American Board schools in Turkey

When missionaries of the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) came to Turkey in the 1830’s they came with the Gospel and with backgrounds firmly grounded in the importance of education and health. They worked with the indigenous Christian communities who highly valued education and health care facilities and over a hundred schools, clinics and hospitals were started throughout the Ottoman Empire.

When missionaries of the ABCFM (American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions) came to Turkey in the 1830’s they came with the Gospel and with backgrounds firmly grounded in the importance of education and health. They worked with the indigenous Christian communities who highly valued education and health care facilities and over a hundred schools, clinics and hospitals were started throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The demise of the centuries old Ottoman Empire resulted in a tremendous amount of bloodshed and death. The Christian communities suffered huge losses of population and the work of the American Board had to redefine its work in the newly formed Republic of Turkey, which rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. The remaining institutions of what was called the American Board were given the ultimatum that if they wished to continue to function in Turkey they must open their doors to all, they must be secular institutions and they must obey the laws of the Republic of Turkey. Many missionaries left unable to adjust to the new circumstances. Worldwide economic depression further diminished the still functioning institutions. Schools survived for awhile in Marsovan, Bursa, Talas, Tarsus, Izmir and Istanbul though due to worsening economic conditions, by the 1970’s only a boys’ school in Tarsus and two girls’ schools in Izmir and Uskudar (Istanbul) survived. This is the brief story of what has become known in Turkey as the American Board Schools.

In August of 1980 I arrived in Istanbul for orientation and language instruction and was introduced to the heritage of the work of the American Board in Turkey. For over 100 years our schools have been graduating students who went on to make a difference in society. I ran across graduates in many walks of life who would tell stories about their teachers who so much impacted the direction of their lives. In 1980 all three schools were full of teachers connected with the UCBWM working to carry on the legacy of their predecessors. In 2006 I am the only salaried person left in any of the schools who works with what is now called Global Ministries.

The schools have redefined themselves several times over the past two decades as they have now all become co-ed, now financially support themselves, have professional educators contracted directly by the school, have adjusted to the loss of their middle schools and are now managed by the Health and Education Foundation (SEV). The heritage of our predecessors lives on in the hearts of the graduates who still wish for the best for their schools. Their loyalty is incredible and touching.

I know that the presence of three salaried American Board personnel is important to our graduates and colleagues. We provide a link to the importance of the past and the continued commitment of the church, but what of the present and future? I am one person in three schools. Ken and Betty Frank work with the SEV leadership among their other activities. How will the changing circumstances change our legacy, our impact, our mission? Once again mission in Turkey is going through redefinition. I firmly believe that God wants me here and I firmly believe that the church needs me here but why? This is a Ministry of Presence.

I am an administrator and an educator. I work in a society that is so rapidly changing it can be very disorienting. I truly believe there is no more urgent time to be working with youth than now. In the past five years we have experienced 3 suicides. The population I am working with has high expectations and extreme pressures. I have walked with fellow Muslim, Jewish and Christian educators, students and parents through traumatic days and joyful days. I continually meet parents who map out their child’s life before the child is even born. I work with our department heads and faculty in terms of developing the best academic program possible to allow our students to find themselves and their interests. I believe in self dignity and the worth of every individual. I am a person of faith surrounded by saints of a variety of faith traditions. We share spiritually and with love and acceptance. Schools are vast communities of students, teachers, parents, alumnae, office personnel and staff, administrators, guidance counselors, librarians, kitchen staff, cleaning personnel, security guards, buildings and grounds maintenance personnel, gardeners and drivers. I am one person in this community but I believe that my presence on behalf of those in the churches in the USA is valued and felt.

I truly want the missionary legacy in our schools to live on to create and sustain institutions that value members of the community, that show love and respect to one another and self, that take the time to seek after the welfare of another from all parts of society, that encourage curiosity and creativity, that lead each and every member of the community to the potential that lies within to make a difference in life no matter how small.

The days are gone of the impact of the missionary teachers on the students per se. We have excellent teachers today from a variety of backgrounds who are doing this. But the day is just dawning where we are creating a spirit and tradition within the institution itself. The school is defining itself as being a specific type of school representing certain values and traditions. Social service is still valued as well as academics and co-curricular activities. The story of our schools will be remembered if just a few people continually retell the story and believe in it. Yeast is effective and does not require much to have an impact on the loaf, but some yeast is necessary. My presence does make a difference for helping to establish the climate within the institution. This climate impacts each and every person within the community. It is truly now an interfaith endeavor to run the race together unified and with perseverance focusing on the type of school community we wish to be. We still have some pretty amazing students who feel the impact of the school on the direction of their lives. It is too early to see where this new generation of graduates will end up but the early indicators show that we should continue to have hope and faith in what our missionary legacy has taught us.

Shalom,

Alison Stendahl

Alison Stendahl serves as a missionary with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.