August 2004 – Athens, Greece
The first time I left the United States, I was sixteen and wearing a yellow polo shirt and homemade khaki skirt. The airport seats around me were filled with ten similarly clad people; I suppose to other people we looked like a cult. In actuality, we were a Southern Baptist handbell choir, which, now that I think about it, still seems like a cult. For those not in the know, perhaps you are imagining a bunch of sweaty African Americans pounding their fists on pulpits while simultaneously ringing those tiny Salvation Army bells. You couldn’t be more wrong–we were a white, diversity-less group of mostly-mild-mannered men and women (and teens). As for handbells, well. Watch this video (it isn’t us).
It was 2004, and we were on our way to Athens, Greece. The summer Olympics were beginning, and we were going to take advantage of the tourist influx to bring people to Jesus via music. More specifically, we would draw crowds with our fancy handbell ringing, and a team of college students from Somewhere in the Midwest would talk to people and try to convert tourists during their vacation.
Regardless of whether my opinion of speed-evangelism has changed or not in the last ten years, it is true that we got to ring handbells in some pretty amazing places. The first night we played on the front stoop of a church that overlooked Hadrian’s Gate. Later we rang the theme song to Chariots of Fire as the Olympic torchbearer ran down the street twenty feet in front of us, then gave each other ecstatic high-fives at the end because OMG IT WAS LIKE A MOVIE. Once we rang on a sidewalk overlooking the Aegean Sea while men clad in Speedos politely applauded.
When we weren’t ringing handbells, we were sightseeing, and it was during those moments that a love of traveling settled in my bones. Being Christians in Athens, we excitedly climbed to the top of the Areopagus and posed as though our group leader were Paul in Acts 17 (Bible nerd fun). I walked the excavated roads that Paul’s apostolic feet might have touched, and I scuffled around in circles to increase the odds. For the first time, it struck me that the Bible is a historical document. The things written in its pages actually happened, and I was standing in a story I had heard a hundred times before. Suddenly my faith felt deeper, history felt nearer, and the United States felt…insufficient. There were layers and layers of history in this new city, and all the fireworks in the world couldn’t change the fact that my home country was a historical baby. I wanted to see more. I wanted a broader perspective.
On the flight west over the Atlantic Ocean, I wasn’t sad to leave Athens. I knew I would be back someday, to this city or another or the whole world. I wasn’t done finding and sharing truth all over this beautiful damaged planet. I was already looking forward to the next trip, wherever it might be.