What Do We Do?
Joint General Secretary of the American Board in Turkey,
As Joint General Secretary of the American Board in Turkey, what exactly do we do? Ours is a unique job that takes some explaining. Basically we represent in Turkey the members of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), through their Common Global Ministries Board (CGMB).
The American Board has handed over the property and the management of its historical institutions in Turkey – three high schools, one hospital, and one publications house – to the Health and Education Foundation, a philanthropic organization. Many of the Health and Education Foundation people are graduates of American Board schools. We continue our interest in these institutions by encouraging their positive development, following their operations, and assisting their directors as we can.
We visit the institutions regularly and so frequently travel to Tarsus, Izmir and Gaziantep. Ken is knowledgeable about encouraging the school directors since he did the job himself for two years. He participates in committees that work on statements of mission and goals so that the schools can be accredited. Betty also visits the school libraries. She has much expertise in school library systems in Turkey and assists the library personnel in Izmir, Uskudar, and Tarsus, especially in automation issues, cataloging, and book ordering.
A great joy in this kind of work is meeting and collaborating with the graduates of our schools. For example, one of our graduates works in the Turkish version of Habitat for Humanity. Another is a community development worker in a small town that was badly affected by the 1999 earthquakes. In one program that she supervises women decorate head scarves with traditional embroidery or tatting. We enable visitors and any interested persons to donate to the women’s community center in exchange for the scarves.
Another part of our work is ecumenical, with local church leaders. For instance, Betty meets with women from the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church to stage the World Day of Prayer service in Istanbul each year.
As another example, we are secretary and treasurer on the Board of Directors of the ecumenical project called the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP). Here different churches have joined together to provide services to the most vulnerable of the migrants and refugees who are stranded in Istanbul. Betty works one day a week in a “Moms and Tots” program where women migrants and refugees with their children are able to see a doctor, get simple medicines, some milk, and have a hot lunch. Betty teaches the preschool children the English alphabet, songs, finger plays, and so on, and urges them to spend what money they have on healthy food like fruit. Through IIMP we provide many migrants and refugees with food coupons, medical assistance, clothing, hot meals, and self-help funds, and we offer to repatriate people.
Another one of our jobs is to receive visitors, usually church-related people. With single visitors we sometimes just have lunch and a chat about our work. But sometimes we take many months to plan visits, as we did for a group of 18 students and professors from Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. These church-related groups want to do more than visit tourist sites. We put them in touch with people of different religious, ethnic, and political points of view in Turkey. This is fun! It fulfills one of our major goals — to fight Turcophobia and Islamophobia, meaning fear of Turks and fear of Islam.
We also manage our American Board office in old Istanbul with its library, archives, and staff. Betty enjoys classifying the books by and about the American Board and its missionaries. We also supervise short-term volunteers. We have one volunteer from Massachusetts now working on indices to our archival documents. Another volunteer worked with migrants and refugees this past summer and created a photographic exhibit on their lives in Istanbul.
We would like to engage in more inter-religious dialogue with those who are steeped in the traditions, but one has to find people interested in this. Establishing these friendships of dialogue at the level of faith and spirituality is very difficult to do in the current political climate, but when it happens it can be a “mountain top” experience. We were able to develop this trust during the many years we lived in Izmir. It takes a long time, and it’s an adventure we have now begun in Istanbul.
We feel fortunate to be able to do our kind of work, which involves writing about it, as in the letter you are now reading. Our Common Global Ministries Board is always hungry for stories about what we do so that members of our churches can better understand how their denominational support monies are spent.
In summary, we can say that what we do follows the paths of our predecessors, both Turkish and American, both Christian and Muslim and also Jewish, both secular and religious, who found ways of supporting and inspiring each other and building long-lasting institutions in education, health, and publishing to benefit the people of Turkey. This example of harmonious and peaceful work is a source of light in a world that sees differences in cultures, civilizations, and religions as nothing but sources of conflict. But we see these differences as God’s enriching gift.
Ken & Betty Frank