I have wrestled (and prayed) with hitting the publish button on this blog post for weeks. As someone who loves to write, longs to share and thrives on connecting you to the mission you’re supporting with me, I feel that there is no way to ever do justice to this story in type. It feels as though I could never adequately write to connect you to the depth of this story. But I must try. So, I apologize for the delay, and pray that you will understand that my heart has been both broken and restored many times over as a result of this 17 day journey serving refugees in Greece. I long to share with you, to honor my commitment as your partner in ministry. Praising God that Jesus Christ is a perfect home for imperfect people, I pray you will be moved by this imperfect telling of my story alongside my refugee friends in Greece, to bring the Gospel to the world.
This blog entry is the fruit of me rising to the unthinkable challenge of communicating with you experiences that occurred over the span of 17 days which broadened and deepened my view and understanding of the world and everyone in it. I am certain these 17 days will continue to shape and influence all the rest of my days. In reading this you are entering with me into my new world. I think you’ll understand why writing this will never feel complete. I pray God will use this to change us all for His Glory and our joy, in Jesus’ name, Amen!
I have been living and serving at a Bible School near Grenoble where students come from all over the world to study the Bible intensively for 3-6 months and to serve the local church in many ways. The Bible school, called DEFI, is a place to live in community and to live out loud the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. This has been a transformative time for them and for me. I have been honored to serve as a biblical counselor, to walk with them through this unique time in life as they invest in their relationships with God. As a close to the year, the students were offered the opportunity to go on a short term mission trip to put into practice all of the beautiful things they’ve studied all year, to love, serve, practice peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness, and selflessness, to share Jesus. I quickly offered my services leading and organizing the group to make it happen.
With two girls (ages 18 & 21), we set out to spend 17 days serving with Refugee Ministries in Greece.
This was a true beginning for me. I began this journey with the goal to learn because I felt very uninformed on the realities of what is happening for refugees globally and how the world leaders (and especially the Church body) is responding. So, I went to learn. I went to learn what their lives are like, to learn truths about this situation and to learn how to better serve and pray for positive change.
Here’s what we learned:
850,000 refugees entered Europe (the vast majority through Greece) in 2015. Most arrived fleeing their own countries due to war. This is not something that is easy for many of us to understand, as we have never experienced anything like open war destroying our neighborhoods or hometown. Because of the massive influx of refugees arriving in Greece, all the countries within the European Union struck an accord to respond to the situation on a global scale. This new agreement often referred to as the EU-Turkey Refugee deal, which came into effect March 20, 2016. To summarize, the deal says that migrants arriving in Greece are now expected to be sent back to Turkey if they do not apply for asylum or their claim is rejected. All “irregular migrants” (people arriving illegally) crossing from Turkey into Greece from 20 March 2016 will be sent back. Each arrival will be individually assessed by the Greek authorities. One of the primary aspects of the deal states “For each Syrian returned to Turkey, a Syrian migrant will be resettled in the EU. Priority will be given to those who have not tried to illegally enter the EU and the number is capped at 72,000.” This provides a dilemma for how the Greek government and all authorities involved may respond to the other 55% of refugees seeking asylum when recent statistics say only 45% of people arriving this year are Syrian and the agreement only mentions the treatment of Syrians seeking refuge. It is complex, not always clear and multi-faceted. It is a perfect example of lots of people trying to do the right thing and working together to find the best solution for everyone. It is not black and white. It is grey. And, if you know me, you know that grey is not my strong place.
I cannot speak to the politics of the situation, I can only pray and ask you to do the same for all the people involved. I can only share what I saw, what I learned, who I met, the eternal impact a few moments in time can have, and how God is still using it to change me.
Here’s what our trip looked like:
Then we fly, spend a week serving in Athens.
And finally we will serve on Lesvos Island.
We began by serving for a week in Athens, Greece. Welcomed by a dear friend who has been serving in refugee ministry for years in Athens, we got settled in and rested up for what was ahead. We were warned that the work would be eye-opening and sometimes shocking.
During our week in Athens, we worked about 4-5 hours a day at different locations across Athens serving many refugees in many ways.
