July 2016 update: Excited to announce my new role at The National Herald/Ethnikos Kyrix as an international correspondent covering Greece along with the intersecting role it plays with Greek-Americans living in the United States. From serious topics including the economic crisis and the refugee crisis to fun topics such as island hopping, tourism trends and Greek life… read and follow long!
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By Aliz Koletas, International Correspondent
“People used to be happier before but now they’re not as happy. I would see five people fishing before but now there’s only one.” Greece is known for its idyllic pastime of fishermen with their lines thrown into the crystal blue waters with seemingly no care in the world but a sea of fish ready to caught and enjoyed for dinner. This peaceful perception is changing recently with the economic depression that has rocked the country. It’s no secret that Greece has been hit hard by an economic crisis the past several years and while most people are talking about the economy or the banks or the EU, hardly anyone talks about the spiritual crisis and the stresses that are being placed upon the religious health of the Greeks.
GREECE’S SPIRITUAL STRUGGLE
Elton Hoxha, 22, came with his family to Greece in 2009 but has noticed a change in the Hellenic outlook on life and happiness referencing the scene of fishermen that he has seen dwindled down to just one. Hoxha helps out on the island of Lesvos with refugees that have been stranded there but is familiar with the spiritual crisis going on amongst younger Greeks around him. He says the older generation understands how rough the situation is in Greece but the younger ones are at the point of “whatever happens, happens” because there’s not much they can do.
That apathy can lead to a very depressed state of mind that starts to question life and faith. Danae Kritikou, 20, from Nea Makri in Athens explains why she sees Greeks around her losing faith in God and their religion. “They don’t think things are going to get better. Every day things are getting worse and they wonder, “Where is God?” Kritikou volunteers at Exit, helping provide food for the homeless in Athens but tries to spread a message of hope and peace as well to the younger Greeks struggling to understand what’s happening in their country and if God really cares about them.
“They’ve started asking, “Where is God? What is going on and why is He doing this?” says Mary Fountoukidou, 35, from Athens who works with her husband to help rehabilitate Greeks addicted to drugs and alcohol. Fountoukidou says they mostly don’t understand why God would do this to them since most Greeks are Christian Orthodox and believe in God. She responds, “I tell them maybe we are Christians in name only. We have created other gods such as money, banks and credit cards.”
And that’s perhaps the most significant link between the economic crisis and the spirituality crisis hitting Greece.
“Greeks used to live in a dream when it came to money. They lost their world when they lost access with the banks,” says Nicholas Antonakos, 35, who works in Athens at Hellenic Ministries, a Christian organization that helps Greeks struggling with their spirituality and quality of life. “Their identity has been shaken- they feel like they don’t belong anymore.”
And that feeling can lead to disastrous outcomes including depression and suicide. Recent news reports from PBS, CNBC, IBT Times, The Guardian, Forbes and other media organizations point a study showing a 30% jump in suicides the past several years especially among Greek men.
What started this feeling of hopelessness that has led to depression and then ultimately to suicide? Dr. John Gianopulos, a professor at Greek Bible College a theological seminary outside of Athens explains the background first saying, “The link between the economic crisis in Greece over the past five to ten years has had a negative effect on young people and has led them to lose faith in God and the church and is very disheartening.
Parents and grandparents have been subjected to a series of fiscal haircuts in wages and pensions resulting in many being unemployed and depressed.
The unemployment rate is very high for college graduates here, resulting in the greatest natural resource the country has is leaving Greece to seek employment elsewhere. The five most active embassies in Greece where young people are lined up to seek visas include: Australia, Canada, England, Germany and USA. We are losing our greatest natural resource -our young people.
Many young people are moving back to live at home with their parents. Others are choosing to live with their grandparents some back on the farm and in both cases begging for pocket money and survival. The suicide rate in Greece for all adults is averaging one per day due to the financial crisis, which has been caused in part by cronyism and corruption within the government.”
According to Gianopulos, 97% of Greeks are Greek Orthodoxs “yet few young people attend church on Sunday. Attendance is primarily made up of elderly women. Many of the youth are turned off by the church and could care less about the things of God. During the summer months what concerns them is swimming and the sun.”
Gianopulos references several Bible passages that show why this is alarming.
