(written January 2012)
We reside in a dusty backwater of a town with a population nominally posted at 509,000. This is rather deceptive as number is for the greater or metropolitan city – our actual part which was before the restructuring, consisted of the formerly much smaller city of ‘Antakya’ with a population of around 200,000.
Regardless, for in reality, it feels more like a large village than a proper city.
This city, in ancient times was known as Antioch, which was founded, or rather, re-founded by a general of Alexander the Great in about 293 B.C..
Through the passing millennia, through changes in empires, ruling powers, languages, strife, turmoil and not the infrequent and violent earthquakes, the name has remained for all intents and purposes the same. Over time it has morphed into the Turkish rendition of Antakya which is still very similar in sound to the original.
However, after being known as some derivative of this name since its re-founding some 2,300 years ago, it has now, in the last ten years or so, been rebranded as ‘Hatay’. I’ve not found a meaning for ‘Hatay’ other than the name of the region and now the city where we reside.
Additionally, it is notable that in spite of the history that it was in this very city, some 2,000 years ago that ‘followers of the Way’ were first described as Christians, that currently there are but a small number of churches in the city.
The largest of these small churches, is the Greek Orthodox Church, home of the ancient Christian tradition dating all the way back to the time of the apostles. Then there is an extremely tiny Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, there is a small Korean Methodist Church. Last, but by no means least, one, also small, Turkish Protestant Church.
The physical home for this Turkish Protestant Church – the Antakya Christian Church, is a rented, old courtyard house, modestly modified to serve the needs to the fellowship.
Like all courtyard houses in Antakya, the inner sanctum of the property is hidden from the street by a massive, three metre high stone wall. I suppose in the days when these homes were constructed, they really did believe that a man’s home was his castle.
Typically, entrance is afforded by one single, solitary steel door.
Entering the Antakya Christian Church through its substantial and
reinforced street door, you find yourself in a rectangularly shaped, 11 metres long, and 4½ metres wide, stone clad courtyard. On the right side there is a primitive, poorly constructed wing hosting two small multi-purpose rooms followed by a minuscule kitchen and finally the toilet. On the opposite side, across the courtyard is the left wing, constructed of finely finished dressed stone and looking the part of a fine old Antiochian house.
Today this wing houses the main meeting room. Formerly this space was divided into two ‘fancy’ rooms but over the years, with the landlords permission, it has been merged into one larger space with seating for about 70 souls (75 in a squeeze).
Sunday by Sunday the space is more than adequate, however, on special occasions the space can be rather restrictive – and so an idea was born.
Currently there is a large, rather fruitful orange tree living and dominating the far end of the courtyard, but we reasoned that if we were to put a roof over the ⅔ of the courtyard remaining, then when the weather is inclement, this space could be used for children activities and, after meeting, also utilised for fellowship and drinking tea.
Tea drinking is an important social activity in Turkey.
Christmas was approaching and the church – that is the people who constitute the church – were planning on inviting those with whom we have had contact in the past year, plus the neighbours where we live, plus the neighbours near the church building – all people we have had dealings with and built a degree of personal rapport with. And so, anticipating a larger than normal number of people for the celebrations, this added a new impetus for the construction of a roof over the courtyard – and if possible, in time for Christmas.
However, there were just a few obstacles to be overcome for this to be a reality.
- First we needed the landlord’s consent which was two-fold; consent for the actual construction of the roof and, most importantly, agreement from the landlord to off-set some of the expense of the roof against rent – after all, it will be part of his property.
- Then a quote on the cost of fitting a roof – it had to be within our means
- Finally, we desired, if possible, for it to be built before Christmas.
A rather tall order.
We prayed and asked the landlord, but he declined to accept a modest reduction in the rent for the next two years to off-set the cost.
Falling at the first hurdle as we had, it looked like it was a ‘dead deal’ rather than a ‘done deal’.
As we waited on the Lord, we felt it was right to offer the landlord a modified proposal, which was to hold the rent at its current level for the coming two years (meaning, no annual increase in rent). In this way, at least a part of the cost of the roof would be recovered in not having our rent increased for two years. If this would be acceptable, the cost would be shared between the landlord and us.
