Partnering Together with Turkish Baptists
The circumstances that led me to attending and assisting at a Christian conference in Izmir, Turkey, with a church group from Paris seem so far-fetched I would have trouble believing it if I didn’t experience it. Flying halfway across the world from New Zealand to Paris in order to attend a design course, I naturally wanted to find a suitable English-speaking church when I arrived. My first Sunday morning I was on the train, planning to go into central Paris and find a church there. My mother messaged me from New Zealand while I was on the train and sent me a link to a church she had found online called Emmanuel International Church. I got off the train at the next station and caught a bus to EIC. Little did I know that I would so quickly find a support group of close friends and brothers and sisters in Christ, who I would go to Turkey with three months later to encourage Christians and be encouraged.
Still, when I was first informed of the conference and offered the opportunity to go, I wanted to spend a week to think about it. I felt unprepared, ill-suited, and unknowledgeable concerning sharing Christ with the Turkish, many of whom came from a Muslim background. I knew very little about Turkey — the people, the country, or the language. We were informed that we should prepare a testimony to share at the conference; I felt my testimony was not interesting or powerful enough to be worth sharing. In the end, I considered all of the people that God used in the Bible who felt they were “not suitable” and looked at this conference as an opportunity not only to share my unique story and encourage Christians from another culture, but to also have my faith strengthened and be encouraged myself.
This specific conference in Izmir, I found out, doesn’t follow a set structure. We were told to have a testimony, a devotional, and perhaps some activities ready, but not when and where and how we might share them. We weren’t given an agenda of any sort. We were told to make an appearance and be ready for anything. And from the moment our Paris group arrived at the airport, flying in from five different cities, it was very much a “go-with-the-flow” environment. We were dropped off at the campground and settled in. The girls made ourselves at home upstairs in a low-ceilinged roof space with 10 beds and a single fan plugged in the corner. It was 39 degrees almost every day.
I found when I arrived that there were two other non-Turkish groups who had flown in, like us. One came from Texas (USA) and one came from the Czech Republic. It made complete sense, but I still hadn’t expected it.
I also wasn’t sure what level of English to expect from the Turkish groups. I started spamming Duolingo the week before the trip in order to get some basics, but I didn’t know if every person I communicated with would require an interpreter or if there were a significant number of people who could speak English with me. And the last thing I wanted, and that we were specifically discouraged against, was to stay only in our English-speaking groups. Our goal was to interact, to encourage, regardless of language barriers.
Fortunately, what I would estimate as 50% of the Turkish people there spoke some level of English, and many spoke very fluently. Those that didn’t were friendly and open and happy to communicate through someone interpreting or using the few words we knew of each others’ languages.
The songs and sermons were nearly completely in Turkish. Sermons were difficult to follow along because the English-speaking groups sat in a separate part of the room with an interpreter speaking to us. She did her best to follow along and interpret to us as quickly as possible, but the preacher spoke faster, and we missed out on a lot of details and structure. We were, however, able to have devotions and share testimonies within our church group, and in our free time share some encouraging words with the Turkish.
Something that stood out to me about the people was how eager and passionate they were to discuss and debate anything about God and Jesus at any hour. I recall one young woman who came from a Muslim family and had yet to tell them that she was a Christian. We were asked not to share any photos or posts of her on social media in case her parents discovered it. She spoke English remarkably well, constantly had a smile on her face, and loved talking to anyone and everyone. She was sitting outside one evening around 23:00, along with a friend from our Paris group, and I came out and joined them. Immediately, she thrust her Bible into my hands and said “Show me your favorite Bible verse.”
I met a teenage boy from Syria. His whole family, including his parents and his younger brother, became Christians while in Syria and came to Turkey as refugees. They had been going to the church pastored by Andrew Brunson, the American man who had been unlawfully arrested in 2016 and held in prison for two years. The young man told me that the entire church had to scatter, find new churches and other places to worship discreetly.
We also had the absolute pleasure to witness a Turkish baptism on our final morning at the camp. A young woman who had become a Christian that year wanted to be baptized in the baptism pool outside. Despite again being limited by the language barrier, the heart and enthusiasm of everyone present was contagious. Apparently, a Turkish baptism includes a lot of music, followed by ecstatic cheering, then throwing bystanders into the baptism pool fully clothed for the rest of the morning until lunchtime.
On top of being passionate about their faith, the Turkish people love a good time. The bus rides were always filled with singing and clapping. The Texas group taught everyone a handful of different line dances, and once the Turkish people knew all the steps, they got extremely into it and made it their own. There was a spice-eating contest and other crazy games and activities every night.
And we all shared a universal love of food. We had a traditional Turkish breakfast every morning and various different Turkish dishes throughout the week. There was one man who wanted to make Turkish coffee for whoever wanted to enjoy it one evening. He told me he made 35 cups that night.
The Izmir locals were also happy to take us to beautiful Ladies’ Beach, Sirince, and Ephesus. As followers of Christ, Ephesus was particularly special to all of us. Being in the same place where Paul walked and taught was a surreal moment. Seeing relics of an ancient history and knowing that these ruins were once a thriving city was sobering to consider. One of the Izmir locals who came with us was very knowledgeable about the history and shared lots of information with us. Stepping foot into the remains of the Grand Theatre of Ephesus, he began to sing a Christian song in Turkish, and all other tourists who were present took a seat and listened. These are precious moments that fill my memories, that I never thought I would have the joy to witness.
I heard many stories from many different people concerning how they came to Christ. Some were filled with joy from the moment of first believing to today; others had moments of sadness or fear for safety. But they were evidently all completely, passionately in love with Jesus. And it was inspiring to me to witness such faith, despite the possible risks they faced, especially considering I came from a country where I could freely worship without fear of safety or disownment by my family. Suddenly the moments before the conference when I felt ill-suited to the task were clear in my mind as a lack of faith in what God could do if I just obeyed.
I went to Izmir to minister to the Turkish people, but they also ministered to me. And the crazy set of circumstances which led me there were all part of God’s plan. Pray for the Turkish who attended the conference, many of whom hope to come next year; pray for their continued faith, for their safety and protection, for support and community, and that God’s work will continue being done in Turkey.