“Saint Paul in 2 Timothy 2:13 reminds us that “ if we are faithless He remains faithful”. In Titus 1:2 Paul reminds us that ” in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began”. Hope is not wishful thinking but certainty and God never lies. So the character of God is holy and he does not lie.”
Yet Gianopulos doesn’t end his thoughts on hopelessness instead encouraging young Greeks “to hold fast to the hope of God’s promises.” He references a Christian author who ties a connection between ancient Greek heroes and present Christians.
“Thomas Cahill writes In Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey p. 279 “ in all the tragic dramas of antiquity, whether lived or staged, we detect the same pattern: the hero be he Alexander the Great or Oedipus, reaches his pinnacle only to be cut down. Only in the drama of Jesus does the opposite pattern hold: the hero is cut down only to be raised up.
The Christian faith talks about human sinfulness and rebellion against God which we see on the news daily. So what is the biblical definition of sin? In contemporary jargon sin is doing what you want. Sin is having attitudes that are self-centered rather than being God centered.”
What specifically is being done about this spirituality crisis in Greece and helping Greeks become more God centered like Dr. Gianopuilos suggests? Antonakos along with hundreds of other fellow Greeks and volunteers from around the world came together this year in Northern Greece through an outreach called Operation Joshua giving spiritual assistance to suffering Greeks by personally visiting houses in villages and towns offering New Testaments to any interested Greeks.
Paul Deligianidis, 29, is a Greek-American from Boston who flew all the way from America to help his mother country. “I’m not a good speaker but handing out (these) Bibles, I don’t need to say anything.” He shared the positive reaction from Greeks looking for spiritual relief and talked about one instance where he was asked for extra Bible so family members and friends could benefit from the spiritual outreach.
What all of these Greeks and Greek-Americans interviewed for this article have in common may be the key to fighting against depression or spiritual apathy that so many younger Greeks around them feel. Bianca Di Salvo, an interfaith spiritual counselor in New York City, explains the connection. “We are in essence hardwired for community. Helping others is part of that. It makes us feel better by connecting us to others and making a positive impact in the world.”
Dr. Alex McFarland, director of The Center for Apologetics and Christian Worldview at North Greenville University detailed how an economic crisis anywhere not just in Greece can cause a person to lose faith in God and their religion. “I think that there are three basic reasons: 1. Misconception about the character of God; 2. Misconception about the nature of life in this world; and 3. Misconception about the promises of Christianity. First, we must trust that God is good, not evil. Problems do not mean that God doesn’t care, has abandoned us, or is powerless to help. God’s character is goodness, love, wisdom, and power. Even in times of severe adversity, He is at work, and is a close by as a prayer. Secondly, this world contains the path to heaven, but this world is not heaven. In a fallen, sin-filled world that is in the process of being restored, why wouldn’t there be problems of all sorts? It is a broken world, amply reminding us of how much we need a Savior. Thirdly, the Christian Gospel promises the subtraction of our sins, but does not promise the subtraction of all suffering. It does promise the addition of God’s presence through the suffering. And in suffering, approached with a godly attitude, we grow. Christ paid for our sins, but suffering purifies our character. Or, it can, if we allow it.”
He goes on, “During tough times, we may remain strong by praising God for who He is (the Lord who doesn’t change, and who won’t abandon us). We praise God that He knows what we need, even before we ask. It may sound counter-intuitive to pray thanks to God when times are tough. But in such deep valleys, we learn things about the sufficiency of Christ we otherwise could not know. Also, we learn to thank God and be grateful for blessings we may have taken for granted…If God can do the greater things (create the universe, pay for our sins, and conquer the grave), which He did, then surely He can do the lesser things (help me with my mortgage, find me a job, get me through this diagnosis).”
Monte Drenner, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida and author, has counseled people for nearly 30 years on how to deal with challenges from a spiritual perspective.
“An economic crisis often creates feelings of being powerless, helpless and hopeless all of which are the breeding ground for depression and suicidal thinking. These thoughts and emotions cloud judgment and decision making which only exacerbates the crisis. The way to avoid these negative thoughts and feelings is to empower the (individual) to focus on decisions they can make to improve their situation. First decide that “If I’m going to go through the crisis than I am going to grow through the crisis.” Spirituality is about transforming one into a better version of themselves so now the crisis has a positive meaning. The next decision is to decide that the crisis will make them better and not bitter and to see how they could grow from the situation. Next step back and look at the big picture of their life. They may be having an economic crisis but there are other things happening in their life like relationships perhaps that are very rewarding. Stepping back from the problem and looking at positive things leads to gratitude that helps ward off depression and suicidal thinking.” He suggests looking back at other storms one has weathered to gain hope that they will endure the current crisis.
