During the summer of 2019, South Carolina Baptist volunteers developed a greater understanding of the plight of refugees. Tom Hilliard* and Brett May*, two of the state’s volunteers spent a month ministering to refugees crowded into a camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Their service was arranged through South Carolina Baptist Convention’s Missions Mobilization office.
Hilliard and May looked into the eyes of desperate, exhausted people who fled Syria’s war or Afghanistan’s violence, some nearly dying traveling across the sea to safety. Before the war, the refugees had houses, apartments, cars; they had full lives. In Greece, refugees carry all they own in tattered suitcases or plastic garbage bags. After a stay at this camp, many of the refugees will be settled in Europe. The bright spot in their circumstance is that some of those refugees are open to hearing about Jesus Christ. Another bright spot for Hilliard and May is the long-term commitment to missions that both men now have.
Hilliard has begun training to serve as a missionary with the IMB. His mission service will include completing a degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also has a degree in Intercultural Studies from North Greenville University and has made mission trips to more than a half dozen countries over the past eight years.
May, who lives in Lexington, sold a house and land to have money to support himself as he prepares for ministry by studying at Fruitland Baptist Bible College in Hendersonville, N.C. He also plans to pursue a seminary degree in the future.
Serving together in Greece, the men heard refugees share what led them to flee their homelands. “Some of their stories were incredibly grim,” Hilliard said. Refugees showed their cellphone photos and videos, including some “extremely graphic” war scenes, he added.
Most days May’s and Hilliard’s main objectives were providing shelter and food to the refugees. The work involved setting up tents or manning the reception center where refugees come when they first arrive. Some days they spent hours negotiating with refugees, encouraging them to squeeze into less space so another equally desperate family would have a place to lay their heads. More than 7,000 people were crowded into a converted military camp originally set up to accommodate 2,000. Helping people survive is a great ministry in itself, both men agreed. But they found ways to have conversations about Jesus as well.
Hilliard served as a shift manager, helping direct the work of other volunteers. That left him time to meet newly arrived refugees. May took families out of the camp, after his main work time, to one of the small nearby restaurants. For the refugees, it was a great break with better food. It also allowed May time to share Christ and start Bible studies. May said that amid a confusing swirl of foreign languages, cultures, foods and smells, “I was aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the middle of it.”
Hilliard was able to share the complete gospel with more than 70 people during the four weeks he served. He has stayed in touch with several new friends, including a Somali man who now participates in worship and Bible studies. He said the experience in Greece “softened my heart for people who are refugees. I can provide a house, a tent, a blanket and maybe some food, but ultimately, they have to have the gospel message. My burden is truly for their souls.”
Hilliard and May stressed that they were able to talk openly with people from countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where sharing the gospel is difficult. God is bringing the nations to places where they can hear the gospel if Christians respond to the opportunity, both men agreed. The main thing refugees long for is hope, and that is available through Christ.