We served meals, toured facilities where bible studies and English and Greek lessons are offered for free to people interested. They also have great rooftop terraces for people to rest while they do their laundry with services provided by the center. We played with some wonderful kids and spent time with women, sharing conversation and laughs. We also enjoyed serving at a women’s & children’s center for refugees, where we served a meal, helped with arts & crafts with the kids, sang songs, played games and assisted while the inspiring leaders of this center shared a Bible story. There was even a separate time for women to take apart to be together while we enjoyed time with the kids.
Our time in Athens was an important introduction into the world of caring for refugees. I spent many hours in conversation with different people and was able to hear their personal stories. I spent two afternoons sharing conversation with a beautiful woman from North Africa and was even able to pray with her and encourage her. She was separated from her family after surviving 5 years in a war torn country. She doesn’t know where her husband or children are. Her story was heartbreaking. And still, her warmth & smile lit up the room.
She shared her desire to do something important with her life, to use her time well, to work. She is simply seeking to be productive and positive. She shows up to the center every week when meals are served to the refugee community and the Greek poor and she serves, because she wants to. It was such a gift to just look into her eyes, listen to her story, and encourage her. (Praise God too for unending opportunities to use the French language in service and ministry! He really does make a way!)
I will continue to pray for her and all the people she represents, homeless, separated from their families and friends (maybe forever), fleeing from their homes looking for safety, a new life, peace.
The second leg of our journey brought us to Lesvos Island, a Greek Island just off the border of Turkey. We spent 11 days living and serving on Lesvos Island, in a refugee camp where asylum seekers are “detained” (for lack of a better word) until they are either given the asylum they seek, given permission to cross Greece to another country on their way to seek asylum elsewhere, or refused their request and reported back to Turkey or to their country.
Arriving on Lesvos Island, I had no idea what to expect. I can assure you that what we saw when we arrived was not something I could have prepared for any way. Our plane landed on Lesvos, and we were due to work our first shift in camp just a few hours later. Following the GPS directions provided by the volunteer coordinator to the camp, I asked myself upon arrival if this could possibly be the right place. We parked the car along a road next to a 30 foot tall cement wall which was topped with spiraling barbed wire. ‘This looks like a prison’, I thought. ‘This looks like a concentration camp.’ It was shocking just to look at. The truth is, it IS a prison, or it was. This refugee camp is housed in what used to be a military prison. Now, thankfully, I can tell you that the people who live there (the refugees, or residents as we began affectionately calling them) are not treated like prisoners. I am relieved to report that we found much joy, life and friendship among them. But, upon first arrival, coming into the camp was shocking for me to see, without having any idea of what to expect.
This is a photo of the camp (found on the internet as photography of any kind was legally forbidden and strictly enforced):
What we found was a rhythm of life and community among the volunteers who serve at this camp. It is the Greek police and the Greek military who officially run the camp. They really do everything that would be official to run the camp. But it is the volunteer organizations that we worked with, (Eurorelief, among others) who do everything else imaginable for daily life for the residents. Our job was to bring life to the camp and love to the people living there. Eurorelief volunteers do everything from arranging volleyball games, to projecting football matches for the residents to watch, distribute meals three times a day, offer translation services when needed (always!), help residents get to and from doctor’s visits within the camp, answer questions, spend time chatting and playing games, share coffee and tea, share meals, and just hang out with residents all day long. The volunteer staff even welcomes new people arriving and work with refugees already living in camp to find appropriate housing for new arrivals. Our job was truly to bring life to the camp. To listen to these wonderful people share their stories and just give them a safe place to talk. We listened for hours, for days, and I was moved when I realized the depth of gift we were giving to them just by being available to listen.
90 hours. I spent just 90 hours of my life living alongside the residents of this camp. 10 days of service, 9 hour shifts, it seems so short. But in some ways it felt like a lifetime. I could never recount all the things that happened in those 90 hours. I would love to, but it’s simply not possible. I feel as though I lived 10 months worth of experiences in those 10 days. I don’t know how to help you enter into that time with me fully apart from inviting you to join me next time I go, so I will just share with you one of the moment’s that will forever remain with me perhaps the most deeply.
