Disaster Response / Featured

Quakes shake ancient Antioch, but not pastors’ faith

By Marv Knox

A series of earthquakes has reduced one of the most significant cities named in the New Testament to rubble. But ministry and hope remain, the co-pastor of the city’s lone Baptist church insists.

The quakes destroyed about 75 percent of the homes in Antakya, Turkey — known in Bible times as Antioch, the first place where followers of Jesus were called Christians.

Across the region, more than 50,000 people have died, and authorities believe the toll eventually will be much higher. The earthquakes, which began Feb. 6 and continued for weeks, have left 1.5 million people homeless and affected at least 2.5 million residents.

In Antakya, the first quake demolished the building of Antakya Followers of Christ Church and damaged the home of the congregation’s co-pastors, Elmas and Hamdullah. “We had an organized life,” Elmas said of their church and neighborhood before the first earthquake struck. “We were teaching piano, English and guitar lessons to kids at the church. … We used to hold meetings for women. We had fun playing games with the kids. When I walked out of the house, all the kids on the street would greet me and come over and chat with me.”

Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey. was destroyed by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

Then that first earthquake changed everything. “We lost at least 350 neighbors,” she said. “I’ve lost all these kids now. The survivors of the earthquake left Antakya because there is no life in Antakya.

“Immediately after the first earthquake, our Turkish brothers and sisters began bringing aid to us. We praise God for this, and we began sharing the aid with those in our surrounding neighborhood,” she said. “Since the morning of the earthquake, our neighbors had been doing what they could and were able to pull many out of the nearby collapsed buildings. They also extracted those who did not survive.”

Elmas and Hamdullah received an initial relief grant of $5,000 from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which they used to help feed their surviving neighbors.

“All Christians are suspect (in Turkey) but, as local pastors, Elmas and Hamdullah had a unique ministry in probably the only town in Turkey where Christians and Muslims were cohabitating because of the long history of Christianity in Antioch,” noted J, a former CBF field personnel who collaborated with the couple for 20 years before she and her husband retired three years ago.

Elmas’ and Hamdullah’s relationships with their community rose to the forefront in the midst of the crisis. Elmas reported: “When neighboring survivors of the earthquake came to us, they all would say the same thing: ‘No one came to help from the government. They did not reach out to us, but the Christians came and helped us. If it were not for the Christians, we would have died.’”

They initially ministered to their neighbors out of their damaged home — one of the few houses still standing in the community. But subsequent quakes inflicted compounding damage. When the third temblor hit, they were eating with volunteers in the courtyard of their home; but Hamdullah happened to be inside.

“It was so awful!” Elmas recalled. “I thought I had lost Hamdullah. I cried and cried until he emerged safely.”

The second strongest earthquake in their history has left 1.5 million homeless in southern Turkey

Thereafter, they realized their home was too dangerous to use. They moved their base of operations to the cinder-block frame of a new church facility, which they had started building last fall. It’s about a 20- to 25-minute walk from their destroyed neighborhood.

Elmas and Hamdullah live out of the church van and work alongside Turkish Baptist volunteers from elsewhere who provide relief and comfort — particularly food and clean water.

With the few remaining hotel rooms and apartments full and with precious little space to set up more tents, they are considering buying a 610-square-meter plot of land. There they would set up shipping containers reconfigured as temporary housing for themselves and volunteers, as well as distribution centers for food and clothing.

Because very few Christians live in Turkey, CBF’s earthquake-response funding, channeled directly through Turkish Baptist churches, sends a clear signal to the larger society, according to the field personnel couple who have worked there 20 years.

CBF has raised almost $100,000 for Turkish and Syrian earthquake response, including a $50,000 grant from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and contributions donated through this site. Much more is needed for the long-term relief and recovery of churches and their surrounding communities in Turkey.

“The testimony of those funds reveals love for the people,” J, the field personnel, said. “We’re hoping gifts to CBF can be funneled through the churches. They’re going to be the ones who remain and have relationships with the people.”