To this proposal the landlord consented and so the first hurdle was cleared.
Now to get hard quotes for the work. There was still sufficient time to get the task done before our special Christmas event.
I contacted a welder we had used in the past and was commissioned to meet him at the church, explain the task and get a hard quote. The hard quote was essential as we can not afford to have price creep – we need to know what it will cost up-front – with no surprises.
The welder came at the agreed time. The landlord also came. We talked about the task and discussed how it could be done. In the course of this discussion our landlord took a rather strong dislike to the chap – he leans over to me and muttered “Where did you find this guy?”
It was not a positive query.
The fact is, he had done some work for us at our home and we were reasonably happy – happy enough with his workmanship – but clearly our landlord was not impressed with his persona. To be fair, not everyone is enraptured with him – our landlords reaction was not unique.
We came to one of the finer points for the roof, how to deal with our flourishing, young olive tree, situated just inside the street door immediately on the left hand side.
Earlier, this flourishing olive tree had become a point of contention with the landlord – a point of contention that we felt had been fully resolved.
It was some years ago that we had planted this olive tree in the courtyard of the church and it had flourished. Mind you, it had yet to bear olives, but was a green, leafy, pleasant, shady addition to the courtyard.
But, it is to be noted that in its flourishing, it had now grown too high for the proposed roof. I noted that we would need to trim the top of the tree – that is the tree we had planted.
But the landlord adamantly declared: “No, it will not be touched.”
He was emphatically emphatic. Our landlord could be very emphatic when he wished.
It is clear that we cannot leave a hole in the roof to facilitate the tree – it needs to be a complete roof in order to keep the rain out. Therefore, I rang the elder and we agreed that if the tree has to stay at that height, the project cannot go forward – if we are to do this project, it is either we do it right, or not at all.
Consequently, I told the welder that we had decided not to do the project and he departed.
Truthfully, I was rather downhearted at this unexpected turn of events, but, there was no choice – the landlord, well, is the landlord – it is, ultimately, his property.
The project is dead – there will be no roof. Result: we will continue as we have been doing, so nothing has been lost except the hope and expectation.
However, as soon as the welder had departed, the landlord informed me that I needed to be at the church the next day as we will engage in reorganising the courtyard with a view to building the roof.
“Say what?” I think. “One minute the project is absolutely, completely and summarily scuppered and now we are re-organising the courtyard greenery to facilitate the construction of the roof….”
Rather bemused, I agreed.
The following day, a simple, hard working, rather religious labourer had been engaged by the landlord; engaged by the landlord but to be paid by the church.
His tasking for the day, under the watchful eye of the landlord, was the reorganising of the greenery.
However, before commencing work on the living, green things, his first task was to remove an old tree stump from the far end of the courtyard, under the shade of the five metre tall orange tree.
The tree stump was a stubborn, well entrenched remnant of a quince tree which had dominated but not graced that end of the courtyard.
The labourer struggled mightily with the stump. He didn’t have the correct tools for the task, but he was dogged and determined, utilising those tools which were at his disposal. Whenever he was particularly frustrated, he would exclaim “gavur” which being translated, means “infidel” in English. It perplexed me as to what I, in his view a full-blooded infidel, had to do with the inanimate stump. What was the connection between me (or my ilk) and this passive, lifeless, wooden remnant of the once unappreciated quince tree – mind you it was proving to be very well rooted, determined, recalcitrant remnant.
These little verbal pejoratives are laced throughout the culture and language, quietly tainting peoples view and fouling their understanding of us as Christians.
In time the ‘infidel’ stump submitted to his labours and was grudgingly dragged from its former resting place. Its final fate was to be given to a neighbour to be used as fuel for their wood stove in the coming winter.
Maybe the quince tree would find momentary appreciation yet.
Then it was the turn of the olive tree – yes, ‘the olive tree’ that the night before the landlord had adamantly, emphatically proscribed it being pruned let alone the removing of it to a new location. Now this very same man, our landlord, ordered it to be uprooted and replanted in the now vacant space left by the evicted quince stump.