Prince. On one of my first days in camp, I met a man named Prince who came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We met as I was distributing meals for the 165 men who lived in a section of camp which was predominantly French-speaking. I spent almost every day in this section of camp because my heart was shredded with compassion for these men at the thought of them not having anyone to communicate with regularly outside of other residents. The vast majority of volunteers who come to serve in this camp are English speakers. Many of the refugees come from French-speaking African countries. I was so moved that God gave me this gift, this ability to give these people such a simple thing: the ability to have a conversation in their native language. I was able to just be present and listen to them, joke with them, share conversation with them, affirm them, encourage them. While I know how painfully isolating it must feel to not be able to have anyone to talk to, (especially in a crisis time of life) I am not sure I understood just how deeply my gift of conversation could touch them until I met Prince.
Prince came over to say hello while I was passing out food, and we struck up a conversation. (In French) I could tell he was a bit suspicious, guarded and not really sure if he trusted me even enough to entertain a conversation. So, I prayed silently that God would lead the conversation and give me the right words. I felt my guard drop when I prayed that prayer. I opened up to however the Lord would lead the conversation.
Prince asked me why I was there. He asked me why I had come. I responded honestly: “Prince, you know, I am here to learn. I don’t understand this situation. I do not understand what is happening politically, economically, socially or spiritually with all of this refugee crisis all over the world. I am here to learn, because to be honest, I don’t often believe what I hear on the news. I don’t really trust that I am being told the truth all the time, so I came to see for myself. I came to see your faces and hear your stories and serve in any way I can to learn and to help in whatever small way I can.”
Prince looked at me skeptically and asked, “What do you think you could possibly learn from us?” I thought for a moment and decided to be transparent, and prayed silently to myself while I answered: “You know, Prince, by the Grace of God, I do not understand why, I have never had a family member who has been killed in war. I have never had to leave my home because war was happening in my neighborhood and it was no longer safe to live there. I have never been forced to see war in my homeland. I do not understand why. I have had suffering in my life, but I do believe I have a lot to learn to from you.”
Prince thought for a moment, looked at his friend Glody, who was with us for this whole conversation, looked back at me and said, “Jennifer, you’re very smart, aren’t you?”
I told him I didn’t know about that, but I did know that it was an honor and a privilege for me to be with him even for these short 11 days. I apologized that I couldn’t stay longer. I apologized again and again. I explained that as soon as we got to the camp, the very first moment we entered, we realized 11 days couldn’t possibly be enough to do all the good we wanted to do for these people, to enter into their suffering with them, to bring light and love. We knew 11 days couldn’t possibly be enough to fully understand this very complex situation. It really was an honor and a time of blessing, stretching and faith-growing to be among them, to share life with them. A privilege, even though it was physically, emotionally and spiritually one the most taxing and difficult seasons of my life.
Prince’s gaze softened, he looked at me intently and said, “you know, what you bring to us is worth more than that. You can speak with us, you can listen to us (because I speak French). We know that all the volunteers that come here love us and want to show love but we cannot share anything with them. (because they don’t speak our language and we can’t speak theirs) You come here, to talk to us, and you bring more love than you know. You say 2 weeks isn’t long enough to come here and help us, but the love you bring will last for years.”
I was just about moved to tears. I thanked Prince for sharing honestly with me. I told him it is true that all we want to do is make their life more livable and full of love for the time we are there, and I repeated again what a blessing it was for us to be among them, to enter into their suffering, their daily lives with them.
Things were different between me and Prince after that. He was always poking his head around the corner looking for me when I came to work in his part of the camp. He went out of his way to share a smile and a hello. He really touched my heart, and I believe I may have shown him a bit of the love and acceptance of Christ that I so desperately wanted to convey.
This is just one story. This is just one man. This is just one moment in conversation among those 90 hours. I consider Prince my friend. And I have no way to know if I could ever see him again. But I pray for him. I pray for all of my friends in that camp. There are many other truly great men and women with whom I shared laughs, conversation, meals, time and space during those 90 hours. Ali, Glody, Aboubakar, André, Abass, Ali, Sharif, Shafi, Shero, Philip, Mengis just to name a few. These people are my friends. I will never forget them. Lord willing, I will never stop praying for them.
