The Past 50 Years of Mission in Turkey

The Past 50 Years of Mission in Turkey

The United Church of Christ is turning 50 years old!  From Nov 5 2006, through Nov 1 2007, the entire denomination will be celebrating.  A part of the celebration includes learning about the past 50 years of our mission work and how it informs what we are doing in mission today.
Ken & Betty Frank – Turkey

The United Church of Christ is turning 50 years old!  From Nov 5 2006, through Nov 1 2007, the entire denomination will be celebrating.  A part of the celebration includes learning about the past 50 years of our mission work and how it informs what we are doing in mission today.

The story we describe here is one of substantial change, change that mirrors post-World War 2 transformations in society and politics in the United States. But throughout the shifting of contexts both in the US and Turkey, those involved in international mission in the United Church of Christ always have sought to discern by faith where and how God is at work, to align themselves with what they understand of God’s purpose for the world, and to act with integrity.

The formation of the new United Church of Christ denomination in 1957 was accompanied by a merger of the international mission bodies associated with the Congregational Christian Church (the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, ABCFM) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (The Board of International Missions). The new mission instrumentality of the UCC was named the United Church Board for World Ministries. This is the body that inherited the ongoing ABCFM work in Turkey.

The United States emerged from World War 2 having learned several lessons about international politics and conflict. It was also able and eager to take world leadership for shaping the future. One of the major ideas up for implementation was decolonization, also known as the self-determination of peoples. The weakened European empires joined with the US in the establishment of the United Nations, which was built in some sense on the rationale that World War 2 was fought to free people from tyranny. Decolonization brought a dramatic increase in independent nations: the 51 founding countries in 1945 more than doubled in number by 1965. The ideal was that people run their own societies, determine their own futures, and not be dictated to by others but act on the international stage in partnership and cooperation.

This ideal was reflected in UCBWM policies of the 1960s and onward. Mission schools, hospitals, and institutions in various countries, where missionaries had been in charge and had privileged status, were given to local authorities to manage. Our first assignment with the UCBWM in 1969 was to Zambia, where we taught in schools operated by the United Church of Zambia, at the request of those church authorities. Zambia had been the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. It became independent in 1964. The British and other European Protestant missionaries pooled their assets in Zambia, gathered the Zambian leaders they had been training, celebrated the subsequent birth of the United Church of Zambia, and withdrew. We were assigned to schools that until shortly before our arrival had been run by British Methodists but were now in Zambian church hands.

A similar path of devolution could not be followed in Turkey. For one thing, Turkey had never been a colony. For another thing, missionaries of the UCBWM in Turkey were managing schools, clinics, a hospital, and a publishing press, but there was no post-World War 2 corresponding church leadership to take over these institutions. Conditions in the Republic of Turkey required these institutions to serve on a non-sectarian and secular basis. But there was a group in Turkey that the UCBWM saw as the logical future generation of local leadership: namely, the graduates of the UCBWM missionary schools. The overwhelming majority of these people were Muslims. And it was precisely this group that UCBWM missionaries had been educating all along for responsible citizenship, service, and leadership, both nationally and internationally.

As a result of a policy of attrition, UCBWM missionaries in Turkey gradually decreased in number, and local leadership correspondingly increased. By the late 1970s, the one remaining hospital in Gaziantep no longer had a foreign doctor. When we were first assigned to Turkey in 1982, there were about 40 of us fully-salaried UCBWM missionaries in that country. Today there are three.

The 1960s also saw significant changes in political currents in Turkey. New nationalist legislation required that property in Turkey be held only by Turkish citizens. Therefore in 1968 a small group of UCBWM personnel and graduates of the Board Schools formed the Health and Education Foundation (Saglik ve Egitim Vakfi, SEV). All school properties, and that of the Gaziantep hospital, were transferred to the SEV umbrella for protection.

Meanwhile, academic expectations and standards at the remaining UCBWM schools in Turkey continued to increase. By the end of the 1970s, almost every student hoped to go on to university work, either in Turkey or abroad. The schools responded with increasing levels of professionalism in education, governance, and administration. They sought the best educators in North America to serve as contract teachers alongside missionary teachers and administrators, and local Turkish teachers. All of this required greater financing. But the financial and personnel base of the UCBWM was in decline. Local leadership development became essential.

In the 1990s, all remaining UCBWM property, business, assets, and management functions of the institutions were handed over to SEV. During the same decade there was a further reorganization of the parent mission organization in the US when the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) formally established Global Ministries, a joint international mission program. (The UCBWM dissolved as an independent legal body in 2000 and reformed as Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ.) Today Global Ministries follows SEV’s lead in deciding what can by done by its personnel in Turkey. Global Ministries as of this writing funds three persons in Turkey: two in central administration, and one in the schools. The Gaziantep American Hospital and the SEV Printing, Publishing and Educational Trading Company are now enterprises completely owned, managed, and directed by SEV. SEV works in its own headquarters, separate from the traditional missionaries’ central office in Istanbul.

SEV has been founding its own schools in its own name. It also maintains endowments for the historical UCBWM schools and works for their growth and development. Today SEV is vibrant, strong, financially sound, and proudly expanding its educational heritage in its own directions well into the 21st century.

How does this history inform a sense of mission today in the UCC-Global Ministries?

On the one hand the transformations seen in the last 50 years of mission in Turkey affirm a positive view of humanity as God’s creation: there has been a growing confidence in self-determination, in the ability of people to improve themselves, and in the good that can result from collegiality, equality, and partnership between people of different faith and cultural backgrounds. It looks on human culture as an arena for God to work and to show humanity what can be accomplished for the well-being of society through creative service.

Our Global Ministries colleague, Alison Stendahl, puts it this way: “This is a Ministry of Presence… I have walked with fellow Muslim, Jewish and Christian educators, students and parents through traumatic days and joyful days…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… 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.”

On the other hand, the changes in mission of the last 50 years as described above show how to make a virtue of necessity. The UCC has had to scale back its international ministries because of a shrinking financial base. If present trends continue, there will not be a further UCC-Global Ministries presence in Turkey, other than that of memory and legacy.

The contemporary UCC-Global Ministries presence in Turkey of Christian-Muslim-Jewish cooperation is a counter-example to much of the negativity attached to the so-called “clash of civilizations.” It teaches us and the coming generations what is possible. It shows that on a non-sectarian, secular platform, people of goodwill and different religious backgrounds can work together and encourage each other with the highest ideals of their respective traditions. It’s an illustration for congregations in the US as they wrestle with religious plurality in their own society. It can also be used by Turks to differentiate between Christian attitudes and not lump them all together. Finally, it shows the fruit of long-term involvement based on mutual trust.

This kind of interfaith cooperation could not have happened without the extended history of UCC-Global Ministries involvement in Turkey. But current trends in mission policy that we see in the Global Ministries programs seem oriented toward short term engagements such as volunteer programs, Global Mission internships, People-to-People visits, and so on. These developments apparently parallel those in the US work culture where people do not expect to be allied with one employer, or even one career, in a lifetime, and where collecting a diversity of experiences is important to one’s CV. Based as it has been on long-term involvement of mission personnel, the example of UCC-Global Ministries work in Turkey described above probably cannot be easily replicated. We now have to be open to models of interfaith cooperation that will result from the more short-term engagements of the current era.

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey. They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board. They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).