The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Nikos Stefanidis (Helping Hands Greece) believes that reaching refugees through “holistic ministry” is following Jesus’ example. The pastor shares stories of asylum seekers who have started to follow Christ.
Greece became one of the hotspots of the refugee crisis since the very beginning of the Syrian conflict. Thousands have arrived to its coasts.
Rev. Nikos Stefanidis is the Director of the Helping Hands ministry to the refugees in Athens, Greece. He told Evangelical Focus about the importance of an “holistic ministry” that consists in “combining preaching about Jesus with providing for the practical needs of refugees.”
Stefanidis warns those who are only “engaged in meeting practical needs”, because “they never reach the ultimate goal, which is to share the good news of salvation.”
“Through our practical service, refugees want to know about Jesus”, he explains. And he has plenty of real life stories that confirm this perspective.
Question. What do you do in your ministry?
Answer. I am dividing my time between serving refugees with the rest of the team (doing everything from cooking, serving, cleaning, etc.); preaching almost every Sunday in churches to encourage Christians to get involved in ministering to the refugees and homeless people in their areas; and participating in conferences where I speak about how to reach out to refugees for Christ.
I am also doing fundraising, and mobilise volunteers to come and serve with Helping Hands among the refugees in Athens.
Q. What has been your experience with holistic ministry, combining faith and humanitarian concerns?
A. Let me say how we do it at Helping Hands. For 23 years we have been combining preaching about Jesus with providing for the practical needs of the refugees.
We open the doors of our centre. Few of us stay in the door and welcome each refugee as they come in. In our centre, they have the opportunity to use the WC, to charge their mobiles, to check our Christian literature in their language and finally sit in a table to have a meal. Once the meal is ready, we pray in their language and thank for the meal. Afterwards, the members of Helping Hands serve each one of our refugee guest with salad, a main dish, fruit and bread.
During that time, they can sit with their friends and relatives and talk in a friendly and safe environment. When lunch is over, we clean the tables and make a clear announcement: “Thank you for coming; we would like to tell you that the program has finished for today. BUT anyone who wants to hear about Jesus can stay for a while, the rest of you can leave”.
Almost 40% of the refugee guests stay and listen attentively the message or the testimony of former Muslim refugees. When the message is over, we invite them for tea and discuss their questions about Christianity, Jesus, salvation. There are always some who have questions and some who want to do the step of faith in Jesus Christ.
I can tell you many stories about this. One Saturday morning, while everyone was busy trying to feed more than 800 refugees, a refugee woman from Afghanistan came asking for someone to talk about Jesus, because she wanted to accept Him in her heart. To those of us who have worked among Muslims and know how difficult it is for them to choose Christ, her request to know about Jesus sounded almost humorous. But it was not.
One of our teammates took her to the office and, with a translator, asked her, “What do you know about Jesus? Has anyone talked to you about Him before?” The Afghan lady replied, “I do not know much about Jesus, but as I was watching the way you treat one another and the way you take care of the refugees, a deep desire grew within me to know and to believe in this Jesus in whom you believe.” At the end of that meeting she prayed asking Jesus into her life.
In our Christmas programs of 2015, 11 Iranian refugees accepted Jesus in their hearts. And in one of our meals at our center, we had to take special care of someone who had a heart attack. We took him to the hospital and he finally had a heart surgery. We provided space in our guest house for a year for him and his family.
He was a very strong Muslim, but seeing how Christians cared about him, he started listening about Jesus. He is still a Muslim, but admires what we do and many times he brings food products for the refugees we take care off. We pray that one day he will see the truth.
Q. In which areas have you been working?
A. We have special programs in our centre for refugee kids where they hear a Bible story and then work on crafts related to the story.
Every summer, we send many kids to a Christian Camp for 21 days if the family stays in Greece. The parents must allow their kids to go, and they do so knowing that their kids will be studying the Bible.
We co-organize – with two other ministries - a one-week family camp for about 80 people, and another one for single men. All campers have to agree that they will follow the Bible study hours during the camp.
We have the women and children's meal & shower day each week, and we also have special Christmas and Easter programs.
