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Oct20TueIn Greece's tough economic times, a new Salvation Army church in Thessaloniki is aiming to demonstrate God's love. October 20, 2015 by Philip Halcrow
Lieutenants Neofytos Totsios and Anastasia Arpatzi are describing some of the sights that can be seen in Thessaloniki, the Greek city where they live. What they are talking about, however, are not the city's picture-postcard views, but the scenes they encounter as leaders of the first Salvation Army church in Greece.
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“We see young people who finish university, don't have a job and find themselves on the streets,” says Totsios, when we meet in London, England. “We have seen quite a lot of homeless people lately and families with children in great financial difficulty.”
Lieutenants Totsios and Arpatzi are trying to alleviate some of the problems that are being made more acute by Greece's economic crisis. In the past few years, they have been establishing The Salvation Army as a church in the city, after another couple—Majors Polis Pantelidis and Maria Galinou—began carrying out community programs before moving to Athens.
Totsios and Arpatzi grew up in Thessaloniki, but they first met The Salvation Army in the United Kingdom.
“In 1997, we moved to London to learn English and to find a Bible school,” Totsios explains. “We stayed in a road next to The Salvation Army's training college. Although we were attending a Pentecostal church, we got to know The Salvation Army and helped out at several of its centres.”
After seven years, they returned to Thessaloniki, where they ran a catering business and where Totsios became an associate pastor of a church.
“Then,” he says, “an international group from The Salvation Army came to carry out research into whether it was the right time to start the movement in Greece. I was invited to a meeting with them and we had a good chat. At the end, we said a prayer, and I heard God say: 'Welcome to your family.' ”
“Anastasia and I sold our business and within a few months, we were back in London. We joined up with the Salvation Army church at Cambridge Heath in East London, and then we applied to train as Salvation Army ministers.”
Having completed their training, they were given the task of pioneering the church work of The Salvation Army in Thessaloniki.
“We started by calling people into our home and explaining The Salvation Army to them, as well as talking about our calling and our desire to share the good news about God,” says Totsios. “We held classes for people who wanted to become members—eight people came to our house and two more followed the classes through Skype.”
Despina-Irene Sabbaghian-Dipla and her husband, Dimitris Kioutsioukis, were among the first people to become soldiers of the Salvation Army centre.
“I had been going to another church since I was six or seven years old,” says Despina, “but God was calling me to do something else with my life. My husband and I decided together to join The Salvation Army at the beginning.
“Dimitris and I were the first worship leaders, playing guitar and singing. We started in the houses, but then our congregation found a building at the heart of Thessaloniki. All the redecorating was done by volunteers.”
Now, every Sunday, between 60 and 70 people meet for worship in the building, which was previously a bank. Meanwhile, the Sunday school attracts about 18 children.
But the people who make up the newly established church do more than meet for Sunday worship—they try to demonstrate God's love in a community that has been hit by the economic downturn.
“Every Thursday, we serve 200 meals in the centre of Thessaloniki,” says Totsios. “Families with young babies are among those who come to receive them. We also hold a daily drop-in centre in our building. So every morning, people come and have coffee and breakfast. People are very distressed, so they also want to talk with us and we can listen to their problems.
“We serve everyone, without discrimination.”
Arpatzi adds: “We offer counselling and advice. Some people need to complete forms for housing and welfare and they don't know how, so we assist them. We also run a scheme to help people find jobs.”
Arpatzi talks about another aspect of The Salvation Army's work, which they want to develop further. “Trafficking is a big problem, because of poverty. So we go out to meet the girls where they are on the streets, but we also visit them in their homes, take them out for coffee and go on walks with them so that we have the opportunity to talk with them.
“We hope to find a new place where the girls can receive counselling and advice about health care and learn new skills that will help them find other employment. But everything is new, and we are going along step by step.”
The couple, however, look forward confidently.
Totsios reflects: “We have found that if we accept God's call and give 100 percent of ourselves to it, everything else comes naturally.”
Reprinted from The War Cry, London, England.