(written October 2006)
He looked across at me, leaned forward and asked “Why did you tell us that?”
You know, when he asked me that question, I had to lean back and ask myself, “Why DID I tell them that?”
In the background the women of the house busied themselves around the outdoor (tandoor) oven, made ‘inferno hot’ with dry twigs and special dried plants that burn hot and fast. Baking bread in these ovens requires a skill and dexterity that brooks no inattention nor accidents – after heating the oven, the ladies put their arms into the mouth of the baking hot chamber and slap the dough onto the interior rounded sides of the chamber. The job is so intense – and in the summer, so hot, that they try to produce enough bread for a week to ten days. Great idea, but it means labouring around and in the oven for a long period of time.
I was glad to be sitting in the shade of the olive trees, sipping Turkish tea from delicate tulip shaped clear glasses and engaging in conversation with the people we had come to see.
But I was troubled, deeply disturbed and profoundly moved – hence I recounted my recent experience to these people – not so much for them to comment on, or provide an answer, but I was sharing my difficulty in coming to terms with the experience and understanding how I, as a believer, should respond to it. For days since it happened it was constantly in my thoughts, rolling around, banging into other things I thought of and dominating my waking moments.
The spectre of a verse kept trying to burst upon my thoughts – you know the feeling, you ‘know’ the verse, but can’t recall it word for word – and I was having trouble finding it.
Our ‘home’ in Antakya (‘Antioch on the Orontes’ in the Bible), for the month we were to be here, was basic. We had a fridge, stove and shower and hence all the basics – and so we were well catered for. But it was basic, simple. It was an old style courtyard house where all the rooms open on to a central courtyard. To get anywhere from anywhere meant you had to go into the courtyard (the courtyard is walled and so private, but open to the sky).
It was also hot. The courtyard had once been home to a large lemon tree which shaded the bulk of the courtyard shielding the flag stone from the intense summer sun. But one day a relative of the landlord came and trimmed some of the excessive growth of the tree, and according to the landlord, “The tree was offended” with what had happened and consequently dried up and died. In any event, the tree was no more and left a large expanse of stone flagging exposed to the summer sun.
Now, the courtyard is still very picturesque and attractive, but minus the large lemon tree, at high noon becomes a solar powered stone oven. Hot.
We were in Antakya, in August, to see if the heat would be debilitating or something that we could physically cope with. I know we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, but there are times and places when the Lord speaks to us through the physical environment around us.
In spite of the heat, I was able to work on a video project I had brought with us and we were able to complete the cleaning and preparation to release the video ‘Joni’. This is the powerful story of a young woman paralysed in a diving accident and her struggle not only to come to grips with her new ‘life’ but to overcome her circumstances.
In addition to the video work, we were in Antakya to serve the Church in any way we could. As the elder’s wife and a Korean worker wanted to do some visits in a nearby city, we gladly provided the transport and the ‘elderly presence’.
We left on a Saturday morning with two visits planned. It takes the best part of an hour to drive up the broad valley to the point where the road begins the tortuous, winding, twisting path up the mountain towards the high pass – known in the Bible as the ‘Syrian Gates’.
The road is in good nick, but no matter how well the road is paved, a hairpin curve high up a mountain is a hairpin curve. It is a long way up. Currently the road is a composed of a downward lane, upward lane and a shared passing lane in the middle. It works, but it can be nerve-racking at times. A construction project is well advanced to provide a four lane divided roadway up and over the pass. But a four lane divided hairpin curve is still a tight mountainside curve that allows for no errors.
We crossed the summit of the pass and as we descended the city of Iskenderun (ancient Alexandria) spread out before us. This city, one of many named after its founder Alexander the Great, is mute testimony to the rich and varied history of this region.
Our first visit of the day is the result of a contact via the Internet. Sounded promising, but it quickly became clear that the folks we were visiting have created their own, personal version of faith, taking the bits they liked from Islam and adding their own customised bits. They were not open to hear the Good News, seeming quite content to work out their salvation according to their own desires and wishes. Many of the things they said and objections they raised were the old standard opinions and ideas concerning our Faith.
