Jesus in Athens: An Interview with Darren Carlson
Periodically in the Journal for Global Christianity, we highlight a resource that is making a significant contribution to global mission. In our February 2017 issue, we interviewed Dr. Matthew Elliot on the Africa Study Bible. In this issue, we are dialoguing with Dr. Darren Carlson, our general editor, over the release of Jesus in Athens.
Many are interested in the plight of refugees in our world today. This award-winning documentary movie was released in June 2019 and tells the story of ways in which Christians are serving migrants in Greece. It is based on Dr. Carlson’s doctoral research at the London School of Theology and traces the stories of those who have migrated to Greece as well as those who are serving in Greece. It shows both the miraculous and ordinary ways in which Muslims are being drawn to the Christian faith. We wanted to give Dr. Carlson an opportunity to discuss the film and the lessons he learned from migrant believers.
2. Interview Questions
How did you first get involved with refugees? What has been most compelling about your work with refugees?
I first visited Athens in 2011 with Training Leaders International on an exploratory trip to see whether we could help train migrant church leaders. While there, I had one of the most memorable moments of my life. There were riots going on in the city because a migrant had killed a Greek woman who was headed to the hospital because she was in labor. Greeks were attacking migrants in retaliation, and the police were letting it happen. But at First Church, the oldest Greek Protestant Church in Greece, there were about sixty African, Asian, and Greek pastors praying for each other and the city. It was a startling contrast to what was happening outside the walls of the church.
This was the start of my journey teaching migrant leaders and then doing research amongst these communities. It was a great privilege to learn from the many people with whom I was able to interact. The most compelling part of the work of God in Athens was the way ordinary acts of hospitality, coupled with the miraculous, were part of the normal rhythm of ministry and life in migrant communities.
What are the current statistics of refugees? How many are entering Greece each month?
According to the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR), in 2019 59,726 people entered Greece by sea while 14,887 entered by land. These numbers are significantly higher than the previous year. It is hard to know what will happen in 2020, but it seems that Turkey is going to allow people to start passing through its borders in a way similar to 2015–2016. The biggest problem now is that, unlike 2015–2016, it is not as easy for those on the move to pass through Greece and they end up being stuck there. Refugee camps throughout Greece are now beyond max capacity, which has led to protests and dangerous living conditions for migrants.
The number of people who are considered refugees is decided as migrants have their cases heard. There are currently 40,750 refugees and asylum-seekers living on Greek islands, with the majority of them coming from Afghanistan (49%), Syria (19%), and Somalia (6%). Some of them will be deported back to Turkey, but they will most likely try again once they have enough money to pay the smugglers.
What makes Greece an appealing destination for many refugees from your perspective?
It’s not an appealing destination. It is appealing to enter Greece because it’s the easiest access point for people wanting to get into the European Union. Only a few miles of water separate Turkey from multiple Greek islands. The government of Turkey knows where smugglers load people on boats. It is just a matter of whether the Turks want to stop them. If they do, then they have to deal with the migrants themselves and figure out where to put them. Once boats pass into international waters, the European Union has to deal with migrants in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
However, migrants don’t want to stay in Greece. They want to go to Germany, Sweden, or just about anywhere else where they can find jobs. But to do so, they must enter Greece first. Some of them try to avoid authorities and make their way north, but nearly all of them end up of in refugee camps on Greek islands, waiting for their cases to be heard. Some of them end up in Athens.
How frequently have you been to Athens?
I went multiple times a year from 2012–2014, and then twelve times between 2015–2018, plus a three-month stay with my entire family.
You say that many are coming to Christ as refugees. What in your opinion makes refugees open to converting to Christianity? Is Greece a particular spot where God's Spirit is moving in this world?
I don’t want to propose I know why God’s Spirit moves where it does. There is clearly something happening, and how people understand and explain their journey gives us a window of understanding to the reasons for why people say they convert. From a human standpoint, migration causes upheaval. Migrants are leaving what is familiar for something that is not. Many of them have never lived in a place where they could consider leaving Islam. Others gladly shed their Muslim identity the minute they land in Greece. My friend has witnessed women removing head coverings the moment they enter Europe. They are just tired of Islam.
Muslims who get to Greece will find that there is no Islamic community to welcome them. Greece is the only country in the EU without a mosque. Instead, they end up in Christian refugee centers, where Christians, many of whom are former Muslims from their home country, help them with doctor appointments and shelter and food and medical care. When I asked Muslims why they converted, many reasons were given, but the common thread amongst all the answers was the love of God and the love of Christians. They encountered a message completely radical to their understanding of God and met people who were not like what they were told back at home.
Because migrants have nowhere to go and a lot of time on their hands, they are able to attend Bible studies throughout the week and ask questions they were afraid to ask back home. Some of them are tired of Islam. Some of them were Muslim in name only. Some see the wealth of Western countries and think that it is driven by Christianity and are therefore drawn to the economic stability.
There are, of course, fake conversions, as many Muslims think they have a better chance at receiving asylum if they claim to have converted in Europe. I met people who had bought baptism certificates for over $1000 to show UN workers they had converted. I met women who had been given Bibles by smugglers and told to pretend they were Christians in order to get asylum. And sadly, I saw ministries that were duped by people faking conversions and were reporting amazing works of God that were truly fake. Satan is always working to undermine what is real and lasting.