To add insult to injury, midway through the relocation, whilst lying helpless on the ground, the olive tree was well and truly, one might say, savagely pruned – far beyond what we had ever contemplated, envisioned or suggested.
At this point I understood: when the landlord objected the night before, it was his way of saying, “I don’t want this man to build the roof…” and not, “I do not want the olive tree to be pruned…”
Hmm… a little lesson in cultural communication there…
The pomegranate tree was next to swap ends of the courtyard. Then the rather anaemic grape vine was summarily removed and consigned to history.
Finally, the orange tree was vigorously trimmed.
At the end of the day there remained no impediment for a roof to be constructed to cover ⅔ of the courtyard and redeem the space which is lost in winter to rain and in summer to the intense Antiochian sun.
The landlord then arranged for a welder, a welder that he approved of, to come and discuss the project. The man arrived and gave us a firm, hard quote and followed on by writing up a detailed description of what he would be doing and he signed it. A written and signed statement of what the work would entail – I had never had that happen to me in Turkey before – this seemed a good sign.
Whilst there still was just enough time before Christmas for the roof to be constructed, T. and I were about to leave for the UK and so I could not be there to superintend the actual construction.
But, we had a written description of the work, and the landlord would be there, and it was in his nature to ‘supervise’, and it was being done by the landlord’s chosen welder – so there was some reassurance in that.
As we had agreed the project, in my capacity as co-treasurer for the church, I had to hand over from Church funds, a goodly portion of the price to facilitate the purchase of the necessary materials. I understood that work would commence on Monday and be completed by Tuesday or Wednesday at the very latest.
The task would be completed days before Christmas. I was happy.
On Sunday, after preaching in the meeting, T. and I left for Istanbul in a borrowed car. We broke the trip into two parts, stopping at a near half way point in Aksaray on the vast interior Anatolian plain. We arrived in Istanbul on Monday evening.
My first task on arrival was to ring and learn what progress had been made. It was then that I learned that the welder hadn’t come, but I was assured, he would be coming on Tuesday. I’m still happy, but now mixed with heavy dollop of consternation.
And so, on Tuesday I rang again only to be informed that the welder had failed to come yet again. Although I must add that, reportedly, all the materials had been purchased and preparations at his workshop had been accomplished. I subsequently learned that on Wednesday they got a good start and erected the bulk of the steel but on Thursday the rains settled in.
Now, even I can understand a reticence to do electric arc-welding in the rain.
So work had come to a complete and absolute halt due to rain.
Time was no longer running out before Christmas – it had now run out.
The rains persistently continued through out the rest of the week – not uncommon in winter in Antakya, and the very reason we desired the roof in the first place.
By faith we were expecting a full building for the special Christmas celebrations. Invitations had been printed and given to people we had met or know – not blind, mass distribution, but focused on those we know. The roof remained unfinished and could not now be completed for Christmas.
And so we prayed.
The day of our Christmas Celebrations dawned overcast and rainy.
But at the appointed hour the rain ceased, the clouds lifted and parted. The day brightened. There was a wonderful, dry interval that encompassed the time of the meeting and fellowship afterwards.
We wanted a roof to keep the rain off, but the Lord of the rain took care of it in His own way.
On the day, there were 85 souls present – 36 guests, 20 believers from another meeting, and our own folks. The building was brimming full to capacity, actually, well beyond capacity, as ten people had to stand.
Because it was not raining, after the meeting people could spill out into the courtyard and drink tea and chat. So we had room for the visitors to comfortably visit and chat afterwards without being cramped or crowded.
The roof was completed on the Monday following Christmas – ready for our normal Sunday meetings and special occasions as and when they happen. It will be a blessing and expand our limited available space.
God does all things well and this was a poignant reminder. Our goal, in this case, was a place for the visitors to, uh, visit, and consequently we felt that this required, or so we thought, a roof. On the day, the ‘roof’ was still an unfulfilled promise.
Yet He accomplished that goal without a roof, hence keeping our focus and trust where it really, always, ought to be – on Him.