ITALY — It was the trip of a lifetime for many of the 10-member team from Central Baptist Church in Italy. They spent 10 days in Athens, Greece, on a mission endeavor that Pastor Joseph Barrett and his wife had taken several years earlier.
The church members spent mornings and early afternoons teaching vacation Bible school and evenings teaching English to Albanian refugees who had relocated to Athens.
Barrett said this trip would not have been possible had it not been for the generosity of the families and the mission focus of church members.
The team consisted of seven adults and three teenagers – Barrett and his wife, Natalie; worship leader Guilherme Almeida and his wife, Carla; McKenzie Davis; Donna Goodwin; Jennie Kerr; Emily Stiles; Brett and Alysa Kirton.
Mornings began at Second Evangelical Church in Athens where the group divided into two teams – arts/crafts and outdoor games.
The only difference in a VBS in the U.S. was that there were interpreters to explain the games or crafts and how they tied into the morning message. The VBS theme was based on the first chapters of Daniel.
The evenings were spent teaching English as a Foreign Language to Albanian refugees who have relocated to Greece. It is hard for many to get a job and learning English would enhance their chances.
Bob and Janice Newell opened PORTA, a cultural center for the Albanians, in the summer of 2007.
The Mississippi natives were serving as pastor and organist at Memorial Drive Baptist Church in Houston when Newell learned about the Albanian refugees at a conference in Sweden. He returned home to learn that Houston had become home to more than 500 Kosovo Albanian refugee families. He also learned that relatives of a church member had begun ministering among the Albanians in Kosovo.
It wasn’t long until the Newell’s felt God leading them to Albania, where they spent two years living with the people and learning the language. They eventually moved to Athens where many refugees were locating.
The purpose of PORTA, also known as door, is to assist these refugees with English. Although Greek is spoken in Greece, those who speak English have a much better chance of landing a job.
The Albanians were broken into four classes, based on their knowledge of the English language. There was a graduation ceremony the last evening the team was in Athens. About eight graduated from the program.
“The thing that inspired me most was the language classes,” said Donna Goodwin. “The people seemed to want to learn English very badly. It seems they are very willing to help themselves if they have the right knowledge. Also, they were very friendly and curious. It amazed me that someone would walk two miles to learn the English language. Some of them let it be known that they were very proud to be in the family of God, just as I am.”
“I was surprised to find the number of educated women in my group,” said Alysa Kirton. “There was a math teacher, a biologist, an Albanian language arts teacher and a French teacher. One of the first questions they asked me was when I became a Christian.”
“I am still blown away by how Christ puts it in a person’s heart to care for and love a people group on the other side of the world and so many missionaries respond with reckless abandon,” Barrett said.
“One of the most important jobs we had to do during our travels was to learn. The Albanian people identify well with biblical Israel. They have, at some times, been enslaved, at others been spread thinly throughout the world with no real identity, and in Athens they are a hated minority. In Athens, PORTA is like the Albanian Jerusalem – a place to be truly Albanian and truly God’s beloved,” he said.
“I learned several things while there,” Kirton said. “First, I learned what it felt like to be a minority with a language barrier. Although many people spoke English, it was uncomfortable when you couldn’t understand someone or they couldn’t understand you.”
“I was also overwhelmed at the vast history that surrounded us there,” she said.
Although the team was busy with assigned duties, they did have time to do a little sightseeing.
The group visited the ancient city of Corinth, which is about an hour out of Athens.
Their tour guide showed them the ancient city center of Corinth that had been excavated in recent years. He showed them where the judges ruled and where lawbreakers were beaten. They saw the various areas where businesses stood as well as an above ground spring.
The guide told the group, “We can say, not that we think the Apostle Paul walked here; we can say that we know the Apostle Paul walked here.”
Following that tour they went to Cenchreae, a port that Paul talked about in the Bible that is currently under water. Standing above, you can see parts of the structures below.
