For is not life more than bread?

Clare McBeath is co-principal of Northern Baptist College and was one of the women who took part in the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland women’s delegation to visit Greece, May 2016. This reflection is based on a conversation with Voula who runs the “Bridges Project” in Athens and in the port of Piraeus working with refugees from Syria.

While in Greece at the end of May, we heard from many Christian organisations, churches and non-governmental organisations about the sheer scale of the humanitarian response that has been needed and continues to be needed in Greece.

From stories of cooking over 1,000 hot meals a day in tented kitchens to the challenges of cooking with hundreds of packets of donated pasta all in different shapes and sizes.

But what struck me about all of the people we met from all of the different agencies was that yes the scale is huge, but that the real blessing of serving God and the refugees in this kind of way was through the relationships that were built with individuals and families.

This echoed with our brief experiences of visiting the camps. People wanted to know who we were and why we were there. And they wanted to share their stories and their tears with us.

For life is more than just food or physical needs or medical or legal services.

Drawing of garden - photo by Clare McBeathIn other words, we met at a very human level. There is a need for people to give as well as to receive, to be able to host us in their tents and make us coffee. Yes there are needs for food and for shelter. But there is also a need for people who will listen to stories of pain and loss, as well as listen to stories of aspirations and hopes. And I was struck by how pastoral this is – this two way encounter and sharing.

When we meet people and engage person to person in this way, we learn so much more. We learn about culture, about language, about faith. I didn’t know, for example, that Arabic is a very precise language. I didn’t know that in Syrian culture it is not appropriate simply to be given hot food to take away and eat. Instead hot food can only be received if the giver and receiver sit down and eat together so it is more appropriate to give out ingredients and gas stoves so families can cook and share for themselves.

For life is more than just food or physical needs or medical or legal services.

These are matters of dignity and respect. But they also show the importance of eating together and of creating and celebrating community. And we learned about the psychological and spiritual needs of people who have been massively traumatised and the amount of time it takes to build up trust and respect particularly in a culture that is so family and relationship orientated.

Maybe this is why the “Bridges Project” attracts many people and families to its open Bible studies, over 90% of them Muslim. It attracts people because they see the service and love of Christians lived out; and because Christians pastorally understand the huge spiritual need to understand the experiences of being a first in a war torn country and then as a refugee in the light of faith be it Christian or Muslim. When all you have left is for faith and your culture – how do we make sense of these?

For life is more than just food or physical needs or medical or legal services.

Voila - Bridges Project - photo by Clare McBeathThe Bible study does not discuss Christianity or Islam but focuses on Jesus and the stories and writings in both the Old and New Testament. It introduces Muslims to a different concept of God, not a distant God to be feared but a God who desires a relationship with us, a God who above all else can forgive whatever we feel we may have done wrong. For forgiveness brings spiritual healing.

As Voula, co-director of the “Bridges Project” reflected with us: “in Idomeni you can’t have a relationship with 10,000 people, but volunteers walk between tents and meet people”. In other words we may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge but we are called to follow the model of Jesus who met people individually and where they were at, who saw and met their physical but also their spiritual needs. “You are forgiven, peace be with you.”

For life is more than just food or physical needs or medical or legal services.

For me this has been a kind of Kairos moment. A bridge between the age old tension between evangelism and social action. Christian faith is about truly encountering God and other people, on an individual, very human level. As Jesus did. And it is about so much more than food. It is about making sense of our experiences in the light of our faith and it is about belonging to a community, sharing our dreams and our aspirations of who we might become in Christ.

One of the things we heard during our time in Greece is that refugees don’t want to stay in Greece because Greece doesn’t offer anything in terms of accommodation or money to help resettlement. From what we saw, it offers so much more. It offers peace, hope and faith.

Do we?

Photo: Clare McBeath