent experience of ministering in a brothel on Monday, I first wanted to share some facts on sex trafficking and prostitution in Greece and basic information about the Nea Zoi (which stands for New Life) ministry before I enter into telling of my experience.

Greece is a destination and transit country for women and children, trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation and for men and children trafficked for the purpose of forced labor. Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, other parts of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Nigeria, and Brazil.

There are over 300 brothels in the city of Athens alone.
Prostitution is legal in Athens. Some of the women are willingly in the brothels and are free to go. However, most women are victims of human trafficking, brought to Athens with promises of a waitressing job or an education, and then abused and forced into the brothels. We learned of a woman from Nigeria who was sold by her cousin.
Brothels are legal if permitted, but the lack of a brothel permit is rarely enforced.

When police are told of a pimp’s location or of women who are victims (exploited, and not by choice) they will occasionally conduct a brothel raid to remove the girl and arrest the pimps.  Problem: many police officers tip off the pimps, so the pimps hide the girl.

Nea Zoi Goals:
Offers care, information, training as well as emotional and practical support to those working in prostitution to empower them for change and fight against human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the region.

What they do:
With weekly visits and telephone calls, they build relationships with individuals where they work in the red light district with the purpose of offering emotional and spiritual support and information.

Dina is praying now for a safe house, a place where women who leave can go to be safe from harm and also learn skills they need to survive and work outside. Many were brought into the brothels at a very young age and have little education, which makes if difficult to find work when they leave. Many do not speak Greek or English, may not be able to read, cook, or have any skills they can use. 

What to Pray for:
   *The dozens of enslaved people met in Athens each week
   *Viable options and hope to be restored in their home countries
   *Just laws and for lawmakers to act with integrity
   *Change in Greek social attitudes towards prostitution
   *The worldwide church to actively play a role in prevention and restoration.
   *Wisdom for Nea Zoi as they seek God's will for the ministry
   *A safe house/shelter for the women who come out
   *Safety for volunteers during street outreaches



"Cleaning the Feet of Volos"

Hello to all!
I am finally able to sit down and tell of our time spent in Volos this past week.  We did not have Internet and remained quite busy.  Our time spent there was beautiful, and leaving was bittersweet.  And all these reasons of the bitter and the sweet are intertwined. 

It was sweet because of the wonderful friendships we created within His Bride, the church.  Sweeter still because of the trash ministry; Meletis’ passion for this ministry was infectious!  He described this ministry as “Cleaning the Feet of Volos”, and we saw God at work through this simple form of community service. 
“You see, to be Greek is to be Orthodox…to be a protestant and be Greek is to be a heretic and to betray your identity as a Greek” (paraphrase of Meletis).  ”Greek Orthodox will call themselves Christians, but not consider a Protestant a Christian”.  It is within this context that Meletis was called to the church in Volos in the 90s.  He said that when he came to the Volos church at that time it was full of an older generation who had responded to this cultural attitude by facing inward - and in his words, letting them define their place in the community... and, therefore, having little to no impact on the community.  It was in 1997 that Meletis began the trash pick up.  He says he went to the town office and told them what they were going to do, and the response was disbelief.  But Meletis did it anyways, just as he said.  He said that it wasn’t until the third day of them picking up trash that the mayor came (as he had said he would) rolled down the window and said, “So you did it” and Meletis replied, “I told you I would.”  In the following years the Evangelical church gained more exposure in Volos through this ministry and it was because of this ministry that the church began to be included in the community - from being invited to events to being put on the map.
We picked up trash Saturday (June 4), Monday and Tuesday.  And during those three days, I felt the sharp pain of bitterness fill my heart toward the people’s pollution to the beautiful land.  I couldn’t understand the Greeks' problem of littering and lack of care for God’s wonderful creation, or how anyone could be too prideful to do anything about it.  But as we picked up trash alongside the roads and beautiful coast, people would stop and ask us what we were doing – was it that unusual for them to see simple acts of community service?  Many thanked us and said “Bravo”, which was always encouraging, and some would honk politely as they drove past.  A few even stopped to help pick up for a while.  I saw that many were embarrassed that people would come from other parts of the world to pick up their trash.  And there was so much trash…so much that we couldn’t pick it all up.  We couldn’t get every piece of paper or every bendy straw on the ground.  But you know who can?  Jesus.  Jesus cleaned every single piece of trash in my life.  He picked up all the litter that gave stench to me, His temple…His creation.  He is the one true cleanser of the world (1 John 1:9).
We were also given the chance to pass out trash bags that told of the ministry and church.  Between the 7 of us and Meletis, we passed out 2,500 bags within 3 hours!  While passing out the bags, some would reply “Whose trash?”  As I wanted to lash out in anger saying “your trash – do you people not see your own trash?”  I was again reminded of the log in my own eye and how I need to take my own garbage to Christ each day.

