In February 2023 Turkiye and Syria experienced enormous earthquakes. As a result, over 50,000 people died and 1.5 million are displaced and homeless. How do people surround by such devastation process faith and beliefs about who God is and their life’s purpose? After living in Türkiye for 3.5 years, I want to share the stories of beautiful people who are intimately acquainted with suffering, in hopes that we will be compelled by the love of God to pray for and learn from them.
The population of Türkiye is approximately 85,226,000, and 99.2% have never heard of, nor have access to, the gospel. The country’s government proclaims freedom of religion and then waves a flag bearing the Islamic star and crescent moon. When a Turkish child is born there, they are identified as a Muslim on their ID card.
The city where I lived has a population of 4+ million people, and roughly 15 protestant churches and 3 of those fellowships are relatively healthy. And by churches, I mean congregations ranging from 15 to 25 members. But most of the cities and villages don’t have a church at all.
This is the place where thousands died and millions are displaced and homeless due to recent earthquakes. It’s hard to look at it and devastating to think about it for too long.
On the evening of February 5, 2023, my Last Quake app notification sounded louder than usual. A 7.8 earthquake in Central Türkiye. As I read the notification, I was transported back to October 29, 2020, when I sat on my living room floor staring out the window as my apartment building shook. I witnessed the building across the street collapse and 14 people die, smothered and crushed under its debris. That earthquake was a 7.0. What kind of destructive power could this 7.8 have?
That February evening in Alabama, while the news didn’t have anything about the earthquakes yet, my WhatsApp group messages did. My loved ones were okay. But the next day the videos and numbers came rolling in like tidal waves knocking us off our feet before we could stand back up again. The screams of my neighbors from two and half years ago echoed in my mind like phantoms. With deep breaths and the Psalms of lament, the Lord held me together as my heart broke a thousand times over for the beautiful Turkish and Syrian people.
The first year I lived in Türkiye my teammate and I prayed from Matthew 13:23, that the Lord would cultivate hearts of good soil where we could sow seeds of the gospel. And the Lord provided many opportunities. My Muslim friends would often strike up conversations about our differing beliefs. I’ll never forget the wonder in *Hande’s eyes as we clarified that Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sins. “Vayyy,” she said. “What beautiful love!”
But her attention shifted. This ambitious, young college girl expressed shame and embarrassment for asking us so many questions. “My mother said that good Muslim girls don’t ask questions. It’s çok ayıp.” The soil in Türkiye is hard.
One summer, our friend *Esin invited us to her village out east. With typical Turkish hospitality, we got to meet her mom, dad, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, little cousin, and one grandma on the first night. By the end of our trip, we had met the other side of the family also. Esin’s father affectionately called us kızım benim (his daughters).
Esin and I have had many conversations about our beliefs. Her mother and her sister are devout Muslims who cover their hair, pray five times a day, and hac yaptı (Hajj or pilgrimage). Esin, on the other hand, considers herself culturally Muslim but embraces a secular lifestyle. Her father wants her to have the freedom to choose her own way.
During our summer vacation in their village, Esin’s father asked me, “Who are the evangelicals?” Initially, he thought they were a political party trying to usurp the government. I tried to explain the literal definition of the word and deter from politics, which by God’s grace led to a gospel conversation with all of Esin’s family. Before we returned to our city, my teammate gave our friend’s sister a copy of the Word in her language. They finally had access to the good news even though they didn’t believe it that day.
I remember meeting Esin’s other grandma. She sat on the floor cushions bordering the wall of the living room, looking frail as her floral print dress pooled around her crisscrossed legs. With Esin next to her, büyükanne laid her head on her granddaughter’s shoulder. Tears fell as she said that she would die soon and that she was scared. A few months later she passed away. The seeds were planted, but my teammate and I couldn’t see the fruit.
On February 6, 2023, in the wake of the earthquakes, I spoke with Esin on the phone as I drove to work here in Alabama. She and her family were alive - praise God. But she cried out to me, “It’s just so hopeless!”
That’s the spiritual state of Türkiye. They have their morals and sense of God’s presence, power, and holiness. But the majority know nothing of His hope, and they find His self-sacrificing love unfathomable.
Like so many others of the beautiful Türkiye, Esin invited me into her home, her family, and her hopelessness. How can we invite them to feast in a house of faith that cannot be shaken? Even though I’ve lived there and sown the seeds of the gospel, I’m still personally challenged by this question. If I also feel the hopelessness from these disasters, how can I keep sharing the hope of Christ with Esin and others like her? But in my weakness the Lord is strong. He is the author of my faith. When everything collapses, He holds all things together.
The Sunday after the February 6 earthquakes, our brother *Timur preached Psalm 77 to a congregation of 20 people who live over 600 miles from the earthquake epicenter yet felt its tremors. Timur heard the gospel years before from American m-workers while he was studying at university. Today he’s married to another believing Turk and serving as an ordained elder in his local fellowship. He and his wife are rare among their people group. They are the fruit God made from seeds planted in hearts of good soil.
While the earth beneath his feet continued to tremble, by God’s grace, Timur was able to proclaim:
God, your way is holy.
What god is great like God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you revealed your strength among the peoples.
With power you redeemed your people… - Psalm 77:13-15a
Through His Word, God gave Timur and his congregation hope in a hopeless situation. How glorious is our God!
But 99.2% of Timur’s neighbors, friends, and family are still hopeless.
Will you pray? Interceding for people experiencing such devastation is a heavy matter. But if we can learn to bear the weight of the spiritual reality in places unreached by the gospel, then we can see firsthand the glory for which God is preparing us. I’ll warn you, praying for Türkiye is what led me to live there for 3.5 years. I dare you to pray and learn more about this area of the world with all its beauty and wonder. Amidst the beautiful, you will witness the hopeless. But may we look hopeless devastation in the face and declare Christ in me, the hope of glory.
"God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." - Colossians 1:27
*names changed for safety