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Missionaries in Istanbul

“Jesus died for your sins on the cross.”

During one of my usual morning walks along a popular coast in Istanbul, I heard this statement from one of several missionaries who reside in Istanbul. As I only passed by, I didn’t know if the three male Turkish youths who gave the foreign missionary their time even understood what that man said.

I remember a class when two young female college graduates who were best friends said that they came upon a few individuals who approached them and invited them to come to a meeting at a building (where they realized later when they stopped by that it held church services) and when they attended the meeting, they couldn’t understand clearly what it was about except they said it felt like everyone was talking about Christianity. The two young ladies said that the atmosphere felt so uncomfortable that they left.

One American man was concerned when I answered his question about where my expat friends were from [who were a mix from Arab, African and Central Asian countries and Iran) and that I also had close Turkish acquaintances and friends; he said he knew certain places where Americans liked to hang out at and that I was welcome to come by as he said that many foreigners and Turkish people were too different to communicate closely with. I politely declined.

Only a few days ago, I left work and I happened to be accosted by a South Korean girl who introduced herself in Turkish at first and when I explained that I didn’t speak Turkish well, she switched to English and explain that she was a student and that she immediately wanted to speak to me about my background and what I believed in. I told her that I liked learning about a wide range of religions and have decided long ago that I was to keep myself an openly spiritual person who wished to bring people together not through any religious means but through the fundamental fact that we were all just human despite having grown up in completely different environments, raised with customs that differed a little or a lot depending on our individual perspectives and tolerance.

As I stated that I was born and raised in the Greater Boston area, she continued to inquire into my father’s religious background in particular because I patiently said that he was a Mormon sometime before I was born but his belief in Mormonism faded rapidly in the early years of my life. I knew right away where that South Korean girl was going because there were many foreigners like her in Istanbul who insisted that Jesus loved all of us and that life would be better if everyone in the world had Jesus in the center of their lives.

The South Korean girl’s name was Inhe and in her eyes I was ‘lost’. I strongly felt that she lost all ability to hear about any alternative lifestyle habits and beliefs because she didn’t acknowledge what I said about educating myself of world religions as a way to better empathize where people were coming from. Instead, she thought of only introducing Jesus’ story and Christianity — what she knew, what she grew up — believing that it was the way to build a world community.

I continued to speak to her nonchalantly about my work in Istanbul and who I lived with, where I lived and how many people I knew in the city for ten minutes and she mentioned that she had many foreign friends who got together on Sundays if I could care to join them. I told her that I worked on Sundays but that an occasional weekday evening would be free and that I was open to talk more if she wanted to. She said that she would love it if I joined her group of friends as everyone she knew supported each other in the midst of living in Istanbul.

When I told her that I lived with a 42-year-old Turkish woman, she said that she imagined that it was lonely being in the company of Turks since (like what the American told me) during her year studying in Istanbul, she noticed that Turkish people were ‘a different group altogether’.

I just stared at her and said that actually my roommate was a nice lady (my roommate, in fact, has had a lot of ups and downs — particularly downs- but I knew deep down that she had a good heart) and then she responded, “I will definitely call you on Sunday (she told me a few times throughout the conversation that she would love to call me) and arrange to meet up and that Jesus loved me” and hugged me (I hugged back because, after all that I’ve gone through in Istanbul, hugging her just didn’t feel like a strange thing to do despite my not agreeing with her ‘mission’ for ‘improving’ Turkey).

Inhe ended up never calling me but I didn’t expect her to.

There have been many missionaries that I have noticed holding pamphlets and offering free English conversation practice for the locals in Istanbul. I can’t imagine the other way around being a reality: strict practicing Muslims in major American cities spreading the word of God through the Prophet Mohammed distributing copies of the Koran given how sensitive the political situation is nowadays and diplomatic relations between certain countries.

I can’t support the Istanbul missionaries’ aim spreading the Gospel among Turkish people. Encounters like the recent one I’ve had with Inhe has me thinking again and again about how the majority of people in my life don’t empathize with others enough. By insisting on believing in Jesus as the Holy Savior, without giving a thought about how Islam has been intertwined with Turkish culture for centuries. Not even being the least bit attentive to the reality that Turkish people have their own customs and that the Ottoman Empire was one of the longest lasting empires meaning that Turkey has been part of one of the greatest civilizations. This historical information is ignored by a lot of the missionaries that I have briefly with. I don’t like speaking very much to the missionaries as they often congregate together and not come into contact with the locals as closely as they do with each other. I don’t feel that there is much respect for how Turkish people are when they have made it a mission to challenge how Turkish people have been living, what they believe in and how their thought processes are. Turkish people are people. I have been in Istanbul for more than three years and I still have a difficult time adapting to Turkish culture but I recognize and like that Turkish culture is different.

I don’t perceive the missionaries in Istanbul as genuinely caring for the Turkish people. The missionaries generally speak to the Turkish people in a way that the Turkish people aren’t loved unconditionally as they are. I don’t understand inviting Turkish people to come to Christian-oriented meetings in order to ‘save’ them on foreigners’ terms and not on Turkish terms. There is no acceptance on the part of missionaries for how Turkish people have grown up, how they relate to each other at work, home and in daily life, what and who they value. There is no authentically knowing the Turkish people, there’s no realizing that the Turkish people are actually a part of them already — the simple fact that they are part of humanity.

I understand that the way that Christian missionaries care is to spread the Gospel. They want everyone else to feel the same inner peace that they feel from being closely intimate with God’s Word and they feel that the way to help everyone feel at ease is to encourage a relationship with Jesus Christ and a close reading of the Bible. However, I don’t believe that missionaries love enough. They don’t love the human race enough. They don’t love others’ achievements, others’ knowledge and perceptions, others’ ways enough. In fact, I don’t think that missionaries know what love is at all or else they wouldn’t make it an objective to change a group of people on missionaries’ terms, to bring what they have known, learned and experienced on a group of people.

Why not choose to be curious about who people really are?

Why not appreciate how much good that a country’s people have done on their own?

Why turn a blind eye to what isn’t familiar to what one’s environment was growing up?

Help human beings as they are. Real service is improving on what people already have, leaving people uniquely themselves.

Perceiving people as ‘other’ is no reason to ignore what they do and what their lives have been like.

Regardless of religious beliefs and citizenship and culture, everyone is substantial. There isn’t a single country that isn’t. There’s not a country without voices, without rich stories and experiences.

Missionaries in Istanbul need to get it in their heads to let Turkish people be as they are and create harmony with what they have already.

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