United Church of Christ

Missionaries in Turkey build on trust, character and empathy

Istanbul's Sultanahmet (or Blue Mosque). W. Evan Golder photo | Randy Varcho graphic.

Ken and Betty Frank are Christian missionaries in Istanbul, Turkey. So is Alison Stendahl. All three serve with Global Ministries, the common world ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And they serve in a secular Muslim country.

All three serve because their presence was requested by a Global Ministries "partner," one who appreciates the Christian missionaries' influence far beyond their slim numbers.

Global Ministries sends missionaries to a particular country only if four things occur: 1) a "partner church" in that country requests missionaries for a particular task; 2) missionaries are available to meet that request; 3) the requested missionary service meets the criteria of "critical presence;" and 4) money is available to fund those missionaries.

In 1921, at the zenith of its overseas missionary activity, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a Global Ministries' predecessor, had 728 full-time missionaries serving around the globe. By 1966, that number had slipped to 480.

Today, Global Ministries has only 81 full-time missionaries serving abroad - and that number may drop before it increases. Budget shortfalls in the UCC and Disciples mean tough choices ahead. No new missionaries have been commissioned in the last two years, and the number of missionaries has dropped due to retirements and resignations.

Turkey's missionary history

Take Turkey, for example, once ABCFM's largest mission enterprise.

In 1820, two missionaries, Pliny Fiske and Levi Parsons, set sail for Palestine. En route, they disembarked in Smyrna (later Izmir), Turkey.

Around 1914, according to Brian Johnson, the American Board's archivist today in Turkey, it employed 174 American workers. These included about 133 missionaries, who worked at 17 principal ABCFM stations, 256 sub-stations, one publishing department, nine hospitals and 426 schools with more than 25,000 students.

Today, Turkey still has more Global Ministries missionaries than most countries, but they number only three. Ken and Betty Frank serve as co-general secretaries of the Near East Mission in Istanbul and work in ecumenical and interfaith relations.

Alison Stendahl is academic dean at Üsküdar American Academy and teaches mathematics. Alison Stendahl arrived in Turkey in 1980, the Franks two years later. All three served first in Izmir, and later moved to Istanbul, Stendahl in 1982, the Franks only recently. Besides their primary responsibilities, each has special concerns: Stendahl for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation, Betty Frank for education in Turkey and peace-and- justice issues, and Ken Frank for Christian- Muslim relations, about which he has co-authored a book, "Visible Islam in Modern Turkey," with Adil Ozdemir.

On a daily basis, the Franks work with a partner organization made up of secular Muslims on the running of three schools, a hospital and a publishing house. "All of these were started by our 19th century predecessors, and all continue today because of the Turkish people who run them and think that they should go on," says Betty Frank, "and most of these people identify themselves as Muslim."

Unique 'partner' relationship

This "partnership" relationship with a secular Muslim group is unique among Global Ministries' missionaries. It evolved even as the concept of partner church itself was evolving. Historically, AFCFM missionaries went out in response to Jesus' commandment (Matthew 28:19, KJV) to "go ye therefore, and teach all nations." As these new Christians began to run their own churches, the sending church body began to take its cues from the receiving churches as to what newly arriving missionaries should be doing.

The UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) formally combined their global mission work in the Common Global Ministries Board in 1996, even though joint work and cooperation dates back as far as 1967.

In Turkey, in the meantime, for various reasons the American Board's responsibility for running its schools, hospital and publishing house were gradually being taken over by the Health and Education Foundation (or SEV, its Turkish acronym). Today SEV has a $30 million annual budget.

"The foundation is far bigger than what missionaries and the American Board created," says Ken Frank. "So, if you look at it from the perspective of what the missionaries started in health and education, it's a huge success."

Although Ken Frank is legally responsible to the Turkish government for the American Board schools, he knows that all three missionaries serve at the request of SEV, acting as a "partner."

"Every so often I remind them that any time that they don't need us here, we'll leave," he says, "and they keep saying, 'We need you here.'"

"We want our tie with the American Board," says Ziya Köseoglu, SEV's general coordinator. "These schools gave Turkey a leadership edge, providing Turkey with educated leaders who could speak English. They also emphasized basic values, especially in terms of serving the community. Instead of saying, 'What's in it for me?' our students learned how to serve without expecting anything.

"In some parents' eyes, schools are successful if their students get into the university, but not here," he says. "Our students are prepared for life. Why would we want to give up our ties with this heritage?"

Interfaith relations are at the heart of what all three do, but it is not programmatic. "Even though Turkey's population is 99 percent Muslim and it is constitutionally a secular state," Ken Frank explains, "everyone - the government, the Orthodox Christian church, and the secularists - would be very suspicious of anything too explicit."

"The best interfaith relations are built on trust, good character and empathy," he says. "If you can build these things among people of different religious, ethnic and national backgrounds, then you are participating in the realm of God."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.

'Critical presence'
New standard for missionary appointments

At the April 2004 spring meeting of the Common Global Ministries Board in Indianapolis, the board amended its standing rules so that all appointments or re-appointments of its missionaries would be based on a group of criteria referred to as "critical presence."

The board defined "critical presence" as "to meet God's people and creation at the point of deepest need - spiritually, physically, emotionally, and/or economically - in a timely and appropriate manner."

The approach affects not only the appointment of missionary personnel, but also the establishment of overseas partnerships, the allocation of program grants, the configuration of home-based staff, and other components of Global Ministries.

Priority will be given to ministries of "acompañamiento (being there in various forms and modes of presence) to and with people in critical situations," with priority given to health care and capacity-building assignments. These may include:

. Pastoral ministries related to fear and hopelessness where people are desperate for meaning;

. Dangerous or life-threatening situations related to social, economical or political realities;

. Partners living in countries where in the Christian faith is a minority faith;

. Interfaith relations;

. Conflict resolution; and

. Areas where Global Ministries can offer a distinctive presence.

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