I’ve had much involvement in the nation of Turkey over the years. I have many friends there, both Turkish and ex-patriate. This piece was written over a week as I learned more of what was happening following the two earthquakes of February 6th. I’ve also been involved with a fund-raising initiative that has so far raised over $60,000 to assist the Turkish church in its work of bringing relief to those made homeless.
“Allahim nerdesin? Allahim nerdesin?” “God! where are you?” rise the cries on the voices of the lost. An ancient oft-asked question on the anguished voices of a multitude. Disaster strikes again. The earth shakes and a new wave of tragedy compounds the suffering of an area already burdened by the weight of conflict. Human displacement is overwhelmed by tectonic shift and the masses slide sideways in confusion. Buildings collapse like a row of dominoes, one upon another as clouds of dust arise. Richter’s scale records the magnitude; the arrogant ricture of earth gapes and gulps.
This is the city where modern Tűrkiye meets the Arab World – Syrian Antioch. Antakya, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christian. Elders, from the nations, sent out the first missionaries as they commissioned Barnabas and Paul. The church grew and changed and over many centuries faithfully testified. The church faced the challenge of Islam, of the Turkic migration, and of the Ottoman empire. The church remained, a testimony to the rock upon which Christ built. Today the 19th century Protestant sanctuary lies in ruins. The Catholic and the Orthodox churches have crumbled. Buildings, block on block, could not survive the shaking of the earth.
Across Eastern Tűrkiye and Northern Syria, the homeless look back in dismay at their broken buildings. They cry out, not knowing they repeat the lament of the Psalmist: “How long, Oh Lord? Will you forget me forever?” In the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun Pastor Hakan preached on the resurrection of the dead. He did not know that he and his wife would not survive the events of the following day. In Elbistan lived Hassan and Gűler, newly baptized believers. Hassan and a son survived; Gűler and their other son are gone.
Indeed “How long, Oh Lord?” and then a shout is heard. “Be quiet!”, and in the silence a frail cry. A shiver of hope where the fissure has claimed the life of a mother. The searching crowd pause in expectation and a baby is brought forth from a ruinous earthen womb, passed from arms to arms to the waiting embrace of a thermal blanket, then whisked away to the field hospital. Another orphaned infant, rescued from the debris; another whose name and identity have been stolen by the tragedy. Who knows whose family lineage this one belonged to!
Our friends are safe in the city of Gaziantep, but they cannot return to their home. My friend who sought refuge in Switzerland three years ago, is distraught at the knowledge of what is happening to his homeland and feels powerless to help. He worked in government service before his so-called crimes made him a state pariah. He knows well how the enduring Erdoğan administration has successively granted amnesty to the construction companies in return for under-the-table favors.
While chapels lie in ruins, the church is mobilized across the nation. Brick and mortar have failed but faith has not crumbled. Vans and utility vehicle have taken teams from the west to connect with believers in the afflicted cities. Equipped with tents, heaters, stoves and fuel they are establishing mobile soup kitchens. Under the banner of AFAD, the Turkish equivalent to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency, the community of Jesus’ followers is legitimized by this Muslim nation. A pastor from Istanbul has gone to Malatya; another pastor and his American colleague from Cannakkale have traveled East; and another team member has gone to Hatay to serve as translator for a search and rescue team. All over the nation the church is mobilizing staff and volunteers to serve. In Jesus’ name the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered and where clothing is needed arms reach out to wrap the cold and naked.
The God of Islam is remote and impersonal; the gods of the Hindus are confusing and incoherent; and the God of the Jews ponders why His people rejected His Son. The idols of the modern materialist are no more alive and listening than those of tribal antiquity. But here comes the Messiah, walking among His people. Emmanuel here with us again, his nailed feet broken on sharp metal and bleeding from shards of glass, his scarred hands torn by the rubble of a thousand fallen buildings. Our God walks among us where His people first followed him, to connect, to comfort, and to confirm that He is here.
In the words of Turkish Christian publisher Gokhan Talas, “From this side of eternity, nothing is clear. But our sweet Lord is suffering with us.”[i]
[i] Christianity Today – February 10th, 2023 – https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2023/february/earthquake-turkey-syria-christians-churches-prayer-relief.html (accessed 2/12/2023)