By Ryan Lee
From the time its doors opened in 1892 until its closing in 1954, Ellis Island was a gateway to freedom for immigrants from nations such as England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavian countries seeking a fresh start in America. The Statue of Liberty standing tall shined as a beacon of hope for displaced families looking for a new beginning. An inscription on a plaque nearby featured the poem New Colossus, welcoming all who craved liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Whereas most large monument statues were erected to symbolize a great victory or even to deter enemies, the Statue of Liberty stood tall as a giant welcome mat. In the 60 years Ellis Island was open, over 12 million immigrants passed through on their way to becoming American citizens. In many cases, immigrants were given a new name—their American name. Some of these immigrants stayed in New York. Some traveled further west, but all of them began a new life, in a new home, with a new name.
Ellis Island was just a gateway, a portal for them to pass through. Immigrants poured through the doors of Ellis Island like a river flows through a valley. The island is one of the most important landmarks in American history. It’s this history that helped to shape a nation that stood for life and liberty. And as Mark Twain once put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Now, over 60 years later, another group of people are fleeing their native countries in search of freedom. Except this time they aren’t immigrants—they are refugees. Instead of fleeing from western and northern Europe, they are fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq. And rather than the gateway being Ellis Island, the gateway is Athens.
The Refugee Crisis, as it’s come to be known, began around 2009. Men, women, and children from Muslim backgrounds are fleeing their war-torn homes, running for their lives to escape oppression and violence. As they head to Europe, 80% of all refugees fleeing the Middle East and North Africa come through Greece. Athens is the gateway city and the epicenter of what is known as the refugee highway.
Over 90% of the refugees who pass through Athens must cross the Mediterranean Sea. Smugglers will often take the refugees’ life savings in exchange for passage. Unfortunately, many of these crafts are overloaded with refugees and abandoned before arrival. In 2017, approximately 4,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. If a refugee is fortunate enough to make it to Athens, they most likely arrive penniless, their only possession the clothes on their back.
Because of the economic situation, there are not a lot of opportunities for the refugees. Athens is busy, yet not a lot of people are working.
Many refugees, after trying to find a life in Athens, realize that the best opportunity for them is by trekking deeper into Europe. So, much like Ellis Island, refugees pass through Athens like a river. It’s in this river where we meet Larry and Cathy Bowles.
The Bowles are missionaries from Oklahoma who spend the better part of each year (as long as their visas will allow) in Athens. Larry, a retired firefighter, and his wife Cathy began their mission work in Athens with a mindset to evangelize to the Greek people. When the refugee crisis began, they realized it wasn’t the Greeks who God had called them to minister to, but the Muslim refugees. And because of the nature of Athens and the fact that these refugees are only staying in Athens a short time, the Bowles realized they must change their strategy. They not only needed to shift their focus from Greeks to Muslims, but they also realized that God was calling them to go further than evangelism. They had to disciple.
How, though, do you disciple a person who you know will be leaving you in a couple of months? The first step was simple: meet their physical needs. Larry and Cathy and their small team met any and every refugee they could, providing food, water, blankets, clothing, and healthcare. They showed Christ’s love by meeting the physical needs first, which opened doors to share with them who Jesus is. To their surprise, they found that many of these refugees were curious and actually eager to learn about who Jesus is. They realized quickly that this environment was ripe for discipleship.
Again, the hardest part of their quest to make disciples was the short time the refugees stay in Athens. Before these people left Greece, Larry and Cathy wanted to embrace them in love and tell them about Jesus. But they didn’t have time for a Biblical studies school; they needed something more short-term, more intense. And thus, the AcroCenter was born.
The AcroCenter was started as a discipleship training program. The Acro (Athens Christian Refugee Organization) Center works in cooperation with and serves as an extension of three major evangelical refugee outreach organizations currently operating in Athens. It exists to provide the opportunity for deeper Bible training and focused discipleship with new Christian refugee believers while they are still in Athens.
With the understanding that they didn’t have much time with the refugees, Larry and Cathy developed a 5-week, 60-hour discipleship course to teach people not only about the Gospel, but also who God truly is as a person. It’s extremely intense, but it has been very effective with the Muslim refugees who are seeking a relationship with God. The program is designed to meet new refugee believers where they are educationally, while providing a solid foundation of sound Biblical training and discipleship. This training gives them a strong grasp of scripture and equips them not only to live a life for Jesus, but to teach, evangelize, and make disciples of their new fellow countrymen (not only while they are in Athens, but also wherever the Lord moves them as they pass into other countries within Europe and beyond).
There are many challenges in doing this work. For instance, when refugees first come to the AcroCenter, they are given a Bible. Even this is a foreign concept to them as most refugees are fleeing a place where owning a Bible is illegal—and in some cases, punishable by death. From the very start, their worldviews are shaken. Most have grown up in a religion that is defined by domination and control, where rules are maintained by fear, intimidation, and harsh punishment. With Jesus, however, they are met with love, grace, mercy, and hope.
The motto of the AcroCenter is “We are looking for those who are looking for Jesus.” And when you think about it, that’s every refugee. They fled Islamic oppression in search of what Jesus provides even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Only in Christ can they experience true transformation and real deliverance from the tyranny of Islam.
One of the most uplifting stories of this ministry is Larry and Cathy’s exit strategy. They believe that God will build His church through His people. Who better to disciple a Muslim refugee than a former Muslim refugee? Larry says it as plainly as it can be said, “We can equip them, but it should be they who lead, not us.” With all the refugees pouring into Europe through Athens every day, it’s very possible that Muslim refugees will be who God uses to disciple Europe.
Just like Ellis Island was for over half a century, Athens has become a gateway to freedom for millions. And as the Statue of Liberty stood as a welcoming beacon for immigrants seeking refuge, perhaps the Acropolis will be a symbol of the strong tower that is the name of the Lord. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Emma Lazarus wrote The New Colossus in 1883 to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. It then became an invitation to liberty. While no one is building statues or writing poems for the Refugee Crisis, Jesus has already given his invitation. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” —Matthew 11:28
To learn more about Larry and Cathy’s mission work in Athens, please visit their website at: acrocenter.org.