However the Lord had brought several other people to that house on this occasion and it was clear that one of the guests, a teenage girl, was more open, had sincere questions and seemed willing to listen as well as to speak. So we shared with her and trust the Lord that the seeds sown in that young heart will bear fruit. I happily made two trips back to the car to get books to give to those present.
On our departure we asked directions to the place where our second visit of the day would be. They looked at one another and gave directions, but they seemed uncomfortable. They asked why we wanted to go.
“We have another family we wish to visit”.
OK, but then they said that that particular part of town was not very desirable, it was actually quite poor, more crime and they wouldn’t recommend we go. They were quite explicit about that, saying that they would not go there. Nevertheless they gave directions and off we went.
Now the directions for the first part of the journey were quite clear, but as we went further and further it became harder to correctly interpret what we remembered of the directions. After travelling quite a ways it became clear that it was time to stop and ask directions.
Now it has been noted that many men, not all, but many, are somewhat reticent to stop and ask directions. A good friend of mine (male) is always quoting the Turkish proverb, “By repeated queries, you will find Baghdad”. But I am not like my friend; I am like the ‘many men’ who are somewhat reluctant to ask directions. But I was vastly out-numbered in the car, three ladies to one man, and it was clear that we had ‘driven off the map’ as far as the directions we had been given, so I pulled over and directions were sought.
Hmm, it seemed that we had driven past the area of town we were seeking and were indeed heading in the wrong direction. Then the debate, there is always a debate when you ask for directions, and there always a debate if more than one person is being queried as to how best to get to where we were going – we had both causes for an animated debate.
It seemed the best idea was not to go back the way we came and seek our missed turning, but to go off in a totally new direction – with the caveat that once we had ‘gone for a ways’, to ask more directions.
Now me, I would have preferred to take what little knowledge we had, i.e.: the road we just came on and use that as a basis to find our destination. But we had asked for directions and the directions were to head off at a right angle to the way we had come and proceed ‘up that road until it curves left and you turn right’. Okay…..
So off we went, bumping and bouncing along, following the twists and turns of the road for an indeterminate time. After a while it became clear to the majority in the car that it was time to ask for more directions.
Now the next chap we asked was a mini-bus driver. He knows his stuff and can get where he needs to go with no problem. But we are in an area where there are precious few street signs, can he successfully communicate to us what we have to do to get where we are going?
So, after a description of curves, turns, bridges not crossed and other vague and somewhat obscure instructions we headed off – continuing up the road we were on.
Things went well until we came to the bridge. Now I thought we all agreed that we weren’t to cross the bridge – but even on this we were not 100% agreed. The question was, “Do we turn right or left?” Some were for left. One, I think suggested we cross the bridge and then turn and I was for turning right. As a minority of ‘one’ said right, and as I had the steering wheel in my hands, I turned right.
Immediately there was an unanimous opinion among the majority that it was time to ask for directions once again. We proceeded along until we found our next sacrificial lamb, pulled up and made our inquiries.
As is the case most often when I have succumbed to the temptation to ask directions, this person really didn’t know the place where we were going to. At least they were honest about not knowing and hence refrained from giving directions based upon a desire to help rather than on actually knowing where to send us.
No help there.
Now the majority debated what the next move should be, go on, go back, find another person to question, cross the bridge… While they engaged in the debate, I drove on in the direction I had chosen.
The houses fell away and there was a fence on one side and a field, and on the other side, a fence and a great man-made chasm for a motorway.
We proceeded between the two fences.
The murmurings from the back were not content nor encouraged. Finally houses came into view and as we entered this part of town the first business was to ‘ask directions’. This was not an option. The majority had spoken.
We stopped outside a house and the people were very helpful. The area of town we sought – well, we were in it. The street we sought, well, it was ahead on the right. We headed off full of confidence and encouraged.
We found the street and turned on it. I am not driving fast, proceeding down the road as the elders wife is looking for the house address. I pass an overgrown empty lot heading towards some more houses when a voice calls out from the back seat asking me to back up. I backed up and it became clear that our destination was this overgrown empty lot.
