Recently my friend Kendra Hanson traveled to Thessaloniki, Greece to minister to refugees arriving from various places in the Middle East. Thessaloniki is the modern name for the city visited by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament of the Bible.
It’s odd to think some of the people living there today could be descended from ancients who read his original epistles nearly 2,000 years ago.
The first part of Kendra’s story was posted last week. All photographs are hers.
They wait in anticipation to cross the border, some without even knowing what country they are in or what country awaits them,
“Alemania?” they say and point?
“No, you have many miles to go before Germany,” we respond.
As they wait, we walk around the lines and make sure that everyone has warm clothes and items that they need. People pass out tea to help keep people warm in the 20 and 30 degree cold. I’m struck by how joyful they are. I met a family—brothers and sisters—all in their young 20s. One brother had just gotten married two months before. They show me a wedding photo. I’m struck by how similar our wedding dresses look. With our dark hair, we could be mistaken for family members. They are so joyful as they describe the ceremony and the dancing. Another sister-in-law of theirs is pregnant –in her eighth month. They joke about how she may have the baby on the road in the cold. I can’t imagine. They laugh to keep the fear at bay. They are meeting her husband, their brother, who awaits them in Germany.
We met another group, two young men traveling together. As they waited for the border to open, they describe their terrifying experience crossing the sea to Lesvos from Turkey. They say that after 17 hours (a trip that should take three) their raft sank, and they were the only people aboard speaking Farsi, their native language in Afghanistan. Speaking in perfect English, they describe how they waited and tried to float, when along came two Greek fisherman to save them. He points to his jeans, showing how the salt faded them.
As I stand there, with the dust blowing and the trash kicked up with the wind, I stare in worship of the One True King. Even though I don’t understand what is going on, I know that God is at work. He is moving people, and they can hear the gospel in these areas of the world. This is where the church comes in. We know that people are going to take advantage and exploit these refugees; they are the most vulnerable, and that is the human opportunistic way. Unfortunately we heard too many stories of this happening. But if the church does its job, then the people that they encounter will not be exploiters but people who are able to say, “Come just as you are.”
One evening, I met a family from Afghanistan who has four daughters between the ages of 11 and 17. The father left his village with his family because it was overtaken by the Taliban. I can only imagine the fear and the weight that he carries with him as he watches over his wife and their four beautiful daughters. He is desperate for a better life.
The last day, we meet a young boy from Syria, 16 years old. He is traveling alone. His parents saved their money, pooled it together, and decided to send along their oldest son in hopes that he may defeat the cycle of violence and poverty in their home city and get an education to change the direction of his life. As we struggle to digest the thought of his unprotected and solitary journey, we urge him to find people who speak his language, another family, who will be travel companions. Silently, we fear what may happen if the wrong person takes him under his wing. He is hopeful to continue his education in Serbia. We encourage him to continue to Austria, Germany, or Sweden, to a country more welcoming refugees (although we now know even the countries who were most sympathetic to refugees are becoming less welcoming, even hostile, to refugees. We hope the best for him, and at the same time fear the worst. These refugees are the most vulnerable, and merit the most prayer and help we can give.
Truly, if the American church continues to team up with the European church and NGOs to work to provide resources, education, English classes, job training, and more for these refugees, they have the opportunity to save lives and speak the word of Christ into their lives.
In the United States, many know that President Obama has committed to taking on 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. We as the church must commit to welcome them, help meet their needs, teach them English and how to drive, help them find a job, petition for access to resources and become their friends. This is the church’s task. Not only is it a Biblical mandate (Jeremiah 22:3-5; Malachi 3:5; Deuteronomy 27:19; Matthew 25), but it’s our opportunity to be the example of Christ to all around us.
As I look in wonder, watching people cross the border from Greece to Macedonia, holding everything they own in backpacks and plastic bags, I’m reminded of the song from last year’s Passion album “Even So Come…” as God “makes straight a highway, a path for the Lord.”
I’m grateful for Kendra’s willing obedience to follow God’s call. May more follow in her stead.
Here are some other stories about the refugee crisis that I and others have written: