"I'm a very introverted person, I don't even like leaving St. Paul," says Tommy Boyd, '10. And yet, in 2017, this self-proclaimed homebody found himself peeling potatoes in a co-operative refugee community in Athens, Greece, alongside men from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
"Of that time spent in the kitchen 75% of it was spent dancing. Just dancing in the kitchen, just gaining friends. You know, genuine friends," says Boyd.
That winter, Boyd was part of a YWAM (Youth With A Mission) team that landed in Athens, Greece, with few connections and a hope that somehow they could serve the refugees there. The group soon found themselves connected with Khora, a humanitarian co-operative foundation unlike anything most of them had ever encountered.
By Refugees, For Refugees
Khora formed in response to the European Refugee Crisis, an influx of individuals fleeing war, violence, or persecution from their home countries. Many of these individuals and families pay smugglers or flee on foot of their own devices and make the perilous journey through Turkey to a handful of Greek islands that have become primary entry points for migrants to Europe.
As refugees and migrants made their way from these islands into Athens, entry to the rest of Europe became increasingly difficult. Surrounding countries began shutting their borders, even as thousands continued to flood the islands of Greece, many losing their lives along the way.
A handful of NGO volunteers as well as refugees the volunteers worked with wanted to find a way to give those stuck in Athens a place of refuge, services, and skills to help prepare them for any new doors of opportunity that might open.
Without work permits or visas, many of the refugees Khora serves have left the camps to live as squatters in abandoned buildings or on the streets, struggling to make it from day to day.
"These are some of the most educated people from their home countries; they are the ones who had the resources to get out," Boyd says, "so you're looking at individuals who went to medical school and taught in universities."
Boyd arrived at Khora with a handful of YWAMers to discover an eight-story, formerly abandoned building bustling with life: On one floor, a kitchen serving 800 meals a day. On another, attorney advice for those trying to sort out passport and asylum issues. Other areas provided language classes, childcare, dental services, and basics like clothing and toiletries.
The refugees themselves often teach classes at Khora in their areas of expertise. Often these are language classes, an attempt to give individuals greater success once (and if) they finally leave Greece.
In spite of the dire circumstances these people faced, Khora offers an atmosphere of warmth and hope.
"When you volunteer you sign up for things you're good at—volunteers even give music lessons—and then weekly they send out an agenda saying who is where at what time. I'd say probably 98% of my time was spent in the kitchen. So, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, all of that," says Boyd.
Unlike most refugee camps where volunteers and refugees separate into the servers and the served, Khora empowers refugees to help run its programs and make decisions for the community.
"[It's] crazy the amount of ministry you could do in there because you're seeing the same people everyday," Boyd shares.
First Culture Shock: Minnehaha Academy
Boyd himself never had great aspirations of becoming a potato peeler in a refugee community; nor did he expect to step into the ministry of friendship with men from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria through dancing.
His first big culture shock happened in ninth grade when he transferred to Minnehaha Academy.
Students freely leaving backpacks in the hallway or on tables without fear of theft was as much of a surprise to him as were the chapels, where modern worship music combined with students who would clap or even raise their hands contrasted with his more formal religious upbringing.
But Boyd says that the Minnehaha culture of doing the right thing "without it being written on the wall, but because it was the right thing to do" had a life-long impact on him and gave him a vision for the type of person he wanted to become.
He also shares that while during his first years at MA he generally kept to the fringes during chapel and stayed seated when possible, "by my senior year I was standing up and I was singing...I was buying into the culture, little by little."
Although intense on the basketball court or football field, former classmates comment that Boyd's intensity was tempered by a kindness and warmth off the field.
"He was never too big or too cool to take time to connect with younger kids," says classmate Matt Pryor '11. "He was friends with everyone."
Boyd went on to study physical education at Bethel and then worked for two years in the small town of Zimmerman, Minnesota, teaching health education, strength and conditioning, first aid, and coaching basketball and football. This was a move sparked by his time at MA.
"Josh Thurow was one of my favorite teachers...I don't know if he knew it or not but he influenced me to be a teacher," says Boyd. He also says that he felt compelled to "pay it forward," noting that his life could have taken many courses, but the teachers who poured into him helped nudge him on track.
Called to Serve
In 2017, Boyd was working in Zimmerman and married to his former Bethel classmate Kailey, also a physical education teacher. While they both loved teaching, each began wondering whether or not God might be calling them to another type of service.
"At the end of that second year of teaching for me, the end of her first year, we went in to resign from our jobs because we were going to go do mission work with YWAM," Boyd says. The school district offered the Boyds another option: take a year-long leave of absence and then revisit the discussion.
And so, in September of 2017 the couple found themselves in the Manoa Valley of Honolulu at a YWAM base for Discipleship Training School (DTS).
Three months later, they arrived in Khora, a ministry environment unlike anything they had been part of before.
In this moment, Tommy and Kailey found themselves in the unique situation of ministering not as hosts to foreigners in their own land, but as foreigners themselves walking alongside other foreigners in an unfamiliar place.
And for Tommy, this meant peeling potatoes and washing dishes with men from across the Middle East and Central Asia.
It was here that Tommy taught his co-cooks the dance to Darude's Sandstorm.
Soon the group was exchanging dance moves. At one point, a Palestinian man whose wife and daughters were still waiting in Palestine, jumped in, hefted Tommy over his shoulders and started spinning.
"I'm 6'4" and 235 pounds. That was really high off the ground in a slippery kitchen. I was honestly kind of afraid," Tommy says, laughing.
Throughout these weeks the men became progressively closer.
"Now I can definitely say I have friends from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq; really close friends that I still talk to today. And it all came from just dancing in the kitchen."
In spite of the camaraderie the Boyds felt with many at Khora the experience did have its tense moments.
Khora sits squarely in the heart of Exarcheia, also known as the anarchist zone.
"They had very frequent riots going on, so there would be times that we had to shut down early because a riot was planned." The Boyds also spent a few days visiting an abandoned building-turned refugee squat run by a faction of the Greek mafia. Leaders made it clear that they were watching the YWAMers and didn't want to see any overt ministry.
In spite of these restrictions, the couple developed friendships throughout their time in Greece that continue even two years later, thanks to social media and the ability to text across the ocean. These interactions offer opportunities for ongoing ministry and sharing of Christ's love.
Tommy and Kailey hope to arrange a trip in the coming year to visit these friends in the various places they have landed, many now scattered across Europe.
The couple also took part in a concerted effort to reach the Greek community during a three-week outreach that multiple other YWAM groups attended.
During the outreach, the teams handed out over 400 Bibles, nearly 200 individuals expressed a desire to commit to a walk with God, and upwards of 50 were baptized.
With just a few days left after this outreach, the Boyd's team took the opportunity to visit a refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens.
"That was probably the most eye-opening, impactful experience of the time, and we only went there for two days," says Tommy. "It was really cool to see how God was working in those relationships."
Six hours of basketball that first day lead to friendship with an Iraqi doctor that continues to this day. "We still talk at least two or three times a month, just checking in."
Service In Athletics
The Boyds came home and initially returned to teaching, but Tommy felt unsettled. He wanted to use both his physical training and spiritual passion to serve others, but he wasn't convinced he was in the right field.
Ultimately, Tommy went back to school for a master's degree in strength and conditioning in order to do focused work with high school athletes.
"I really want to use this as a way of showing young people that they have so much value beyond their athletic ability." Boyd says that he faced a crisis of identity when his athletic career came to a close, and he wants to help students find their identity in Christ instead of their sport.
"That's the driving factor behind everything I do: how can I help people see that Christ is the best thing that you can possibly find your identity in?"
Boyd sees these three seasons life—first as a teacher, second in Greece, and third in strength and conditioning—as three expressions of God's call to serve others and point them towards Him.
"[It's] planting the seed knowing full well you may never see the tree," he shares, reflecting both on his friendships from Greece and future work with athletes. "It's not us in the end who saves, it's whenever Christ decides they're ready."