Sunday, December 30, 2012

Church on the streets in Greece

Church on the streets in GreeceUnemployment in Greece has spiralled in the last year, with more than half of young people out of work. The things that were once considered basics are now luxuries, says the Reverend Jimoh Adebayo.

He and his church are helping to run a soup kitchen in central Athens that is feeding around 700 people each day.

Church in the Street was set up four years ago to assist destitute migrants but after the country plunged into economic crisis, more and more Greeks are lining up for the free lunch.

Malcolm Bradshaw, of the Anglican Church in Greece, a co-founder of the project, estimates that around a third of the recipients are Greek.

With pensions halved, it is not surprising that many of them are pensioners, but more recently some younger faces have started to appear.

“The situation is very dire,” says Rev Jimoh, who pastors Faith Apostolos Ministries, a Pentecostal church in Athens.

Since the financial crisis kicked in, he says he has seen his largely migrant congregation dwindle as people return to Africa and Asia or move to other parts of Europe to escape the hardship in Greece.

“Of those that remain, only a very few have jobs but they have family and children. For those who are working, their hours and their pay have been reduced. We are living at the mercy of God,” he explains.

The exodus has had a knock-on effect on the church’s income, meaning that it is not able to contribute to Church in the Street financially.

“It has been very strenuous because even the majority of the congregants don’t have work and don’t have jobs.”

Instead, Pastor Jimoh and other members of his congregation give their time by serving each day at the soup kitchen.
Guests at the kitchen include Muslims from North Africa and Palestine, and many children, who come with their parents. The regulars include a group of around 150 Afghan women and their children.

“It’s not to convert them to Christianity, it’s to help them because they are hungry,” Pastor Jimoh stresses.

As Church in the Street only provides a lunch meal each day, Faith Apostolos Ministries does what it can to meet the additional needs of struggling families, such as providing baby food, nappies and clothing.

In the run-up to Christmas, toys were collected to give as Christmas presents to children.

Not surprisingly, Christmas has been muted for Greece’s most hard-pressed.

“They are supposed to be exchanging gifts with their loved ones but how can they do that when they don't have a job or place to live?” said Pastor Jimoh. “They just want to have food on their table and a place to sleep. The way things are now, the things that used to be basic no longer are. They are a luxury.”

Church in the Street is based at a local council building and funded largely by the Greek Orthodox Church. The Anglican Church in Greece is also contributing financially from a hardship fund of 80,000 euros that has been donated by chaplaincies across Europe, including the UK, for projects in Greece.

“It is a measure of solidarity because of what is happening in Greece,” explains Malcolm.

The funds are welcome, he says, because many of the institutions that traditionally coordinate social welfare projects have been hard hit by the crisis.

“They are finding it very difficult to properly budget and maintain the level of service they want to maintain,” he said.

The Anglican Church in Greece is too small to do anything independently so it works closely with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek Evangelical Church.

Malcolm says Church in the Street has strengthened church relations.

“Ecumenism is not top of the agenda in Greece so this particular programme is significant in that it has got three Churches involved in it,” he said.

Pastor Jimoh agrees: “We are an independent church but this is Christianity in practice. Our doctrinal differences take a back seat when people are out there in the cold, homeless and hungry. What is Christ all about and Christianity all about if we cannot put away our differences and see what we can do collectively to help them.”
It’s been a difficult few years for Greece. Shops are closing down and many premises are empty. 

The bloated civil service and nationalised industries are all being slimmed down. 

At the same time as large scale redundancies, the government is hiking existing taxes and announcing new taxes.

Fotis Romeos is General Secretary of the Greek Evangelical Alliance. With evangelical churches accounting for just 0.25% of all the churches in Greece, he admits they are feeling “overwhelmed” by the scale of the crisis.

Like Pastor Jimoh, he says churchgoers have been drastically impacted by the crisis and this has had a negative impact on the churches as the pleas for help are multiplying at the same time as resources are dramatically decreasing.

“Many churches face serious problems in paying the salaries of their pastors,” he says.

Nonetheless, they too are doing what they can, he says, by providing food packages to families and offering free medical services from professionals within the church congregations.

“In this dramatic social turmoil, the church cannot step in to fill the whole gap but we are stepping in to declare a message of hope with words and deeds as much as we can,” he says. “There is a great sensitivity and the entire evangelical community has reached its limits helping people in need.”

In the midst of all the bad news, there has been a welcome increase in young people and migrants turning to the church.

In the last decade, 90 migrant churches have sprung up in and around Athens.

“And we have seen a growing interest among young people who have been disappointed by the political system and other ideologies,” he says.

Few are in any doubt that 2013 is going to be another tough year for Greece. Protests against austerity and job cuts bring Athens to a halt on a regular basis and it is unlikely that many of the empty premises are going to be filled any time soon.

“There has been an increase in begging. You can’t step out on the street without being approached by someone for a euro or seeing someone sitting on steps begging. One only has to use their eyes and one begins to see that there are difficulties within the country,” says Malcolm.

“In terms of the mood of the population, there is a lot of deep anger inside. It’s not revolution but there is deep anger and people can’t see any light in the tunnel. In that sense, there is little hope around and that anger is probably going to intensify in January with the tax hikes.”

Fotis is hoping that the crisis will cause people to rediscover biblical principles and apply them to their lives. He is also looking to the international community to help.

“The need is so great and the international community has not been informed enough about the social disaster that thousands of families - well established just a few years ago - are facing today. The middle classes have had to bear an overwhelming load and they have done everything to share their responsibility. We believe that the international community should consider this and try to do their part in order to handle the crisis which has devastated the lives of thousands of innocent people,” he concludes.
Malcolm meanwhile is asking Christians to pray for wise judgement and courage not only among Greek politicians but within the EU too.

He says, “A certain rigour has got to be kept in the situation, otherwise the Greeks will avoid doing it but the EU has to remember that behind all the decisions it makes there are human faces and their decisions are affecting what is happening behind many a door here.”

People outside of Greece can help by praying and offering financial assistance, but there is something else that they can do and that is to visit, says Fotis.

“We would like to invite the friends of Greece to visit our country. The crisis has not affected the huge treasure of biblical sites, the hospitable spirit of our people and the unique agape Greek love. It may sound like the ancient voice crying: ‘Come to Macedonia to help us...’”