“One thing that was impressive to me was how they don’t seem to change things a lot there,” said Kerr. “There were, of course, all the historical monuments and artifacts, which were awesome in themselves, but the city of Athens was also very old as far as the apartments and office buildings. I liked that.”
“I just couldn’t get past the Biblical history that surrounded us,” said Kirton. “The architecture was so impressive, so beautiful.”
They spent Sunday morning visiting the Second Greek Evangelical Church where the team heard the message from an interpreter via headphones.
“The people we met were very warm and kind. They treated us as one of their own,” Kerr said.
They spent Sunday afternoon climbing to the Acropolis and then to Mars Hill.
The Acropolis is an ancient citadel located on a high rocky outcrop above Athens. Several ancient buildings of great architecture and historic significance – the most famous being the Parthenon – sit atop the hill.
The Areopagus or Mars Hill is a bare marble hill near the Acropolis. It was there the Apostle Paul delivered his famous speech from Acts 17 about the identity of the “Unknown God.”
Monday evening, Almeida and his wife presented a concert at the church featuring music from Brazil, Greece, America and Albania. Pastor Barrett preached at the Wednesday evening service. Almeida spent Thursday evening in an Albanian Bible study and worship.
The group spent one afternoon in Aegina, an island about half an hour outside Athens. Aegina is one of the Saronic Islands of Greece in the Saronic Gulf. Some of the group swam while others soaked up the sun.
Brett Kirton said he was impressed with the blue waters. He said the waters were transparent and so blue.
“When we went outside of Athens, the mountain landscape and seascape was absolutely breathtaking,” Kerr said.
The group stayed at Hotel Tony near the Plaka in Athens. Plaka is the city’s oldest neighborhood, and most of it has been relegated to foot traffic. It is often the favorite neighborhood for both locals and visitors, because it is one of the nicest.
It wasn’t always that way though. Plaka was once a hangout oriented towards nightlife. In the 1970s, the government banned the loud music pouring out of the Plaka nightclubs, and the neighborhood started to see a change. Plaka began to commercialize and is now home to an array of shops, restaurants and cafes. The Plaka market is full of merchants selling various items and keepsakes.
“I learned that this is a big world and many of us stepped out of our comfort zones. For some, it was the first time to be on an airplane. And their first experience was to spend 13 hours in an airplane,” Kirton said.
“I am just beginning to comprehend the enormity of this world. I met people who couldn’t speak English and they were people who loved the Lord and were doing the best they could with what they had as many of us do here. At the same time, I met people who didn’t know the Lord and they needed someone in their lives to share the Good News and to live out their faith before them,” she said.
“I am so grateful that our pastor pushed us to take this mission trip. I discovered that you don’t have to be a young person or a young family to do mission work. The Newell’s were nearing retirement in Houston when they decided to see what God had in store for this phase of their lives. Once they felt this was God’s will, they jumped in with both feet. They have touched countless Albanian families with their hospitality and their desire to serve. Several of us stepped out of our comfort zone and were blessed in countless ways,” Kirton said.
“It is amazing that these people, whether Greek or Albanian, have been brought up in countries where Christianity started and in this day and age, don’t know about Jesus or don’t accept Him when told about him,” Goodwin said. “But, it is also amazing that there are people who have been raised in the Bible belt that don’t know who Jesus is.”
“In thinking back on our experience in Greece, I find myself most appreciative of our interactions with the wider body of Christianity,” Natalie Barrett said. “Our ministry was not one of communicating the gospel to those who had never heard it, but of building relationships, encouraging and supporting the ministry of our Christian brothers and sisters in Athens. Christ’s presence is evident globally.”
“It is exciting to witness the efforts being made on behalf of the kingdom outside of our local parameters. It serves as a reminder for me to be in prayer for the wider body of believers who share with us both the same love of Christ and also the same struggle to proclaim God’s grace to a world burdened with sin. When we pray, Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, voices around the world join in unison to invoke the healing that comes from knowing Christ,” Natalie said.