I parked up, and in accordance with the fervent recommendations from our last visit, locked the car.
We went up a little path between the wild bushes and a simple cinder-block structure came into view. The loo was a ‘long drop’ near the road. In front of the cinder-block structure – I hesitate calling it a house for although it is being used as a house, a house it is not – in any event, in front of this structure was a concrete slab that formed a kind of patio space.
The family came out to greet us, husband, wife and daughter. After handshakes and kissing cheeks we assembled on the concrete space and plastic chairs were found for most of us to sit on, the family reserving the stool and other simple items for themselves to perch on. After another round of asking after each other’s health and again being welcomed we began chatting together. Slowly, slowly their situation began to unfold before us.
He suffers from ‘Akdeniz Anemisi’ or Thalassemia (a hereditary disorder of the blood causing anaemia). This inherited disorder means it is very difficult for him to find or keep work. Added to this is the fact that, like too many other people, he has no trade nor profession and just a basic education.
His wife is a quiet soul who has done cleaning and other manual jobs to be the family income. Their daughter looks about nine, but in reality is 12, also has Thalassemia and problems with her spleen and osteoporosis.
For reasons which were not clear to me, they have been abandoned by their greater family. They are truly alone – before abiding in this cinder-block structure, they were living in a field shrine. These structures are Shi’ite shrines where people to go to pray, burn incense or make sacrifices – generally it contains a grave of a ‘saint’ or ‘holy man’ – sometimes even ‘Christian Holy men’. These shrines are dotted all over this region where there is a high number of Shi’ites – the shrines can be in fields, mountains, in towns and cities. For over a year this family had no place to stay, except in a shrine, with the grave of the Saint, receiving aid from those who came to pray. They had no water, electricity or sanitary provision but they had no other place to stay. Now they had upgraded to this cinder-block structure, which, at least, didn’t contain a grave.
As we chat my attention is drawn to the small flock of cats around the structure. I comment on the cats and they cheerfully tell me that the cats are nice to have around as they keep the snakes away. They are not pets, and they do not feed them, but they are guard cats, to ward off snakes!
As part of traditional Turkish hospitality, the time has come to offer us, the ‘guests’, some fruit. An old plastic patio type table is extracted from the part of the cinder-block structure that serves as a make-shift kitchen and is brought out to where we are sitting. Shortly thereafter plates of fruit are placed before us. The fruit comes from local trees, vines and neighbours. I feel humbled by their generosity in the face of abject poverty and I have to force myself to overcome my deep reticence in eating what little food they have. T., feeling the same and knowing my thoughts, splits an apple with me and we slowly consume that and give our thanks to our hosts.
It is almost school time but the daughter will not be starting school. She is bright, very intelligent indeed, but her health is a hindrance. The family are so poor that they qualify for free State medical treatment. The doctors want to do some tests to see if she can be helped with an operation. So they will be going to a hospital in Adana, a two hour bus journey away and if she needs an operation, and if so the operation would be in Ankara, the Capitol about eight hours by coach. The test is in the week school commences. Maybe after that she can go to school. She wants to.
The medical care is covered by the State, but the travel to the hospital and other expenses are not. I hear not a word of complaint or despair.
The cinder-block structure is roofed with corrugated iron. In summer an intense solar oven – in winter an impossible-to-heat ice-box. They are not renting the structure – they are living in it. They have no rights. At any time the owners can come and move them off the land. The property is an inheritance and the beneficiaries can not agree what to do with it and in this confusion the family have been able to live on the land.
Let me be clear they are NOT one of the beneficiaries. When the owners of the property sort out their problems and decide what they want to do with the land, the family will have to move on.
After fruit comes drinks. Thankfully we had brought some soft drinks with us. After drinks comes food. At this we draw the line. We really do not want anything to eat.
The man of the house and the daughter have made a profession of faith. The wife has not. In such abject poverty and hopelessness is their faith real or are they reaching out for any help they can get? The Lord knows.
