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‘Cast out fear with perfect love’

Christian woman caring for refugees in Greece says, "If this is not the time to be Good Samaritans, then when?"

Eleni Melirrytos is all about hospitality. A gifted cook and hostess extraordinaire, the longtime Christian in the historic city of Athens, Greece, teaches classes for fellow believers on the effective use of hospitality in service to the Lord of Hosts.

Elena MelirrytosIn the past year, Melirrytos and fellow members of the Omonia Church of Christ have faced the challenge of hosting refugees from the Middle East as they flee the region’s brutal conflicts. The church itself is a multicultural family that includes natives of Greece, the U.S., the Philippines, Nigeria, Egypt, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia and more. Now the church feeds and cares for people from countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.

The refugees have a special place in the heart of Melirrytos, herself the granddaughter of a refugee from Turkey who fled in the midst of the 1920 genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

Melirrytos’ mother grew up in Greece and became a Christian after studying a Bible given to her as a gift. Years later, Melirrytos taught the Gospel to her husband, Alexander, a former ship’s captain who has ministered for the Omonia church for 26 years. The couple raised two children, Orestis and Danae.

Recently, Melirrytos shared with The Christian Chronicle her experiences as she and her church family serve as hosts for the hurting.

How did you get involved with refugee relief?
The Omonia Church of Christ in Athens was blessed by being in the right place in this critical time.

From the beginning of the refugee exodus and entry into the Greek islands and the mainland, the Omonia Christians have asked God to bring to us those who need help, a kind word, a warm hug and, above all, God’s love.

Mytilene is the main island to receive refugees as they cross from Turkey to Greece. From there a man called and told us that a family with a 9-year-old boy made it to Athens and asked us to visit them and see how we could help. It was not long until each family brought to us another family — until our church building was filled with the most loving, kind and peaceful people we have ever met.

How do you feel about working with Muslim refugees?
God is blessing us by bringing all these people to our doorsteps. They are not a threat. They are wonderful, kind people who need our help.

If this is not the time to be Good Samaritans, then when? We will regret it if we do not move away from misconceptions and bias and do not reach out to touch these people with God’s love.

Above all, we will answer to God, who will ask us what we did with our resources, with his forgiveness and with his sacrificial love and mercy.

How do you make contact with the refugees?
Often, they find us.
On the island of Mytilene, Eleni Melirrytos waves an orange jacket from the top of a car, attempting to signal an incoming boat of refugees traveling from Turkey.
The church building is open every day to provide English language classes, creative play for the children, counseling and Bible study. One day there were Afghani mothers with 16 children asking to come. When we asked them how they found out about this church, they said, “Someone told us on the bus.”

We have loved getting to know the mothers — only one father survived; the other two died in the war — and these wonderful, sweet, beautiful children. Most of the children we’ve met speak English and are very well-mannered. They would put to shame many Western teenagers.

One by one, these families get asylum from countries in western and northern Europe — Spain, Portugal, Germany, Estonia — and God sends us more. We receive messages and calls from them as they move. One family told us, “We are in the Netherlands. We say hi to you and your church.

“Thank God. Thank Greece. We spent the best, happiest time with the Omonia church. We miss you. Come and visit us soon. We love you with the love of God.”

What do you do for the refugees?
Our little building turns into a community haven during the week.

We gather early and buy groceries in the central market. Then we all come together and start cooking. Most of our Syrian ladies have taken over the Omonia church kitchen. They are the bosses and know every detail of how to manage the kitchen. It’s not easy for me to give up of being the kitchen boss, but to watch them take charge of what they and their families eat is a huge joy.

After lunch, we have available English conversational classes. Young volunteers spend time playing creative games with the children — and there are a lot of them. We also make time for personal counseling.

When our Syrian friends come into the Omonia building they feel at home. The women cook, talk, laugh like nothing is wrong in this upside-down world. We close the kitchen door for them to remove their scarves so we can see their beautiful hair. They feel safe and trust us. The men quietly take orders from the women. They set up the dining area and run out to get last-minute things.

God must smile at this picture when he looks down. Nobody is afraid; nobody feels unwanted.

At the end of the day we leave with wings of hope and joy, and they leave with a sense of dignity and worth, which is not the norm in the camps.

We take them to the hospitals when needed. Recently a young Syrian woman miscarried her first baby. We stayed with her and her sweet husband and prayed for them. We shared that babies do not get lost. They have a name, and they are in heaven. The couple was comforted.

Do any of the refugees attend church services and activities?
Yes. We now have 25 to 30 refugees attending Sunday worship, and last month about 70 came to church activities. They are very open to the story of Jesus and understand the impact Jesus can have on their lives.

They love to hear about the living hope, the comfort, the joy and the peace Jesus has for everyone who comes to him. They love to hear the prodigal son story and ask if it is a real story. We respond, “Yes, it is a true story — your story and my story.”

They ask about eternity, about the trinity. We have Arabic Bibles. We also have Christian Arabic-language material to share.

We do not call them refugees. They are much more than that. Their present status does not describe who they really are. They are people God loves. And they want us to tell them about God’s love.

We often remind them that we are not trying to buy their faith with food or clothes. We are trying to touch them with Jesus’ love and hope and to help them heal from the wounds created by war, by this confused and horrible world. We are here to administer the love of God. He is the one who provides change.

How do these refugees react to the care they receive from Christians?
They respond with gratitude, love and kindness. They say that when they come into the church building they are coming home to Syria. This is the greatest compliment to our limited efforts.

We are in love with them, and we are totally convinced that God will continue to shelter them and bring them to the next step of knowing him.

One refugee family told us they were taught that God lives in heaven, “but you have shown us that God lives in our hearts — and that has changed everything.”

Many of them have told us they believe Jesus is the son of God, that he was resurrected and is now in heaven.

What touches you most about this situation?
The way they are open to this new reality of their lives among the Christians at Omonia. We did not know these people four months ago. We were somewhat afraid and ignorant as to how to approach them, but it took only moments to find out that the key to handle their wounded and fragile hearts was God’s love.

God has bonded us with an amazing love and warmth that cannot be described. These people are open to the love story of Jesus, his amazing work on the cross to take away sin forever and the possibility of eternity in heaven. I have never been happier sharing his grace and mercy.

As they get asylum and move to where the United Nations places them, it is pure joy to see how excited they are. But there are many tears as they kiss us goodbye.

Recently a family with four children left for Portugal. There were not just tears, but sobbing. They would not let our hands go and their little, wonderful children could not kiss us enough. Their oldest son, about age 5, kissed my hand and then placed it to his forehead. It symbolized him giving us respect and then receiving our blessing.

Words are not enough to describe these moments.

What can followers of Christ do to help?
We first need to build awareness that God is calling us to share that the Gospel is for all, regardless of religion, regardless of birthplace.

We must cast out fear with perfect love. We may never know in this life if someone we will see in heaven is there because we took the risk of reaching out. We must forget the prejudice — filtered through media and other sources — that poisons us against good and kind people.

Pray for them and for us. And visit us. Money is not the primary need. It is you. We need people to put their lives on pause for a month — or a year or two — and come extend hands and hearts to those who are so desperately seeking to be loved as God loved us. Jesus put his life with the Father on pause to come to earth and be with us.

We handle their hearts gently. They have been wounded, betrayed and abused by this horrible war. They need to be handled like precious crystal — because this is simply how God sees them. He tasted death for them, and nobody can debate his work on the cross for all displaced people.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about helping refugees in Europe, email [email protected].

Filed under: Dialogue

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