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In Athens, Greece, students work, worship & witness

ATHENS, Greece (BP)–Tourists snap pictures and shoot video as 60 International World Changers hold an impromptu praise and worship service atop Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. As the students’ voices carry across the crowd, an Iranian man on the fringes presses forward to ask for a copy of the song’s lyrics.

“Do you understand what is going on?” asks Jerry Johnson, Baptist Collegiate Ministries senior minister at Georgia Southern University.

“Yes, you are Christians,” the man replies.

As Johnson uses the lyrics to start telling the story of Christ, the man interrupts. Motioning to his daughter, he instructs her to listen to their discussion so they can talk about it in more depth later.

“God sometimes takes me from America and a guy from Iran, and we meet in Greece,” Johnson says. “I think that is God’s timing.”

Bernard Dafney from First Baptist Church in Clinton, Miss., says seeing the man’s interest was “mindblowing…. He knew that there was something different, so he wanted to join in. I think that is awesome that our worshipping out there was a form of ministry to people.”

The man represents one of more than 43 people groups who heard the Gospel during a weeklong International World Changers trip earlier this year. IWC provides high school and college students with a missions experience overseas during their spring, winter or summer breaks.

On this trip, students from Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi ministered alongside Southern Baptist workers to proclaim Christ, as unknown to Athenians today as He was 2,000 years ago.

Past meets present, biblical meets secular in Athens. It is the home of Socrates, the Olympics and Greek salad. It is also a modern metropolis of 4 million people. The subway runs beneath ancient ruins and the Acropolis’ renovation can be seen from McDonald’s.

Churches dot the downtown skyline. Their bells chime daily, but faith is not personal for most modern-day Greeks. Many Greeks identify with the Eastern Orthodox Church -— a connection sustained through Easter and Christmas masses.

“They need to experience God,” a Southern Baptist worker tells IWC students at the beginning of the week. “We need you to help us do that.”

Through trash collection, drama, movie production, basketball, English lessons, Gypsy ministry and a coffeehouse, the World Changers teams answer the call to help Athenians — Greeks and immigrants alike — experience God.

Donning orange vests and carrying trash pickup tongs, one group of IWCers takes to the streets to engage in conversations about their faith. Many conversations take place over black garbage bags.

“You came all this way to tell me about Jesus?” one woman asks them.

The temporary trash collectors hand out Bibles to shopkeepers and residents. Holding open the Bible cover, IWCers point out the seal of approval by the Orthodox Church to avoid being seen as Protestant heretics. For many residents, it is the first modern Greek Bible they have read.

As team members drive through Athens’ winding streets, they come up with a new use for their trash pickup claws — passing Bibles through the window to other cars. Later, they share the Gospel in Athenian neighborhoods as they play pickup basketball games.

At one of Athens’ town squares, the IWC drama team performs a play called “The Redeemer,” an 11-minute wordless portrayal of man’s relationship with God. As the accompanying music fades, students fan out into the crowd to discuss the drama’s meaning.

“I never knew how hard it is to start a conversation about your faith,” said Amber Cockrell from First Baptist, Clinton.

Despite the language barrier, the students use their high school and college instruction in Spanish, French and German to share God’s love with Athenians. Spotting a Frenchman in the crowd with tears trickling down his face, the students call over an IWC French major to interpret as they share the message of the cross.

Worship leader Sam Banfield also crosses the language barrier using his German-language skills.

“God continues to show me how He uses us,” Banfield said. “I never thought I would use German again, and here I am speaking to an Iranian man in German.”

In a crowded cement room, Roma Gypsy families and their newfound American friends watch a Greek version of a film about Jesus’ life.

The children’s attention spans are usually short, but tonight, all eyes are glued to the film. When Jesus rises from the dead, the moment is celebrated with a round of applause.

A worker who ministers to the Gypsies has seen six Roma make decisions for Christ over several months. IWCers assist the worker by playing baseball, singing and dancing with the Roma children. They, in turn, show their appreciation with showers of flower petals and slips of paper with the word agape (love) inscribed. Most of the children are illiterate; one child writes the word for the others to copy.

Most Roma make a living selling produce and flowers. Many live in poverty, but their greatest need is hope through salvation in Christ.

Hundreds of immigrants within Greece’s borders find refuge from war, poverty and injustice. At one refugee center, an IWC team spent the week handing out food and clothes.

The last two nights of the trip, the IWC team transformed the refugee center into a coffeehouse, adding floor lamps, throw pillows and tables to the stark, fluorescent-lit room. Newfound friends were invited to come for extended conversation and free coffee. Relationships deepened as the Americans and the Greeks played games, sang songs, shared testimonies and watched movies. The highlight came when one of the men accepted Christ.

Through annual trips — first through the 2004 Olympics outreach and now through ministry-building efforts — IWC teams are strengthening the ministry in Athens. Projects range from refugee youth camps, soccer camps, construction projects, nursing home ministry and street evangelism to sports ministry, prayerwalking and Vacation Bible Schools.

“IWC is our top strategic partner,” a Southern Baptist worker noted. “Every year they give us a push.”

To U.S. churches, the worker added, “I would encourage a church that hasn’t found its niche [in missions] to use IWC to make strategic partnerships on the field.”
Caroline Anderson is a freelance writer. IWC opportunities for 2008-09 are posted at thetask.org/youth/IWC. Projects available during spring, winter and summer school breaks stretch from Europe to Asia, Africa and Americas, along with a special summer project among the Roma.

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  • Caroline Anderson