20 February 2020
Major Maria Galinou is a Salvation Army officer who lives in London. She is someone who embodies and models Christ in her relationships with others. She showed me what it means to truly love the refugee and how to genuinely model compassion and presence.
Maria spent three years fully committed to the cause of the refugee. It consumed her thoughts and her time, and it was compassion and love that led her.
Maria and her husband, Polis, started the official work of The Salvation Army in Greece, first in Thessalonica and then in Athens. They had just begun their ministry in Athens when the refugee crisis hit the city. She vividly remembers being woken by a phone call one morning and being told she needed to make her way to The Salvation Army building. Hundreds of refugees had arrived and were camping out in Victoria Square, which was a stone’s throw away from the Army complex.
One day everything was normal in Maria’s city, and the next hundreds of refugees had landed on her doorstep. And they kept arriving. At the height of the crisis, estimates put the number of refugees arriving daily in Athens at 2000.
Maria didn’t have to acknowledge their presence, as she had her own people to look after – Greek people who were in the middle of their own crisis with a devastated economy. She didn’t have to lift a finger to help any of the refugees, but she knew that Jesus would and so that’s what she did.
From that first day, she modelled compassion and presence. She made sandwich after sandwich, and she didn’t stop making those sandwiches for the next three years. She says she didn’t have time to get permission from The Salvation Army headquarters to do it. She didn’t have time to check whether she was following health and safety rules. She just knew people were scared and hungry and they needed her. So, she went ahead and made those sandwiches and then distributed them every day.
Thousands upon thousands of people landed on her doorstep, hungry, tired and weak. Pregnant women who were sleeping in the rain, children huddled together, men and women who were in deep need. Every day she would visit these people, pray with them, give them sandwiches, toys and sleeping bags, and give them a shoulder to cry on. She would warn them about human traffickers and try to find them places to stay. She modelled her ministry on Jesus and his capacity to notice the humanity of others, especially those most invisible and neglected in his day and time. When they had nowhere else to go and no one else to care for them, Maria was there. She saw them.
I made my first trip to Athens in 2016 and saw for myself the ministry of compassion and presence happening through The Salvation Army. It was the most humbling experience. I saw hundreds of people lining up every day for milk and rice, for nappies and clothes. Small, simple items that we take for granted.
I saw hundreds of Muslims lining up for help; people that did not reflect The Salvation Army or its theology, yet I saw them being served with love and compassion. The service was not based on religion or country of origin, but on need and humanity. It all started because Maria saw a need and decided to make some sandwiches.
I firmly believe that just showing up and being present in people’s lives makes a big difference. How can I expect to heal or counteract the false views of refugees to others if I have never walked or talked or lived alongside them? Maria walked and talked and lived alongside them for almost three years. She modelled to me, and to many, many people, the ministry of Jesus daily, and she made a big difference in the lives of those who came to her, broken, hurting and alone.
Who can you walk with in your community who is broken, hurting and alone? Who can you practise the ministry of compassionate presence with? Who is God leading you to, and will you go?
20 February is World Day of Social Justice. You can read Casey O'Brien-Machado's piece on social justice here.
Captain Sandra Pawar is Multicultural Planter, WestConnect Salvos, Sydney.