One normally doesn’t think of crisis and positive happenings but Jordan Finneseth, an author and spiritual development coach in Santa Rosa, California, explains how tough economic times can actually bring out the good in you.
“When it comes down to it, trying times like these put our most firmly held beliefs about life, the world, and reality as a whole into question. As a long time meditator, I would say that its moments like these that actually bring our full attention and awareness to life and the present moment. When things are going really well and everything is good, it’s easy for us to become complacent and sort of ‘automate’ in life, and take things for granted. Then, when that situation changes or that ‘good life’ is taken away, you learn what you truly put your faith in.
Were you putting your faith in that cushy job, nice house, nice ‘things’, or an overall faith in money? Or were you appreciating the time spent with people and the valuable life lessons and self-evolution taking place? It’s beginning to seem as though these crises are actually more like moments of opportunity to strengthen our faith and resolve in life.
Have you ever starved to death? Because if not, then it seems like something has always provided at least just enough so far. In times of lack, we are presented with the opportunity to reevaluate the things that are important, evaluate what is and is not working in relation to those important things, and then, the most important part, take action towards improving the things that are important. The time has come for us all to start taking a more active role in making the world and our global economy the one we want to see, and that starts with awareness of one’s on inner ability, through whichever method of faith you choose, to create change within yourself. Change yourself and your surroundings cannot help but change along with you.”
Talking about a spirituality crisis and having a specific plan of action to combat it are two different stories- and sometime bridging that gap can take too much energy. Knowing your course of action will help take theory into reality. Without a clear road map, you may lose your way and sight of your goal. Taking control of the situation around you is key says Eric Marlowe Garrison, Assistant Director of Health Promotion at The College of William & Mary in Virginia and best-selling author.
“When we face a financial crisis, as Greece is going through, do we spend our time worrying or do we spend our time looking for solutions over which we have control? These are choices. But if you look at the people who spend their time looking for blame versus those who spend their time acting to get through this, you can bet money (that you may or may not have) on who will prosper in the end. We are either active (doing something) or inactive (doing nothing). People can react (without logic or forethought), or they can respond to a situation (after reflection). Remember: a crisis is the reaction, it is not the situation. One of the best ways to assess your values and look for harmony is the Life Values Inventory (www.lifevaluesinventory.org). It is free and can help individuals understand their values for a more harmonious life.”
Meanwhile Damon Nailer, a spiritual life coach, author, minister and motivational speaker based in Monroe, Louisiana has some hands on advice and steps for those struggling with their faith.
Ways to avoid losing one’s faith during an economic crisis:
- Realize that your financial status/situation is separate from your spirituality and walk with God. People try to link the two but they are actually separate. Many individuals possess money/wealth but are miserable spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. On the other hand, many who live in poverty are some of the most spiritually, emotionally, and mentally sound people you will ever encounter.
- Understand and look at it as a part to the whole and just a state and not one’s overall fate. Many famous and affluent people endured financial difficulty and dilemmas but they continued on in their plans and goals and things eventually became much better.
- Remind yourself that God won’t put any more on you than you can bear. If He allowed it and brought you to it, then he can also bring you through it.
Ways to avoid depression:
- Prayer and fasting. This enables you to suppress all negative emotions and draws your spirit closer to God. It gives you great spiritual strength.
- Meditation. Find scriptures that deal with God providing and taking care of his people and meditate on them day and night. For example- Give us this day our daily bread, He satisfies our mouth with good things. Take no thought about what we shall eat or drink or how we will be clothed. For our heavenly Father knows that we have need of these things.
- Listen to motivational and inspirational speeches and even music. This will invigorate the inner man and help us to replace any negative thoughts or ideas with positive ones.
AND BACK IN GREECE
And as she gets ready to spend more time this summer helping other fellow Greeks around her through their economic hardships and spiritual burdens, Danae Kritikou sums it all up by saying, “It is very important because this is a hard time. If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it? People are in need of help now. I found hope in Jesus and if I can find that hope, so can they find that hope in Him.”