The economic crisis in Greece has devastated many middle-class Greeks, immigrants, and refugees in the Koukaki neighborhood located in the southeast region of Athens. Many tourists visiting Athens, Greece don't see how the economic crisis has affected the people who live there. Even many of the Greeks who live in Athens don't see the people who are suffering.
Themis Sirinides, however, chooses to see and meet the needs of the working poor, the chronically unemployed, the homeless, the drug addicts, and the refugees in the Koukaki neighborhood where he serves as Community Transformation Director.
Twice each week, the desperately poor and hungry can be found lining up at a soup kitchen run and staffed by Themis and his team. Not only do they have hunger pangs in their stomach, they have tears in their eyes and their heads hang low. They are ashamed.
Once they enter the soup kitchen, they receive a hot and nutritious meal. For many, they also receive a rare and priceless opportunity to connect with other people.
"I'll never forget a woman named Dora,' said Themis. "She told me that when I simply called her by name to wish her a good morning, it meant everything. Nobody calls her by name."
Themis continued to describe how important it is to meet their emotional needs. "Over a hot meal, the poor will have someone to listen to them. Whether or not we can help doesn't matter as much as simply having someone to sit across the table with their attention focused listening to a person that most people wouldn't even notice," he said. "So not only can they leave the center with their stomachs filled up, they can leave emotionally filled up as well."
Themis said that conversations inevitably turn to Jesus and how following Him will transform their lives. Profound things can happen while sitting together sharing a meal.
Themis acknowledges that God has wired him to be for the oppressed. Even as a little boy, he was always for the underdog and cared about the people who were not chosen to be a part of the 'in' group. He was born in Athens, but didn't feel like he belonged because his family was not part of the orthodox church.
When Themis was 8 years old, he and his family immigrated to America and settled in New Jersey. He spent a good part of his adolescence trying to run away from his faith in God, but at age 19, found himself crying out to God for help. Feeling joy, peace, and a new life, Themis realized that he wanted to serve God in full-time ministry. But, nothing panned out. He eventually got married to Donna, and they started a family. He ran a pizza shop in New Jersey.
Everything changed one day when a man came into the pizza shop and said that God could use his gifts in Greece. His fire for service was reignited. It took about ten years, but at age 40, Themis and his family moved to Athens.
Now, as he serves in Greece, he has an opportunity to tangibly care for the people who have been displaced and are trying to make their way into Europe. "God's timing was perfect as I now get to be a catalyst in what God is doing in Greece," Themis said with a smile. "I live and breathe the 2020 Vision — 100 communities where nobody is invisible and everyone has access to food, freedom, and forgiveness. I care about the needs of the whole person. Feeding and caring for people is a pretty great fit for this pizza guy."
"I'm regularly asking God to keep my heart soft. I don't ever want to lose compassion for the people of Koukaki," reflected Themis. "I see how God really cares for all of humanity. How could I not then be reminded of the many ways He cares for me?"
Themis and his team partner with a strong local church in Koukaki and are excited about the Athens Koukaki "Refuge." This expanded ministry center is located just one block from the church and will better meet the growing needs of the community. With a commercial kitchen and new showers, this larger facility will provide more people in Koukaki with access to basic necessities such as food, clothing, and hygiene. Four classrooms plus a central gathering place and Coffee House will allow for training in Greek and English language skills and for building relationships. The "Refuge" will also have temporary sleeping quarters for ten homeless people as well as dorm-style guest rooms for visiting short-term teams and other workers.
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