Q. Where do you see holistic ministry in the Bible?
A. I will focus on the personality, the teaching and the work of our Lord Jesus Christ while on earth.
We read in the Bible: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
Jesus came to this earth to reveal God the father to men and women, to show the way to heaven. And He did this in very practical ways. Jesus was very close to the physical ans spiritual needs of men and women.
Many times in the Gospels, we find Jesus meeting the physical needs of the people first, and then talking about Himself, His authority, eternal life, etc. Other times, He was teaching first and then He meets the needs of the people. For instance, Jesus healed the man with leprosy first and then He gave him instructions about what to do (Mat.8:1-4). Again, Jesus healed the paralytic first, and then He taught the people about the authority He has, not only to heal but also to forgive sins (Mat. 9:1-8). In Lazarus’ death, Jesus taught first about the resurrection, He encouraged Martha and Maria, and then He raised Lazarus (John11:1-44). And, Jesus taught more tan 5.000 men, women and children, and then He fed them with a miracle (Mark 6: 30-44).
In other words, Jesus knew that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care!
This is what the Bible teaches us. In order to reach the people for Jesus, we must first show them care and love, in practical ways. And when we genuinely serve them, they will ask us ...Why you do it...? Tell us about Jesus...!
One "shower and laundry day", a refugee came to wash his clothing and take a shower, as he had done it regularly for 4 weeks. He then asked to talk with one of our teammates.
The refugee said: “I have seen the way you have helped me get a shower and how so nicely you are washing my clothing and folding them. You are always friendly and smiling. I want to tell you that you are a true Christian. And I would like you to talk to me about Jesus.”
Q. Some people separate the religious and social issues while working with refugees, why do they do this?
A. I think they have confused their priorities. For many Christians, the immediate need (for food, clothing, medical health, etc.) is the priority. And they hope that somehow the refugees will understand (by the way of serving them) that Jesus is the reason and that they will learn somewhere about Him.
Some believe that when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and said: "I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you", He meant just to serve people and this is what we must do.
But while they are so engaged in meeting practical needs, they never reach the ultimate goal, which is to share the good news of Salvation. This was the last commission of Jesus to the disciples and it is valid to us too.
Q. Why is a holistic approach important in the specific ministry to refugees?
A. Let me answer it with a real-life example. About 4 years ago, at one of our ministry days, we welcomed, among many other refugees, a Kurdish young man from Northern Iraq. He came to Greece with the aim to go further in Europe and try to find a country to settle and go to school to become a doctor.
While in Greece, he needed a place to take a shower, to change clothing, to get food, etc. Other refugees sent him to Helping Hands.
As soon as he came through our door, he was shocked! He did not expect that there would be people waiting to greet him and welcome him. A second thing that got his attention was when he saw in our bookshelves Christian literature in his language. And he took a Bible out of curiosity.
Days and weeks later, he was observing the way Christians were serving refugees and at the same time teaching and studying the Bible. One day, he came with his Bible and wanted to talk with us about his questions, because he was reading it and wanted to understand what he was reading.
Few weeks down the road, he came to the conclusion that Jesus is the one who can save people and asked us to pray with him. And he accepted Jesus in his life.
Three months later, at one of the prayer meetings for refugee believers, he came in the meeting and shocked us all. He said: “Please pray for me... I have decided to go back to my parents”. We asked him why. He said: “Last night as I was reading the Bible, I realised that the only way to go to heaven is through faith in Jesus Christ. And that there is no other name through whom any one can be saved. And immediately I understood that my family will go to hell if they will not hear about Jesus and believe in Him.”
We tried to discourage him to go back, because now that he is a Christian his life is in danger; his own father may kill him. He answered: “ I prefer to go back and talk to my father about Jesus and the way to heaven and get killed... than for my father to die without knowing anything of Jesus”.
Holistic ministry is important, because through our practical service to them (by providing shelter, showers, food, clothing, medical help, shoes, teaching English, Greek, etc.) they want to know about Jesus.
You can visit the Facebook page of Helping Hands here.
The “Refugees in Europe” series of articles is the fruit of a cooperation between Evangelical Focus, the Refugee Highway Partnership in Europe and the EEA Hope for Europe – Refugees campaign.