Praise in the Islands

03/03/2020

We flew into the beautiful green and sea of Lesvos late afternoon in time to watch the sun cast its glittering beauty everywhere. We stopped to grab a coffee and let the caffeine energize us enough to be alert and cognitive to meet all our dear friends. Little Alexander had grown an extra double chin in my absence, but other than that all seemed normal in Panagiouda. The late afternoon sunshine spilled beautifully onto all the clay roofs and early budding almond trees. The poppies blooming in the olive groves promised another glorious island spring.

Normal on Lesvos currently is over 20,000 immigrants in Moria camp, with tents spilling everywhere in the olive groves. If you want to know what it is like to live in Moria come sit in our living room in Athens.

“Mice ran everywhere in our tent, even over our heads while we slept.”

“We watched a man be stabbed right outside our tent.”

“My husband and I had to wake each other to move positions in the night because our space was so tight.”

It is all a maze of tent structures and children running around with grubby hands and toes looking for action. All volunteers evacuated after continuing threats towards organizations so we’re praying and praising and making soft pretzels to make the most of it.

Meanwhile a boat drifted in to the shoreline and was detained for hours by locals who yelled, “Go back to Turkey!” A four year old child drowned and there was much tension in the sea with the coastguard detaining oncoming immigrants. Hundreds of others crowded the ferry port last night to go to Athens, and the land border between Greece and Turkey is flooding with families who have heard the borders are open. Police and border guards detain the masses with tear gas and fences. Some push on past and ask which bus to take to Athens. It’s all become another wave of detaining a people who are determined to fight all the odds and make it to Western Europe.

In 2015 we started working in a small transit camp in the north part of the island. The boats were coming in just a jaunt below us and the volunteer vans would bring loads of new arrivals up to the entrance of the camp where we would provide warm clothes, hot tea, and direct them onto the buses to Moria. We didn’t even know much about what Moria was then, and just focused on directing thousands of people onto the bus dry and fed. It was there that I met the little boy who inspired one of my children’s books, Afran’s journey. He was crying for his Mother as they waited in line to board the bus to Moria. They had left her behind in Turkey, and his Father was comforting him with promises of a new bicycle.

This week that camp was set on fire.

What is our response when the happenings around us are so out of control all we can do is sit and pray and worship? It gets wearying not to have the answers for searching, desperate faces. It gets old fast to sit and twiddle thumbs instead of serving food and hugging people. But here we are, not sure why we’re here or what will happen but 100% certain God is sovereign over us.

03/05/2020

We took the ferry in the early morning and island hopped to Samos. Eric, Graham, and I ran off the ferry every time it docked and raced to grab a coffee in Chios before boarding for Samos. It was raining hard on the upper deck but wonderfully refreshing to stand in the salt water spray and take in the glory of the passing green.

I’m sitting on a tiny balcony overlooking a cascade of red clay roofs bathed in the glory of golden hour. The sea is calm below us, and the sky is a perfect blue today. It is our first visit to Samos, an island with a population of 6,000 Greeks and around 7-10,000 refugees. The little city is mostly on the hillside, and many of the smaller streets merge into stair steps all overgrown with green.

Eric and I woke bright and early to watch the sun peak over the mountain and splash its warmth all over the cobblestone. We ate a raisin pastry and shared a coffee by the sea before we went for breakfast at the hotel. The hotel owner sits inside the door every time I arrive and is often doing a breathing treatment. The hotel is old and creaky, bearing the marks of years. I found the antique wood and locks comforting somehow and especially the little balcony overlooking the sea. 

It is this deep collision of beauty and sorrow that always catches my sentimental and emotional parts off guard. The peaceful Mediterranean breeze, historic villages, pottery shops, and bright local produce stands mesh with the reality of thousands living in mud and tents a few minutes walk away. 7,000 refugees filter in through the small town shops, sit smoking outside cafe’s, and walk along the bay searching for some peace and normalcy. At night, when the sun slips below the mountain beyond the sea, they all gather in the outskirts of the city up the mountain where a cascade of tent dwellings, UN housing units, and makeshift tarp houses create a blue and white dotted landscape from below. There is no way to separate the quiet tourist village and the clamor of thousands of immigrants. 

The island economy has been dependent on tourism, and today as I spoke with a local man I realized the growing tension on Lesvos is also present on Samos. When your business lifeline is taken in a matter of months as people from every nation arrive in your city desperate and applying for asylum and when the peaceful quiet of small cobblestone streets becomes alive with the shouts of young immigrant boys, life changes abruptly. Business changes. Fear grows. The historical hospitality of the Greek population is challenged, along with their personal safety, homes, and belongings. 

There is no way to separate nationalities and cultures as they all arrive at the seaside and spill into small villages and the camps that keep expanding and spreading out with the deep blue of UN tarps and tents. The older greek women keep walking the streets they always knew, but pass by the faces of peoples and cultures they know nothing of. The news tells us the locals are violent and angry, but I wish I could show everyone the kindness of a greek grandpa today, pausing beside the road to give my new Ghanaian friend and I a few clementines. My friend was crying as we sat there, and she spoke the words I wish no one would have to say.

“I have no one.” 

How do you comfort a grieving mother of three who has borne the deepest sorrows and simultaneously empathize with the frustration of a local man whose very life has been shaken by this incessant movement of the nations to his doorstep?

I sat there in the late afternoon sunshine and watched his kindness to her with hope. Love is so simple and so hard. Staying objective and open minded when encountering so many peoples and situations is paramount. When the western world collides between all these other cultures it becomes critical that we enter each encounter prayerfully and humbly and refrain from heated or careless opinion. This Greek man could pause and breach the language barrier and the cultural pressures to look my Ghanaian friend in the face and hand her his clementines. 

No words, but a thousand meanings. 

The calm of the sea and the quiet afterglow of the sun speaks peace to me tonight. Our hearts are alive with praise after seeing the miraculous again on the islands. The pressure to cease from our physical work causes us to reevaluate and I believe protests and viruses won’t stop the kingdom of Jesus from advancing if we lean into this pause with prayer and praise.

“Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare His praise in the islands.” Isaiah 42:12

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