by Sarah Killiam

In August 2014, after close to two years of working, waiting, praying, and planning, I finally packed up my life and moved to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. I had spent a few months in Europe, but never set foot in Greece. However, I believed God had spoken to me that this was to be my new home. And I had nothing to lose -- I was single, jobless, and passionate about seeing people, particularly international university students, come to know Jesus.

I experienced both heart-wrenchingly difficult and incredibly beautiful moments. During my time there, I witnessed the fallout of the Greek financial/political crisis and was involved with helping victims of the European refugee crisis, as well as seeing the aftermath of human trafficking. It’s incredibly difficult to sum up everything that happened and just how much I learned from life in Greece, but, in no particular order, here are some of the biggest takeaways I left with:

I recommend big moves, especially moving to a new country/culture for a season, for this very reason. For me at least, nothing makes me realize my need for God and forces me to depend on him quite like moving cross-culturally. In addition to experiencing the culture shock of getting used to a new language, place, and way of life, I knew absolutely no one in the city or on the team that I worked with prior to moving there. I often felt like an unwanted intruder in the first few weeks, and even as that wore off and I began to fall in love with my new home and the people in it, new obstacles constantly presented themselves. In the moments of pain and feelings of isolation, however, God was faithful to teach me and draw me closer to himself.

Prior to coming to Greece, I had a pride and optimism that made me believe both that I would succeed wherever I went, and that my views on how to do things were usually right. Transitioning into a new culture made me realize over and over again that I needed to slow down, humble myself, and learn from the wisdom and experience of those around me. Sometimes those realizations were painful ones. Doing life in a new environment has a way of bringing out the very worst in you at times, and when I saw those things in myself (or when others pointed them out to me), I had to learn to ask forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit’s help to change.

Never have I seen a culture that models community quite so beautifully as the Greeks. One of the reasons that I so deeply love and miss Greece to this day is that people there place such a high value on relationships. I lived in a city full of university students and was constantly meeting and making new friends. It often surprised me how quickly new friends would want to hang out and get a coffee together, coffees that usually lasted for hours at a time. As I walked throughout the city, I would often meet people I knew, and it was common when running into someone for them to drop whatever they were doing to talk with me or come along on whatever errand I was doing.

I was also blessed enough to work on a wonderful team of Americans and Greeks. We saw each other daily, challenged, encouraged, and made one another laugh, prayed together, met together, planned together, rested together, ate together, experienced both joy and pain together, and simply loved each other. There were uncomfortable moments together, too. Some of the painful growth that I mentioned above came because of doing life so closely with other people, and I am grateful that it did. Now that I’ve done life this way, I don’t ever want to go back to doing it alone.

During the last several months that I was in Europe, something unexpected (to us) happened. Thousands and thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other countries began pouring through the Greek border, about an hour from where we lived. Our team began going up to the border every other day during the late afternoon and evenings, which was when the highest influx of people would come through. I could write pages and pages on what I heard, saw, and discovered from my months serving there.

I met men, women, and children who had literally run for their lives from ISIS and other oppressive regimes, some of them escaping with scars on their bodies, missing limbs, or having had family members die either prior to leaving or on the journey there. I saw desperation in its truest form as many of these people ended up stuck for days and weeks at the camp when the borders were closed to all except for three of the people groups. I met Christians who had fled persecution from Iran, young men my age and younger from Syria who had left rather than be forced to fight for ISIS or lose their lives, little boys and girls who had lost fathers, mothers, or brothers and sisters.

It was impossible to see that kind of suffering up close, day after day, and not wrestle with the question of why. Why would God allow these people to suffer so cruelly at the hands of other humans? I read Habakkuk and the Psalms over and over, reminding myself that God was indeed good and that he would bring justice. Of course, I still don’t understand much of what he is doing or why. But I do know that many of the people who came through the camp, who had come from countries closed to Christianity, were able to hear the gospel or read a Bible for the first time as a result of being there. I do know that several Iranians became Christians after hearing about the grace of God through Jesus Christ for the first time, from other Iranians who had fled persecution. And I thank God for the refugees that I was able to meet and pray for, for the ones that I’m able to still keep in contact with. I am thankful that he is saving and redeeming a people for himself from the darkest and seemingly impossible-to-reach places.

One of the ways that I made new friends in Greece was by doing a project called People of Thessaloniki. We shamelessly took the idea from Brandon Stanton’s excellent Humans of New York. For months, I walked around my city with a camera, asking people on the streets if I could interview them and take their photos. I consider myself a fairly bold person, yet each time I approached someone for an interview, I prepared myself for possible rejection. And about half the time, that’s what happened. However, from the interviews that I did get came some of my closest friends in Greece. I befriended science students, book lovers, dancers, owners of businesses, etc. The risk more than paid off.

I am eternally grateful for what God did and is doing in Greece, and that he allowed me to be a part of it. The kingdom of God is so much bigger than what we see and experience in America. I encourage you to go and see for yourself. Take a trip to another country. Meet someone from another culture – which you don’t even have to go far to do. I guarantee there are people from other nations right around you. Get in on what God is doing globally. You’ll be forever glad you did.

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