Herculean Task

By Becky Hill
herculean-task-465x280.jpg Photo by Ted Wilcox

They walk in the footsteps of the apostle Paul.

Katerina Haritou grew up 10 minutes from the ruins at Philippi. Sotiris Striftoulias spent his childhood on the same peninsula as Corinth. Now the young married couple makes their home in Thessaloniki, talking with people about the message of Christ.

And like the apostles, Katerina and Sotiris encounter regular opposition. Though the New Testament records amazing stories of people reaching Greeks with the gospel, evangelism has since become a foreign concept in this country.

Despite a society resistant to the very ideas and foundations of their ministry, Katerina and Sotiris (with Campus Crusade for Christ) challenge cultural norms and face daily obstacles with boldness. They hold to a hope that God will reach the Greeks of today like He did in the past.

One Tuesday afternoon, on the campus of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Katerina knocks politely on the door of a dorm room, wondering if anyone will be home. She has prayed for a meaningful conversation, but has prepared herself for anything.

A girl named Froso opens the door. She agrees to go through Katerina's spiritual survey and invites her inside. Froso seems polite and curious, tucking her straight brown hair behind her ears as she sits down on the bed.

Teddy-bear curtains cover the windows, and a few teddy bears are pushed aside on her bed. Four Greek Orthodox icons hang on the wall, and a picture of a priest is pinned to her bulletin board.

Katerina begins, asking Froso about her year in school (second), her major (Greek literature), and her hometown (Volos, a bustling seaport halfway between Athens and Thessaloniki).

Froso thoughtfully answers Katerina's questions: Her purpose in life is simply to be happy, and the basic problem with the world is a lack of inner balance. The conversation seems to be going well.

"Would you like to know God personally, if you could?" asks Katerina. Froso answers yes. So Katerina pulls out an evangelistic booklet printed in the Greek language.

"Is it Orthodox?" Froso asks.

"It's not from a specific church," Katerina explains. "It's just about God."

Froso leans back against her pillow, instantly defensive, and says she doesn't want to hear it. She doesn't want anything to do with things that are not Greek Orthodox.

"If you give it to me," she says, "I'll just throw it away." So Katerina tries to tell about her own faith journey, but Froso initiates a debate about confession, specifically whether or not a person must confess sins to a priest.

A wall has gone up. The words might continue, but the conversation has stopped.

Many conversations have been silenced since 1054, when the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church split. The Greek Orthodox now view themselves as the only true church, and consider every other faith heretical, lumping Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and all other non-Orthodox faiths together.

Today, nearly all 10 million Greek citizens claim Greek Orthodoxy as their religion. Many Orthodox attend church only on Christmas and Easter, so Sotiris and Katerina do not believe the entire country truly knows Christ. But in just trying to talk about Him, the couple often hits a wall of prejudice.

In January 2003, when they were passing out some evangelistic fliers near the philosophy building at Aristotle University, a woman began yelling, "Don't take it; they're heretical. They're not Orthodox!"

She stood just a few feet away from them and shouted, sometimes trying to get others to join her. But Bill Marshall, an American Campus Crusade staff member who was standing at their literature table nearby, prayed, and the woman soon stopped yelling and left them alone.

Sotiris, 34, is a natural evangelist, seemingly fearless, with a spirit of adventure and curiosity. Katerina, 33, is much quieter than her husband. She shrieks during fireworks, runs from bees, and fears the stray dogs wandering all over Thessaloniki. But Katerina radiates remarkable confidence while talking to students about Jesus.

Just outside a crowded restaurant at Aristotle University, Katerina stirs curiosity as she begins painting colorful rectangular boxes on a large sketch board. As the largest campus in the Balkan countries, Aristotle boasts more than 80,000 students in Thessaloniki. Every day, 5,000 students eat at the restaurant where Katerina and Sotiris have set up the sketch board.

Katerina's voice is strong as she begins to speak to the crowd of potentially hostile students, telling a story about wanting the greatest things in life, but only finding satisfaction in Jesus. She continues painting lines within the boxes that start to form Greek words.

By the time she is finished, about 20 students have gathered, and she invites them to take a copy of the New Testament and a gospel booklet. One student walks by. "This is nonsense," he says with disgust. But several accept the gift, and a few conversations start up. "Some students are interested," Katerina explains. "But they understand we are not Orthodox, and that keeps them at a distance."

Then Sotiris gives a presentation, and his voice carries even farther, gathering more students. When he finishes, Sotiris finds himself in a heated debate with six young men. The conversation isn't going anywhere, so he ends the discussion as politely as possible.

Katerina greets a student named Menelaos, who has become disheartened with the church. He hates systems, and thinks the church is only trying to make money. Katerina reminds him that Jesus never made money from His teachings, and Menelaos takes a New Testament.

Overall, Sotiris and Katerina consider this a successful day. They gathered a good crowd and had several genuine spiritual conversations.

But none of the Christian students joined them -- a regular disappointment. On a good day, three students might help, but many times the couple goes alone or with a fellow staff member.

"The students don't want to share their faith," says Katerina. "They're afraid their friends will reject them. There have been motivational conferences, and we've tried several things, but nothing has really worked."

Nevertheless, Sotiris and Katerina are encouraged by students like Nikos Kougioulis and Popi Tsoukana. Although Nikos has only been involved a few months, the fourth-year physics major comes consistently to the meetings and helps with evangelism. And Popi, a fourth-year English language major, meets weekly in a spiritual mentoring relationship with one of the staff members.

But Popi is the only student at Aristotle University willing to meet regularly. The Greeks view discipleship as something that happens in church, sitting in a group and being taught by a pastor. The view of one-to-one mentoring creates one more obstacle for the Campus Crusade group, known as Christian Student Movement of Love.

While the staff members pray for change, they pursue creative ways to connect with the entire campus. Last spring, Sotiris and Katerina organized a ping-pong tournament, and found a sponsor to donate free hotel stays anywhere in Greece: eight days for the champion, six for second place, and four days for third place.

The university endorsed the tournament, recognizing them as an official student group and allowing use of the athletic hall for free. The university's approval not only validated their tournament for the 136 students who decided to test their ping-pong skills, but also gave Sotiris and Katerina credibility all over campus.

Sotiris organized a ceremony to present trophies and medals. "I entered the tournament, but I lost," he says with a sigh, and the crowd laughs. With two athletic directors standing next to him, he tells some of his own faith story, emphasizing that everyone can be a winner if they know Christ.

The directors smile as the prizes are presented, nodding their approval for the winners. The university has approved several events, each one helping to erode the group's negative label.

More importantly, Katerina and Sotiris want Greeks to meet Jesus. So they press on, talking with more students.

After her difficult conversation with Froso in the dorms, Katerina meets Yorgos, a Lebanese student. He answers his door expecting a pizza delivery, but casually invites Katerina in, moving clothes from a chair.

When they talk about God, he shows her an old Bible, pretending to dust it off. Katerina moves his bookmark to John 3:16, reading it aloud. His pizza is delivered, topped with olives, peppers and onions. While it sits in the box, Katerina shows Yorgos the booklet and he agrees with all of it, saying that he occasionally attends church.

Katerina is encouraged by Yorgos' openness. She plans to return later to give him a JESUS video and talk more.

Sotiris and Katerina know they will continue to face many obstacles. Their country has changed since Paul first addressed the Greek people. But they also take courage knowing that God has not changed. He reached their country once; they want to see Him do it again.