I spent the fall of 2006 in Athens, Greece. During this cross-cultural experience I was challenged with the following questions by my secular peers who unknowingly helped me mature in my own faith. Is there anything that transcends culture or is religion merely a particular facet of an arbitrary culture? Was there a God who truly created and was in constant care for each and every random village, each individual. Is this possible in a world as big, complicated and pluralistic as ours? Is there a single force at work in the lives of people seemingly locked in a culture that refuses to let its prisoners consider a faith in this force? It was with these questions in mind that I set out on a pilgrimage that was assigned in my class entitled “Religion in Modern Greek Society. The following is the story of my educational journey.
Originally I wanted to experience some Islamic culture so I purchased a train ticket to north-eastern Greece close to the Turkish-Greek border in an effort to find some Islamic culture. The ticket listed Alexandropoli as the destination, which was the last train stop on a long journey to the west. The train ride to Alexandropoli would have been about 12 hours, but about 6 hours into the train ride I fell asleep and awoke to the word "Alexandropoli." Thinking this was my stop I started gathering my stuff. Before everything was gathered the train started to move again. Thinking I had missed my stop I decided to get off at the next stop. The fact that I could not miss my stop because it was the supposed to be the very last station confused me at this point, but I knew what I heard and I thought that maybe my original information was false. I know that this was not random confusion. I was not supposed to go to Alexandropoli. As I look back on the trip I can see that this was the beginning of my knowing. In other words, I began to experience that there was a force at work in this world. I planned on going to Alexandropoli, but there was a trip already planned for me in a little (seemingly random) Greek town.
Thinking I missed my stop I got off at the very next one. Once I was there I realized that there was nothing there and I would probably have to make my bed on a bench at the train station because it was 2:00 in the morning.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I might end up sleeping under the stars on this trip so I had brought a blanket with me and I was just about to spread this blanket on the bench, when it occurred to me that I should inquire about the safety of this place. There was one other man who got off the stop with me and I realized that after he left I might not see anyone for a while. So I approached him just as he was about to leave in a car that had come to pick him up. I asked him if he spoke English and if it was safe here. He did speak English and he said that it was safe. When I explained that I had "missed my stop" (or so I thought). He said, "Tonight you will stay in a hotel. Get in." So I did. He took me to his family’s business, where I sat and waited for him to arrange for a hotel. Before going to bed that night he told me to go to his family’s restaurant the next morning.
When I awoke the next morning I went to find the owner of the hotel. I found him sitting outside of a café that was on the hotel grounds. He was relaxing the way only Greeks can and he was enjoying a cup of Greek coffee. He offered a cup to me and I accepted it gladly. The man spoke English well and we began to chat about how he had been all over the world, which was very interesting. Finally, I asked the question that had been festering in the back of my mind. “Pose kanee?” I said, hoping that somehow my feeble attempt at Greek would soften the man’s blow on my light wallet. He replied, “You are not a rich man are you?” I grinned and said, “No.” He then proceeded to ask me how much money I had and I told him that I had a twenty in my wallet with some hope in my voice. The hotel owner seemed happy to accept this remarkably small sum of money and I began to become even more excited about the direction my trip was taking.
Already impressed by Ernesto’s and the hotel owner’s kindness, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be right now and that tomorrow I would start making my way back home. The next morning I waited for 5 hours for the next train back. As I waited I made my first Greek friends. They fed me and we chatted the whole time. I talked mostly to Ernesto and his sister as they were the only ones who new English. I was tremendously excited by the idea of sitting with actual Greek people all day and soaking up some of their culture. I had been longing to meet some Greek friends and have the opportunity to experience something that was genuinely cultural. This proved not only to be the unique Greek experience that I wanted, but it also proved to be an amazing course of events where I knew that someone was looking after my interest.
After talking with Ernesto for a long time I found out that his name meant “resurrection.” This may seem like a small detail, but for me it was just another sign that my pilgrimage was a success. The significance of this name; the kindness that I had experienced and the manner in which shelter and food was provided for me showed me that there was a design (and therefore a designer) behind my not only my trip, but this world.
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