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Wesleyan Accent ~ Neighbors in the Middle East

One month ago, an American couple herded three children into a men’s room in the Istanbul, Turkey airport. The wife visibly pregnant, they settled in for the night and texted to family members in the U.S., letting them know that their flight was being delayed indefinitely – keeping some of the details to themselves. All night the parents kept vigil as the children miraculously slept through the sound of explosions, reports of shooting, sonic booms from low-flying fighter jets and men coming in with blood-spattered clothing to wash their faces and hands for their ritual Muslim prayer time.

One of the protesters from a crowd of 5,000-10,000 men who, at the Turkish President’s command, had marched to the airport chanting in Turkish and protesting the military coup, saw the family camped in the bathroom and reassured them, “we are not here for you.”

Hours before, the couple had tried to get a taxi from the airport to the hotel after a long flight with young kids in tow when everything suddenly shut down: a tank quite literally blocked the way in and out of the large transportation hub. For a while, the family of five (and one on the way) was trapped in “arrivals” near the insecure glass doors that opened out onto the street, where people ran in for shelter from gunfire popping in the distance. Security officers and airport employees had disappeared from the airport at the news of a coup, leaving travelers to fend for themselves, helping themselves to bottled water and café food. A Frenchman volunteered to watch the family’s luggage. After hiding in a stairwell during a bomb scare (in which travelers nervously opened an abandoned bag), the family settled into the men’s room.

Throughout the entire night, as deep booms rumbled in the distance and the kids snored peacefully on, while the safety of team members spread throughout Istanbul was unknown and the promise of a flight out was evaporating, one Turkish man stayed steadfastly with the family of five Americans (and one on the way). He had seen them and given his promise: “I am going to stay with you until you’re safe. I am not going to leave you.”

And he didn’t. The man they had never met before stayed by their side throughout the long night hours.

Finally, at 5:30 in the morning airport workers began to return. By 7:00 a.m. the thousands of protesters began to empty from the airport. Roads opened and taxis arrived.

It would be another three days spent in an Istanbul hotel before they finally were able to board a flight out of Turkey to London, and from there, home. A few days after touching down on American soil, they were scheduled to speak at a church about life as missionaries in the Middle East. By the grace of God, they kept their appointment. I was privileged to hear their first-hand account.

Life in the country where they serve (not Turkey) does not usually hold the kind of danger and suspense they faced in the Istanbul airport, despite what many Americans would picture when they hear “the Middle East.” Even so, when I asked the missionary from a denomination based in North America what I needed to scrub from a piece covering their work, I got a wry smile.

“Either our names, or everything else.”

So here’s the “everything else.”

For this American missionary family working in a Middle Eastern region, the biggest change of the past few years is the arrival of refugees from areas taken over by ISIS. In the area in which they serve, NGOs and organizations are arriving to offer services to refugees. New shortages have emerged with the arrival of refugees – gasoline, the electric grid, on various components of the infrastructure, there is new strain from the ballooning number of people.

The new dynamic has affected people and their openness to Christ: for the local nominal Muslims, the Islamic State is causing secular Muslims to want nothing to do with Islam.This has nothing to do with real Islam, they think; we’re peaceful, obviously: so this is politics. The changing dynamic has led to openness to thinking critically about the loosely-held religion that has shaped their lives.

“If this is Islam, I don’t want it – so what is true?” One local young man began privately following Christ because of videos he’d found on YouTube. People who have begun to follow Jesus privately through the internet then quietly find a church and receive a Bible.

Compared to their first five years of missionary service in the Middle East, this missionary couple has witnessed more people come to Christ in the last two years than in the first five. Many of the young people choosing to follow Jesus aren’t accepting the faith through intentional relationships but rather are, in the words of the North American, “random people God drops in our laps simply because we’re there.”

One Arabic young man from a refugee family chose the Christian faith and was beat up and abandoned when his family members found out. Because of the ISIS conflict in his home region, and because of the anger of his family, he was kept from being able to take qualifying exams for university. In a new place, where he didn’t speak the local language, having moved away from his home because of explosions and violence, he eventually moved in with a pastor’s family, desperate for a way forward.

Yet many of the new Christians don’t quickly trust each other. Even in a culture of nominal Islam, they are cautious who and when they tell about their Christian faith. As that trust builds, they share with their friends; discipleship grows. In the region, there are now two local pastors in area cities, house churches of around 20 people – enough of a seed to start to have a small Christian subculture.

In a few months, the American missionary family will return to their place of service in the Middle East (though they will probably avoid flying through Istanbul – just in case). The family of five will be a family of six by that point. They’ll be going back to uncertain gasoline supply, unreliable electricity, strained infrastructure – and friendships and relationships with new Christ followers.

The family of five (and one on the way) asks for two things: first, that Americans will keep praying that people in their region will continue to have dreams of Christ (this is a recurring theme among people who seek out a church). And second, that Americans will consider that there are openings for single or married, young or retired missionaries that have remained unfilled; even missionally-minded Christians aren’t leaping at the chance to serve in the Middle East, and so this missionary couple asks fellow Christians to be open to follow where God leads.

Even if the path goes through a men’s room in the Istanbul airport.