How can research like you have done aid in Christian mission?
Anthropologists, missiologists, and theologians have the great responsibility, to the best of their ability, to accurately report what is going on in the world. William Carey had a lot of data in his Enquiry, which catapulted the modern missions movement. In a way, that data, though wrong on some levels, was able to serve the church in making decisions about where to go. Researchers today can play the same role.
Sadly, there is a lot of reporting that is exaggerated! Most of it is naivety, as many tend to believe anything they are told. The good researcher will dig deeper into the claims of people they are researching, to find, as best as possible, what is really going on. We don’t need to exaggerate the works of God for our benefit. Instead, we should pursue rigorous truth-telling, being constructively critical when necessary, and rejoicing in what God does around the world.
What have been some of the most distressing reactions of Christians to the refugee crisis?
The issue of migration is complicated. If I were Greek and saw a million Muslims come into my country over a one-year period, during a time of economic crisis, I’m not sure how I would respond. How would I respond when migrants were getting shelter, food, and medicine from the UN while the Greek unemployment rate was soaring? And why should Greece have to carry the burden of border control for the entire EU? It is understandable that many people saw it as an invasion.
What was most striking to me was talking to some American missionaries in Greece who had no problems caring for and reaching out to the migrants who had never heard the gospel or met a Christian. Greece was not their country and they didn’t care about how many migrants were entering Europe. But when I asked about the southern border in the United States, and whether they could see themselves doing similar ministry there, almost all of them balked, and did not share the same enthusiasm for ministry toward people migrating “illegally.”
Here then is the lesson. We tend to view our home differently from “over there,” whatever that means. We tend to think of “ministry over there” differently than “ministry here.” This is what I find most distressing.
I could point to the blatant racism in migration debates – but that is clear to many. What is not clear is how many migrants a country can accommodate without hurting its own citizens, what kind of deterrence is appropriate, how not to reward smuggling and child trafficking, and what responsibility a country has to the people fleeing countries in which that country is at war. Some Christians should be involved in shaping these decisions. The majority of us should not feel like they cannot do anything just because they are not in positions of authority and power.
In the United States, everyone agrees that our system is broken. I’ve been in churches in the United States and spoken with Christians who are ICE litigators, DACA recipients, refugee and asylum seekers, those who have overstayed their visas, and more. Most Christians operate from a naïve view of migration issues; they are either not willing to admit the ways their own country has created the issues, or they believe their country can take everyone who wants to come. But in the midst of all of it, we can still express hospitality, feed and clothe these marginalized people who are often believers, and use the opportunity created by the movement of people around the world to share the gospel with people who have never heard the name of Jesus.
If you were to highlight one story where Christians have reached out to refugees, what would that story be?
Simple acts of kindness often have the largest impact. That could be cleaning the toilets in a refugee center. It could mean giving a family your bin for washing dirty dishes so that they can give their child a bath. It could mean providing a shower to be clean. In destination countries like Germany, Sweden, or the United States, it could mean helping with legal services, finding jobs, and extending hospitality and friendship to strangers.
My friend Mihalis started giving rides to migrants who needed to go into the city to meet with lawyers and doctors. He would have thirty minutes each way to talk to people if they spoke English. This led to a lot of good conversations. On one occasion, one migrant asked, “If Jesus is who you say he is and if Christianity is the truth, why haven't we ever seen any Christians come to Afghanistan and share the Gospel with us and share the truth with us?" The migrant paused and then continued, “I know the answer. It wasn't possible for Christians to come to Afghanistan, so God took us out of our country and brought us here in Greece to hear about Jesus."
I think we would all be surprised by
how often simple acts of hospitality lead to opportunities to share the gospel.
As a friend in Greece once told me, “Muslims don’t bite.” Take a risk.
What do you hope people will learn from watching your documentary?
Video and images are a powerful way to bring academic research to the general public. The movie covers a small portion of my dissertation, which gives a more complete picture of what was happening in Athens. I’m hoping it will encourage other researchers to use media to tell the stories they uncover. Part of that requires a level of academic suicide, as you are talking about the supernatural in ways the elite academy does not accept. So be it. The Christian researcher can rebuke the sensationalism of many while telling miraculous stories that are true.
I also hope Christians glimpse a picture of what God is doing in the world. What struck me when screening the film in Athens is how the different ministries and leaders in the city were unaware of what was happening around the city outside of their own work. It’s understandable, as they are all overworked and busy. But it just goes to show we all have tunnel vision of what we are dealing with in our own lives. Our expectation or view of God is often determined by what we experience and hear about. I’m hoping that, in accurately portraying the work of God, I can help people get a glimpse of what God is doing in the world.
Thank you, Dr. Carlson, for explaining more about this important documentary. Further information about Jesus in Athens can be found at the website: https://www.jesusinathens.com/. Jesus in Athens is available on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes. A DVD version is also obtainable through Amazon.
 UN Refugee Agency, “Mediterranean Situation: Greece,” accessed February 2, 2020.
 UN Refugee Agency, “Aegean Islands Weekly Snapshot,” February 25, 2020.