On Sunday, we faced the bitter knowledge of the persecution of the 7 faithful members of the old country evangelical church in Karditsa, which is located 2 hours outside of Volos.  They experienced especially bitter struggles in the 60’s as they were accosted with insults and stones and vegetables thrown at them as they sought to enter their place of worship – for this reason the church even had to be shut down for a time.  However, we were given glimpses of the sweet love and answers to prayer this church has experienced – with a small yet faithful membership; particularly the answer God has given to a believing wife, whose husband once beat her for attendance of an evangelical church, now accompanies her.  Because the church has no pastor, it holds worship on Sunday evenings so other evangelical pastors can preach on rotation.

Wednesday, we went to the rock cliff towers of Meteora.  This is a group of monasteries built in the 10th century by monks and nuns who wanted to escape from the world and make for themselves a holy life.  Many of the monasteries were destroyed by the Turks during the Turk Invasion, however, the monks and nuns were careful to preserve their treasures of art, Biblical literature, and historical writings in crypts.  It is bitter to think of the idolatry put into all the icons and treasures, though, sweet to have them preserved so we can see and understand this culture better through their history.

There is the sweetness of receiving grace and hospitality in His name.  And the bitterness of leaving such a home… mingled with the remembrance that we each do belong somewhere greater, somewhere we will be truly satisfied by a stay with such a Host that the sweetness will neither end nor fade.

“We ought to always give thanks to God for you, brothers (and sisters), as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.”  2 Thessalonians 1:3 & 4


Marriage Supper of the Lamb

For now, we don’t have a set schedule.  And to be honest, we have felt more like tourists during our time in Peiraias.  We have eaten…A LOT.  We have taken strolls around town, visited the markets and just relaxed.  But I’ve seen God working through this time as well…

In church Sunday, the sermon and songs were all in Greek, but thankfully Pavalos provided a translator, Po-pi.  The sermon was on Revelation and Pavalos’ sermon was one of urgency and truth.  Often, we don’t want to think about the punishment of non-believers, that they will be thrown into the lake of fire.  Worse of all, we don’t want to think about our friends and family not being in paradise with us.  It sounds evil.  It breaks our hearts.  But it shows us the truth.  The truth that God reigns over all the world – the Heavens AND the earth.  Who are we to deny the King of all?  Who are we to run and turn away from Him?

I saw something beautiful during lunch Sunday.  It was a beauty that cannot be explained by anything other than the work of the Holy Spirit dwelling within God’s precious children.  That beauty was language.  There was a mixture of three different tongues being spoken around the table – English, Spanish, and Greek; however, the language barrier did not impede our fellowship together.  The Holy Spirit was the mediation of the languages, and Satan’s attempts to prevent us from worshiping the Lord together could not withstand God’s power.  I could not help from thanking the Lord for His spirit of truth dwelling within us.  He painted such a beautiful picture of the marriage supper of the Lamb in which all of His children will be united together with Christ and rejoice as one.

Sunday night, we were invited to Second Church in Athens to hear the Moody Bible Institute’s Men’s Collegiate Choir sing.  It was absolutely beautiful as they sang old hymns, and it was nice to get to talk to other English-speaking people! 

Monday, we met Pavalos downstairs in the church to help any way we were needed.  We began with a devotion and then immediately started cleaning closets and around the church.  Let me just add – the closets had not been cleaned out in ages it seemed!  But I did get a few souvenirs to bring home (one was an old Greek map of Paul’s ministry journeys)!

Tuesday, we went to the market.  I’ve never seen anything like it!  There were more fruits and vegetables than I’ve ever laid eyes upon, as well as the most fresh and beautiful.  Our goal at the market was to pass out fliers about the Gospel, free worship, and an actual relationship with Jesus Christ.  The hard part: we could not just hand them out to people.  Greek Orthodox has high power here, and anything done evangelically could get us in trouble with the law… So, we conspicuously placed the fliers in people’s buggies and bags, almost like counter-pick-pocketing, ha!
After we left the market, I got sick to my stomach.  Thankfully, we didn’t have too much going on the rest of the day so I was able to rest.  I couldn’t eat much, but Vickie was kind enough to take care of me with hot Chamomile tea and bagel chips.

Wednesday (today), we woke up and went to get breakfast at a cafĂ©, then headed to the post office and shops.  We have mostly been reading, doing laundry and resting until lunch.  Vickie and Lisa keep joking with Rachel and me about how they want to set us up with their sons...but don’t worry Dad! 
Around 1 today we will finally get to meet Argyris (he teaches at the Bible Institute in Athens, which will be our main home for the summer once we get back from Volos) and his son, Eric.  We will have lunch, go to the beach and then clean the sanctuary before Bible study.

I ask that you keep praying.  People here are all very welcoming and kind, but so closed off to anything concerning the church or Christ.  I guess you could say relationships seem very surface area.  Pray for my team and me as we are challenged daily with communication, flexibility, and love for the people and culture.
And I also want you to know that prayers are not one-way.  You are all in my prayers back home.  I pray your love for the Lord grows and that He enables you to genuinely love one another - even our enemies, to follow the authority you’re placed under, and to show Christ through everything you do each day, not because you feel you have to, but because you love God so much that you WANT to serve him with all He’s given you.  I also pray we don't let our differences with others prevent our kindness and fellowship with them, keeping in mind the marriage supper of the Lamb and the river of Life to come.  Never forget where our finish line is…

“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4