It’s been almost two months since I returned from Greece. In lieu of sandy beaches, frappes, ouzo and decompressing, this trip took on a whole new meaning for me. It was philanthropic, spiritual and a the start of a pilgrimage that I can’t wait to see where it takes me. It was different from a typical mission trip. Where a mission trip might lead you to think we were building something while spreading the love of Jesus, this pilgrimage took us to a holy place to not only be the hands and feet of Christ, but to look inward and challenge what we know about the world we live in. Eight young adults, a refugee organization called Love and Serve Without Boundaries and a trip to three other monasteries - Greece delivered a piece of herself that will change the way I look at things.
It started out as a random conversation with my son and a girl that works for me. We were discussing how we can pay our blessings forward. How could we give to people in need to show gratitude for what has been given to us?
My mind wandered to the refugees in Greece - the marginalized and displaced. Upon doing a little research, I found that just simply picking up and going to Greece was not as easy - or as safe, especially with young adults - to do. Further exploration found me researching the idea of a friend: monasteries in Greece. Perhaps ones that work with refugees? Maybe some service work?
That one little conversation went into a full-blown idea that grabbed hold of many of our church’s youth. In no time, we had a group of eight.
Off We Go
On our way to Greece, I sat on the plane thinking to myself about what was to come. What would the kids expect? What did I expect? I felt nervous and anxious at the thought of being responsible for driving us around, getting from here to there.
But in the same breath, my anxious feelings were eased in the excitement of meeting my primary contact, Father Chrysostom. We had been communicating via email and phone for weeks. Just knowing that Father Chrysostom would be on the other end made the journey easy. With six on the plane - and three already there - I was so fortunate to be travelling with my two sons. Just having my kids with me on this journey was a joy. It was going to be a good trip!
The first leg of our journey brought us to the organization Love and Serve Without Boundaries. There, we met Kyria (Mrs.) Maria who was the leader of the organization. The first day was hot - so hot it felt like you could bake bread on the sidewalk. But we were there to work and serve - Maria putting us right to work. We helped clear out two rooms for her, cleaned up the area outside - creating room for a tent with screens, thus creating more space for people to come and learn English.
We helped distribute diapers and formulas to families in need. To see their faces - some so happy, some so sad - was both gratifying but yet heartbreaking. I had all these emotions going on. I was angry at the government. I felt that they were not helping these refugees in the most fundamental ways - nor were they helping the Greek peoples. The needs are so great.
At one point, we took a trip to the Greek version of Home Depot with Kyria Maria’s son. He began to tell me about the journey he took with his mother to get to Greece and how they started the organization. He arrived as a young boy from Kenya who had just lost his father, he knew no Greek and nothing about the land he would now call home. His mother, Kyria Maria, a very religious person, saw a need in the people around her. Facing her own similar needs, she worked to help others, and by extension, herself, to settle in to a new country. Now, her son is in his 20’s, speaks fluent Greek, has a steady job in a factory and play semi pro soccer.
To be honest, there was a feeling of embarrassment that welled up inside. Here, this woman whose husband was killed, left with no money to survive in Kenya, moves to a foreign land with her son and has created the most wonderful organization to help those in need. With only love to give, it is what she freely gave. And here I am, with so much.
This is where the change started for me. How could I look at the refugees - or the people of my motherland - and not help in even the smallest of ways? I began with simply giving small change to those that provided a service to me. The people, unaccustomed to the simple practice of “tipping” said they didn’t need it. But I felt the urge to insist. My sons saw my actions, and began to feel the same sense of change that I felt.
Oh - and that trip to “Home Depot?” The boys and I decided to help out in Maria’s efforts and create another space for a class with a screened in tent for the outside patio. A small gesture on our part to further her mission - but one so grand to them, it brought tears to their eyes. You would have thought we bought them a house! Their gratitude was overwhelming. I will definitely be back to help this worthy organization.
Upon leaving Love and Serve Without Boundaries, our next journey took us to Thiva, about 90 minutes away from Athens. There we meet our beautiful sisters from the monastery, and finally, Father Chrysostom. The monastery sits on a beautiful mountain side. Not sure what to expect, we were embraced with open loving arms and a warm meal that was so delicious. As a chef who loves Greek food, I was pleasantly surprised at the kind of food they eat in the monasteries. I’m delighted to tell you they are all amazing cooks!
