Volunteers from Laurelglen Bible Church in Bakersfield, California, recently experienced firsthand the work that God is doing in the hearts and lives of refugees in Eastern Europe as part of a short-term mission trip to Athens, Greece.
Trip leaders Doug and Myra Gentry have been a part of the Laurelglen family for many years. Myra was a charter member of the church and Doug began attending in 1991. The couple has a background in missions, having lived in Portugal, Rome and London as well as participating in and leading other short-term trips with Laurelglen.
While in Rome, the Gentrys worked with refugees through an organization called International Teams, since renamed One Collective. It was through this organization that they first became aware of a refugee ministry in Athens called Helping Hands.
In the fall of 2016, Doug and Myra traveled to Athens along with another couple on an unofficial, self-funded trip. They stayed for two months and became acquainted with the people and mission of Helping Hands.
On returning, they shared about their trip with friends Mick and Debra Swen, also longtime attendees of Laurelglen. When the Gentrys made plans for a return trip to Athens in March and April of this year, Mick and Debra decided to join for two weeks of the six-week trip.
“We wanted to expose people in our church both to cross-cultural ministry and to Muslim and refugee ministry,” Doug says.
He and Myra stayed in Athens for the full six weeks, while other volunteers came for a few days or weeks at a time.
International staff serve refugees
Helping Hands has existed for over 20 years and has always been refugee-focused, although the demographics have shifted. Currently, the center focuses on refugees from Iran and Afghanistan who speak Farsi, also known as Persian Language.
Volunteers and staff hail from many countries, including Finland, Germany, the Philippines, Holland, the United States and Great Britain.
“That was almost as much fun as meeting the refugees—meeting people that have a heart for it from all over the world,” Debra says.
Helping Hands provides meals, laundry services, showers and Greek and English language classes, as well as Bible studies for both men and women.
Once a week, the center has a “women’s day” when no men are allowed in the building, and the women are able to relax in a safe environment, remove head coverings to do each other’s hair and use the center’s sewing machines to alter or repair clothing.
During their time in Athens, the volunteers from Laurelglen helped with the everyday tasks required to keep the center running.
“The idea was to go over and take the place of what the staff has to do in the way of work, such as kitchen preparation, mopping floors and doing laundry, to free up the staff who speak Farsi fluently to spend more time one-on-one with the refugees,” Debra says.
While the language barrier was a struggle, Debra says the Laurelglen volunteers were still able to build relationships with refugees by just taking the time to engage with them.
“If you’re willing to just put time aside, which Americans are not very good at doing, and sit and talk as long as it takes, struggling through the language barrier, some of those conversations were incredibly rewarding,” she says.
Blown away by Christian love
While the pain and hardship experienced by the refugees was evident, so also was the redeeming work of Christ being done in many lives.
“So many of the people in the Muslim world do not have a clear picture of what Christians are,” Myra says. “Because these refugees are being displaced, when they come into areas where they’re being ministered to by Christian believers, it changes their perspective substantially.”
Doug adds that many of the people are “blown away” by the love they experience from Christians.
At Helping Hands, the gospel is presented daily through preaching, Bible studies, showings of The Jesus Film and conversation. Refugees who have become believers themselves often take the lead in sharing the gospel.
“They know the people and the culture, so they can really speak from the heart,” says Myra.
About a mile from the ministry center sits Mars Hill, where Paul addressed the Council of Areopagus in Acts 17. The volunteers from Laurelglen traveled to the hill to read from this Scripture passage. Acts 17:26-27 in the New Living Translation reads, “From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.”
Doug says it is nearly impossible to go into countries like Iran or Afghanistan to preach the gospel, “but God is moving them out, and he’s bringing them to places where they’re exposed to it and many, many are responding.”
One of the Greek staff members at Helping Hands commented to Mick that they were “privileged to be witnessing a massive exodus from Islam driven by the Christian ministry in Europe.”
Refugees find new perspective
Volunteers also saw refugees communicating what they were learning about the gospel and Christianity to family members who are still in their home countries.
“People are closely tied to their families that are still deep in Iran and Afghanistan,” Debra says. “They are being very exposed to the gospel message, and they are not rejecting it. Not all of them are embracing it, but they are hearing it and they are finding it different than they thought it was.”
The volunteers heard stories of the growing underground church, specifically in Iran. But those who do convert away from Islam regularly face persecution.
“They’re turning their back on their culture and their home country,” says Doug. “They really, truly have to count the cost before they make that decision.”
Both couples emphasize the need for U.S. believers to understand the refugee crisis and empathize with those who have been displaced.
“They have the same concerns that we do,” says Doug. “They want safety and security for their family and a future. They want their kids to be educated. They’re fleeing for their lives and they’re fleeing for the benefit of their families.”
While Laurelglen has no immediate plans for another trip to Athens, Doug and Myra do plan to return in the future. They hope to be a model of a Christ-like response to the current refugee crisis, acting out of love rather than fear.