“We’re talking about very small groups of believers; 20-to-30 people make up a church,” her husband, D, said. “There are probably 14 or so congregations in the Southeastern Association of Churches. So, CBF aid going through them helps get Turkish church leaders out in the community, making them visible. It gives them the opportunity to witness to and minister to their neighbors who were affected.”

The national Association of Turkish Churches has sent relief teams from all over the country. They are living in tents as they help earthquake victims.

Eddy Ruble, CBF’s global disaster response coordinator, will join the former field personnel couple in Turkey the first week of April. “We will meet with Turkish partners, like Elmas and Hamdullah, to hear their plans and see how we can support and enhance what they are doing,” he said.

CBF is cooperating with the Baptist World Alliance’s Forum for Aid and Development — BFAD — which is engaged in supporting and coordinating earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria, Ruble added. “We’re partnering with others and with pastors on the ground, trying to help them minister to so many in desperate need,” he said. “CBF’s ability to engage in the long term will depend on the funding we receive. We will not have the funds to do any rebuilding. Concrete and high-rise buildings are enormously expensive.

“But we want to continue to support direct ministry of the Turkish churches on the ground. CBF field personnel are already involved in trauma training and care for the responders. This is one way we can directly support the ongoing relief and recovery work.”

In fact, CBF field personnel partnered with a humanitarian nonprofit and a Turkish congregation to offer trauma and acute-stress training for frontline workers who have responded to the earthquakes, reported Christine, a CBF field personnel based in Africa and the Middle East. They conducted the training in partnership with a church in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, which is located outside the quake zone, about 470 miles northwest of Antakya.

“The tools in this training are designed to provide rapid relief for those experiencing acute stress,” Christine explained. “The tools are intended for use immediately after a traumatic experience — within hours, days, weeks and months.”

Participants in the training process initially received the acute-stress intervention themselves, she said. Next, they learned how humans respond to trauma and how to apply intervention protocols to relieve stress and provide nervous system regulation. Then they practiced on each other and, finally, they served survivors in the field under the supervision of their trainer.

Eleven members of the host church in Ankara received the training, she reported. All of them either have been traveling back and forth to the earthquake zone or have been serving quake victims who are displaced in Ankara. Eventually, the trainees provided this trauma-care ministry to 54 people — 37 in Turkish and 17 in Farsi.

Over and over, ministry leaders and participants in the training process expressed frustration because they didn’t feel they had the tools needed to meet the earthquake survivors’ needs, Christine said. “Of course, they could provide food, water and blankets, and they could offer a listening ear and show up to sit with people in their pain, which are all essential components to moving forward from this tragedy,” she said. “But they were keenly aware there were significant amounts of trauma — psychological, emotional and physical distress — that they didn’t really know how to address.

“They left the training feeling more hopeful about their ability to make a difference and to relieve some of the suffering they were bearing witness to.”

Many, if not most, of the training participants experienced survivors’ guilt, since they did not live in the earthquake zone and had not directly experienced the devastation, Christine noted. Still, all of them have been affected, and many are housing friends or family in their homes.

“One couple who had been serving in the earthquake zone recognized during the training how much they had shut off and numbed their own emotions as a way of coping with all they were seeing and hearing in order to continue serving,” she said. “But as we began to work, they realized how deeply they had actually been affected and were able to clear out a lot of the disturbing thoughts, images, emotions and body sensations they were carrying. …

“One participant from the field work said he had lived through two earthquakes, and this one-hour activity was the most relief he’d ever experienced.”

Meanwhile, Elmas asked fellow Christians to join her in prayer and hope. “We have lived through two times of great fear just recently — COVID and the earthquake,” she said. “I hope we can overcome this fear and be free of it. God can do this. God can give healing.

“I know God will deliver us completely from this fear and make us free. Pray for healing.”To support CBF’s earthquake response fund, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s