It’s Monday morning, November 4, 2013. I’m sitting outside my hotel room in Athens, Greece. I just finished breakfast with my team from Training Leaders International, and I’m about to begin final preparation for our first session of classes tonight.
We arrived in Athens on Saturday afternoon, after more than 24 hours of travel from the US. We were greeted at the airport by two missionaries who drove us to our hotel and then walked us to a great little Greek restaurant for dinner. I had the best gyro ever. When we got back to the hotel, we met with another missionary, Dwayne, who serves with the IMB. He began our orientation to the city, giving us demographic, geographic, and security information. Then we crashed.
Yesterday — Sunday — we had breakfast at 8:00 am and then spent the morning studying. At 12:30, one of the local missionaries continued our orientation. We learned a bit about the subway system and walked around the city. Right in the middle of the city is the Acropolis and Mars Hill, as well as many other ancient sites. It’s amazing to be in the middle of a big city and suddenly come upon a structure that is thousands and thousands of years old.
We ate a wonderful meal. I had something called giouvetsi, as well as Greek salad, calamari, dandelion greens, baked feta, and some other goodies. And, of course, some tasty Greek coffee.
Over the meal we learned about the Refugee Church Network. Athens is filled with immigrants who are in transition. Ninety-eight percent of the population is Greek Orthodox, but only 2% actually attend Orthodox churches. In a city of 4,000,000, there are about 5,000 Evangelical Christians. Half are Greek and the other half are other nationalities. This makes for a very interesting dynamic, with a high turnover rate among these congregations.
Last night I worshiped with an Iranian congregation. Philemon, our team leader, preached from Matthew 28 through an interpreter, who is also the church’s pastor. There were about 15 in attendance. They sang without accompaniment, and their prayers were mostly for their persecuted friends and family back home, in prison, or unable to attend worship because of being watched by the government.
You may think a congregation of 15 is insignificant, but you would be wrong. In the last year, this congregation has baptized more than 80 Iranians — converts from Islam — who have since moved on to other places. Before undergoing baptism, the converts must understand and embrace the doctrine of the Trinity and what it means to be baptized in the name of the triune God. If you understand Muslim doctrine, you understand that confessing that Jesus Christ is God the Son an explicit rejection of Islam.
I heard many stories last night. I’ll share only one. The pastor of this church was born and raised in Iran. He was a successful and wealthy businessman who traveled all over this part of the world. He was in Turkey and met some Christians. He would ride 30 kilometers on his motorcycle one way to argue with these Christians about their faith. One day they asked him if he would at least read the Gospels. He said, “I’ll read any book!” They gave him a New Testament.
He threw the Bible into his suitcase and forgot about it. Some time later he was going back to Iran. At the airport, they searched his bags and found the Bible. They asked him why he had it, and he said, “It is just a book!” They reminded him that the punishment for converting to Christianity from Islam is death, and then they locked him up in jail for several months. Before releasing him, he had to sign a statement that he rejected Christianity and would never possess a Bible again.
When he got out, he left the country again. He went to Turkey and began to read the New Testament. When he read Jesus’ teaching in Matthew to “love your enemies,” he wept. He did not know how this would even be possible. As a Muslim he had learned that Jesus is a prophet, but after reading the New Testament he came to a decision: “If Jesus is a prophet, he must be the greatest prophet. If he is a teacher, he must be the greatest teacher. If he is a man, he must be the greatest man that ever lived.”
Soon he was born again. At his baptism, he noticed two men sneak into the room. He recognized they were from Iran. They took pictures of him and left. He can never return to Iran. He misses his mother most; he hasn’t seen her for some ten years.
Today he lives in Athens, works a day job, and pastors this congregation at night.
Tonight we will begin the classes. Please continue to pray for the students in my class and for me. God is truly moving in this part of the world.