This I know: at no point did they ask for help, nor did they parade their need, nor did they hint or suggest how one might be able to assist. They never spoke of need nor despair nor helplessness, nor hopelessness….. Their clothes were clean and they smiled and their demeanour was sweet and pleasant.
We had a good conversation, they executed their duties as Turkish hosts very well…
At the end of the visit we prayed with them…..
The shadow of the verse that was going through my mind comes from I John. I found it. It says “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the Love of God abide in him?” (NKJV).
Life, in practice, is not simple. I wrestled with what I saw. I wrestled with what my response should be. I have ‘this world’s goods’. I had ‘seen’ with my own eyes, not been told, not been manipulated, not been convinced – no, I had ‘seen’ with my own eyes a family in need.
But how can one help? If I reach into my pocket and pull out some cash and thrust it into his hands – what would be the result? Would he understand it comes from God who is greater than us all, or would he see me as a ‘rich foreigner’ and the ‘source of aid’. What of the Chinese proverb “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”?
It was this experience that I recounted outside the outdoor oven at the beginning of this story. This experience was the ‘that’ when the man leaned forward and asked me, “Why did you tell us that?”
One of the people listening to my account responded by telling a long story how a chap had come to their fellowship, said the bailiff was coming to take all their families household goods and could the saints help. They did help, and never saw him again. It seemed to me he was saying, “Yes, we should help, but, unfortunately because of the liars and charlatans in the world, we can’t.” That may not have been his message, but that is what I felt he was saying.
The other chap, the fellow we were actually visiting, is the elder of a church in this village outside of Antakya. He began by saying that the bulk of the people in the Assembly were day workers. They go out at the start of the day, find a manual day job, work and are paid. They are living on something between 300 YTL and 350 YTL a month (and no guarantee that they will find work on any particular day).
Let me translate that into currencies you may find easier to understand: 300 YTL = $228 CDN, $201 USD or £108 GBP; 350 YTL = $266 CDN, $235 USD or £126 GBP a month – as per the exchange rate in 2006. If you asked me if it were possible to live on such an income in Turkey, even rural Turkey, I would say no. Knowing the cost of living, it is remarkable to me that people are actually ‘living’ on that kind of an income.
His point was the bulk of the people in the Assembly are living in poverty and hence are no better off than the situation I had described.
On our return to Istanbul, I asked to see the elder at our Assembly. The Lord also arranged it so another brother whom I esteem was there and we discussed this whole question of how can we help those in need.
It became abundantly clear that it is not a new question nor an easy question to answer. The elder lowered his head and with sadness spoke of gifts that resulted in more harm and no good. (note: not more harm than good, but too often more harm and ‘no’ good)
The elder shared this from James: “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17 NKJV)
Basically he said it came down to the most basic ‘needs’ – food and warmth (clothing) that we should respond without concern – everything else requires wisdom and care. He added that it is clear from experience, where possible, if the need is material, to give the material that is required, not money (if the need is food, then giving food, if shoes, then giving shoes – rather than money).
We also discussed how it was important that people who are helped do not see the human agent – those who God uses to meet a need. That they would seek the Lord to meet their need and when it is met, rejoice and give thanks to the Lord.
The conclusion of our discussion was we must respond to the promptings of God when we see needs – but in Turkey we must be very careful, we need wisdom to respond in a way that is truly honouring to the Lord – to be partners with Him in the Good Works that He has prepared for us to do.
Maybe you are wondering, “Why did you tell this story?” here.
Well, this time I know why I have recounted this experience.
It is to share some of my struggle in this area of life.
I have been deeply moved and shaken by these events. God has given me of this world’s goods. I have far more than 350 YTL to live on in a month. I have no outstanding ‘basic’ need. I am well fed, well clothed, and with good housing. But as the elder shared, any giving, any assistance, any help, needs to encourage the saints in their walk with the Lord and understanding of His love and His ability to provide for them.
Any action that any of us may engage in must do good and not harm my brothers and sisters in the Lord. As God has liberally blessed and provided for us, so too we need to emulate Him and be liberally generous to those we meet, especially those whose basic needs we see.