And, there’s so much more! It’s hard to know what to share because so many profound and eternal moments happened during those 90 hours. Many of the men living in this camp are believers and God has raised them up in real ways to be the Church of Jesus Christ among the residents in this camp. I witnessed a young man who led a small group Bible study gathered outside one of their tents as dusk fell. They gathered around a table in a courtyard and begin to pray together. Praise God for bringing hope through His people in suffering! I also heard the profoundly moving testimony of a man who shared that he heard the Gospel several times, for months, before he responded to God speaking to his heart. He shared through happy tears how thankful he was that God kept calling to his heart to respond to this message, and when he finally did, he found freedom like he never dreamed possible. He shared that it is completely illegal, punishable by death, to have a Bible or speak of Christianity in any way in his home country. He shared that he spent most of his life wanting to die, wishing he could find a way to commit suicide, but that now, after having heard the voice of Jesus, heard the Gospel and believed in God, he felt true freedom for the first time in his life. He exclaimed with joy (and a smile so big it was contagious and powerful!) that he didn’t want to die anymore, that he wanted to live and to live for Jesus sharing this joy and this untouchable freedom with everyone. And, that is exactly what he was doing. We met him on church on Sunday as he translated the service into his language for people from his country.
Are we getting this? God is saving people and calling them out of the captivity of a lifetime in refugee camps on the Greek coastlines!
I went to serve for 17 days in Refugee ministry in Greece. I went to learn. I learned a lot of things.
First, I learned there is not an easy answer to this global situation that affects us all.
There is no easy solution, there is not even a clear line of what is just and what is injust. For someone like me who loves black and white, this is new territory for me because this entire global situation is nothing but grey.
And after conversations with many other volunteers, leaders, directors, missionaries, world traveler,s refugees, mothers, fathers, Greek citizens, local police officers the only conclusion I can come to is that it is not up to us to discern what is just and what is injust. It’s too complicated. There’s too many layers, cultures, people groups, countries, hearts and souls involved. It is not black and white. It is grey.
The bottom line for me is that I am not here to discern justice here. It is not possible to discern what is the best course of action for global powers, leaders, international authorities. My job is just to love people. I don’t know who is really running for their lives and who is just looking for a better life. I don’t know which presidents and prime ministers have the best ideas or strategies for solving this crisis.
But I do know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever. And he commands us to love our neighbor.
So, I showed up, observed like it was job, prayed like lives depended on it and I loved my neighbors from the Ivory Coast, Congo, Cameroon, Benin, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Egypt, Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Sudan, Guinea, France, Canada, Costa Rica, Haiti, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and beyond.
It is not my job to solve world politics or economics or the agreements of the United Nations. It is my job and my honor to love people no matter where they come from, to validate their dignity as humans, to affirm their voices on this planet and to share an open heart with them. because they were created in god’s image, they are eternally beautiful and the Lord is calling them back to Him. I will do everything in my power to walk alongside them on their journey and point them to the One who holds everything in His hands yesterday, today and forever.
I plan to return to Greece. I plan to continue leading short term trips from France to love our neighbors in countries outside our borders. I plan to dedicate time and resources to make it possible for YOU to come serve your neighbors here in France, to love with the love of Jesus, for the Great Commandment, the Great Commission and the glory of His name.
Partnership for the Gospel
Now, as I approach three years of service here in France, I need you to partner with me.
Will you partner with me in monthly financial support and prayer to reach people like Prince?
Will you pray that God would speak to your heart what place He has for you in this mission? It is only possible for me to be here, sharing the love of Christ because of the 3 churches and 50 families and individuals who partner with me in financial giving monthly. There are HUNDREDS who pray regularly for me and for God to keep giving me ways to point people to Jesus in this life of ministry in France.
I could not be here without you, and as we approach the third year of service in mission, we need new partners. During the 4 years I spent building our support team in Connecticut, 4 years of vision casting and fundraising, we were able to save funds which were used in monthly increments over my first three years in service. Now that three years has come, those funds have been invested in the ministry of church planting and discipleship you’ve sent me to in France since 2014. To meet the need of monthly support for ministry in France, we need partners who can invest $20, $30, $40, or $50 monthly to keep partnering with the Church in France and opportunities like this one to love our neighbors and share the Gospel.
Please pray and ask God if He is calling you to be one of those partners.
You can partner with one-time or recurring donations TEAM page here AND you can stay connected to frequent ministry updates and prayer requests on my facebook page here.
Thank you for your priceless prayers and financial partnership with me to bring Jesus’ love to everyone from across the world!
In case you’d like to see more moments of our 17 days of service in Greece: