A city of raw miracles, Part 1
ATHENS, Greece — From right to left, Miriam traces her finger…
ATHENS, Greece — “These are people that are listening to their dreams,” says Matt Gulley.
The Harding University graduate is sitting at a table in a downtown Athens building that looks out on the Acropolis. A few tables away, a small group of Persians conducts a Bible study. Soon, the large auditorium will be filled with Middle Eastern refugees who come here on Monday nights for food, praise and prayer.
The building is the home of Hellenic Ministries, a faith-based organization founded in 1980 by Costas Macris, a Greek missionary to Indonesia who wanted to serve those suffering in his native country.
The asylum seekers ‘are making a true sacrifice, and they are testifying to the true difference of living in the light and not in the darkness.’
“Geographically, Greece is at the heart of things,” says Gulley, who has worked with Hellenic Ministries since 2008. Greeks have a long history of hospitality to refugees from conflicts in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Among the latest wave are countless souls who claim they’ve seen “a man of light, bright shining light” or other images that have led them to study the Bible, Gulley says.
Related: A city of raw miracles, Part 1
Related: A city of raw miracles, Part 2
Such visions seem foreign to many Western Christians, he says, but for refugees they serve as “a tool in their journey … a part of their story.”
In the past eight years, he’s seen “the power of the Gospel to truly transform a person’s life, a marriage, a family.” The asylum seekers “are making a true sacrifice, and they are testifying to the true difference of living in the light and not in the darkness.”
After the refugees file in for dinner, a Persian praise team sings hymns and minister Leonid Ivanov preaches.
“We see terrible things going on today: tsunamis, earthquakes, wars,” Ivanov says. “What does Jesus say about that?” He reads passages from Matthew 24 about the signs of end times, focusing on Christ’s supremacy through the storms of life. Regardless of the world’s problems, “the Gospel is always being preached,” he says.
Like the Middle Easterners, he came here with nothing. The church helped him and his family. Now, “my voice is not mine,” he says. “It’s for God.”
On a porch outside the auditorium, three young Americans play with some of the refugees’ children as they wait to serve dinner. The trio is here with Let’s Start Talking, a church-supported ministry that helps non-native speakers improve their English using the Bible.
In only three weeks, the workers have heard stories of “the worst of evils” that brought the asylum seekers here, says Zach Burgan, a Harding grad from Nashville, Tenn.
“I don’t think God made this happen,” he says of the conflicts ravaging the Middle East, “but he’s reconciling it. It feels like he’s redeeming this situation for good.”
Workers with Hellenic Ministries agree, including Nico Spies, an administrator for the feeding program. He’s seen stories in recent months about attacks by immigrants and growing political opposition to their presence in Europe.
“They’re writing about refugees coming into Greece in large numbers,” Spies says, and too many Greeks are coming to the belief that the asylum seekers “want to invade Europe and take over the heritage of Greece and the traditions … but they never mention about how many of them get impacted by the Christian culture and the Christian people here.”
Hellenic Ministries works with Persian churches across the city, Gulley says. Some meet in homes with just a few souls. Some have 30 members. Some have 150.
Among the untold numbers of converts in Athens is a man named Muhammad, an Afghan who lived in Iran before fleeing to Greece.
After ladling out bowls of hot fasolada — a Greek, white-bean soup — at Hellenic Ministries he rests on a couch and talks about his long journey to faith — and his long journey ahead.
“It was here that I heard the Gospel for the first time … and read the Bible,” he says. “Many things appeared to me.”
He takes particular comfort in Paul’s words from Romans 3: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
He’s become a gifted preacher, Gulley says. He speaks to fellow refugees about love and repentance — and, most impressively, forgiveness for those who persecute. It’s a message he dreams of taking home.
“I have same feeling as Isaiah and Nehemiah,” he says, referencing the Old Testament prophets who mourned and wept for their people.
He knows that going back will require a miracle.
But “I have many friends who are believers,” he says. Each is a miracle. “I believe God can do more.”
Some names in this piece were shortened for security purposes.
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