At the monastery, we offered our support to various jobs that needed extra hand to help. But a further blessing was from Father Chrysostom. He was so excited to share with us Orthodoxy and the impact in his life. One day, I’ll write about that, too. His journey to becoming a monk is fascinating!
From Thiva, Father Chrysostom takes us to Petra - about 3.5 hours away. A beautiful mountain drive up to Petra Monastery, I was fascinated to know such a lovely place existed. The mountains seemed so familiar and the arrival at the monastery is breathtaking. Upon arrival, the monks were ready for us and we were ready to serve them. Petra is mystical. The church is the original 14th century old building, but the surrounding structures have fallen. In every direction, beautiful frescoes about with small streams of light coming through.
I went to liturgy and I was in my own little world listening to the chanting and observing all the icons, especially the one in front of me of the Virgin Mary and Christ. At one point, I got this overwhelming feeling - which to this day I can not explain - and started to cry. I had no plan to receive communion but I felt the need to and I did. After receiving communion I felt so at ease. I shared my experience with Father and he told me that is the power of the Panayia! Truly a divine place.
Our four days there were amazing - helping in the kitchen, helping with the nuns at St. George, jumping in where ever we could. We spent time enjoying God’s beauty in the surrounding areas. We were amazed at the nuns and monks we met, how they come from all walks of life, different countries and able to speak fluent Greek and English. We loved our talks at night with Father Chrysostom about orthodoxy, some nights up until 2 am talking and not wanting to stop.
Another highlight was seeing our own Father Sotiri. Father is from Grand Rapids, and is a MSU grad with a teaching degree. Father Sotiri felt a calling, went to seminary, moved to Greece became a priest has his own parish in Karditsa with his wife and beautiful family. We were honored to see him at Petra where he performed the liturgy for us. We were delighted that he stayed after and had coffee with us so we could catch up with him. He shared with us his journey becoming a priest. His story blew the kids mind. Father noted he was in the MSU marching band, become a teacher, did not know the Greek language. But with careful study and a passion for the Lord, he’s now a priest living in Greece and loving every minute.
One of my favorite things that I enjoyed doing was eating in the refectory (Agia Trapeza). It is a room where everyone eats together. The room has icons on all the walls, two rows of long rectangular tables and a head rectangular table in the front. This is where the head monk, elderly monks and special guests (like myself) sit. Father Chrysostom explained to us that when we sit down to eat we will eat to nourish the soul with food. We will also nourish the soul by listening to a passage from scripture or the history of a saint performed by one of the monks. As he spoke, the rest of us would remain silent, enjoying his teaching while we ate. Protocol also dictates that the meal would begin only when the head monk rings the first bell. Then he would ring the second bell which meant we could begin drinking. I can not tell you how much a learned during our meal times. I loved it!
When it was time to leave Petra, it was difficult - we had just started getting comfortable! We returned to Thiva for the night before going back to Athens. Again the nuns were waiting for us with open arms. Before we left, they had given all of us prayer ropes and the all came out to wish us well and felt their abounding love for us. Even the head nun commented “you cannot even imagine how much love we have for you all. We will always pray for you!”
She was right, you could feel the LOVE!! It was hard to say goodbye!! It was especially difficult to say our goodbyes to Father Chrysostom, who helped organize this entire journey. As we all got into our cars. The nuns rang the bells by hand as we were leaving. There was not a dry eye in the car. This is where I realized how important LOVE is. When you have LOVE, you can not only do good for you but for others. And love can be expressed and shown in so many ways. Love is what builds a community and a family. It was evident with our refugee organizations and at every monastery we visited. I know I have a lot of love to give. And for all my young adults that came along on this journey I am so proud of the love you showed.
The trip was amazing. It was impactful, moving and challenging. I’ve realized that going to church on Sundays does not mean anything if you just go and think of the tasks you have for the day, or day dream of what someone might be up to. Going to church - being the church - means listening to the words of the liturgy and carrying the message throughout the week in your everyday life. It means worship by actions and by speech. It’s witnessing to others. It is walking and talking Orthodoxy in all aspects of your life. Love the Lord your God….do unto others….ask forgiveness...offer help…love, love, love.
When I think about my journey, I am always at peace.