An outpouring of love | Short- and long-term earthquake relief initiatives in Turkey
By T.L & Jerry Mattix
Before dawn on February 6, 2023, a massive 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook southeastern Turkey and northern Syria, followed by another 7.4 magnitude quake just nine hours later. On February 20, two lesser but likewise devastating earthquakes hit the far southern tip of Turkey in the province of Hatay (home of ancient Antioch, also called Antakya today). These disasters severely affected an area that is about the size of the UK and home to at least 15 million people. By official counts, nearly 51,000 people died, and more than 100,000 were injured. The number of persons unaccounted for is many thousands more.
This report covers only work being done in Turkey, because of our ministries’ focus area and the limited communication with or access to northern Syria.
From the very first day, the relatively small Turkish church (less than 10,000 believers) has thrown all its resources and energy into relief efforts—an outpouring of love that has attracted the attention of the victims as well as government agencies. We rejoice to see how this effort has given a clear testimony to the Gospel and made the love of Christ felt far and wide.
Over the past months, we, as CMML workers in the region, have had the privilege of overseeing several projects funded by gifts believers have sent through CMML’s fund called Disaster Relief—Turkey.
Antakya Christian Church offers care
This small fellowship in Antioch started more than 20 years ago and has been a faithful public witness for Christ ever since. For many years, Antakya Christian Church met in an overcrowded, rented meeting hall, so the believers purchased a city lot and began constructing a new building in 2022. The 2023 earthquake ruined their old meeting place. However, the new construction project has been designed to withstand disasters and did not sustain any major damage. Praise the Lord!
Even in its half-finished form, the new building was useful as a depot for many of our relief efforts in the first months. Now, the remaining work has resumed with hopes of having the building at least partially functional by winter. The leaders of the church, Hamdullah and Elmas, chose to stay in the region and help coordinate the ongoing relief work. Each Sunday, they gather in the open air with many believers and visitors at their temporary ministry camp.
Because of our long-standing relationship with this church in Antioch, we have focused much of our effort in that region. From the outset, believers from Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey, came to offer aid and quickly set up a makeshift relief center in the church leaders’ broken-down home. Because of the wintry conditions, the need for basic food supplies, warm clothing, and shelter became a priority. Makeshift kitchens and a clothing distribution center were organized. Hundreds of large tents were purchased or custom-made and pitched for needy families all around the outlying areas of Antioch. Everywhere we went, people learned that evangelical believers in Turkey were providing this help. For many, it was their first interaction with Christians, and numerous recipients made it clear that we were the first or only ones to bring them relief.
Just over the northern mountain range in the city of İskenderun, also severely damaged by the earthquake, the Protestant churches of İstanbul set up a whole tent city with a capacity for more than 120 families. Currently, 20 people from that tent city are regularly attending local church meetings at the nearby fellowship, and three have professed faith. When followers of Christ selflessly serve the needy, people notice. And, before long, the nonverbal witness turns into an opportunity to share the hope within us.
Temporary shelters house the devastated
In the second phase of earthquake relief, providing durable, weather-resistant shelter is of utmost importance. In Antioch alone, a city of more than half a million people, up to 90 percent of the buildings will need to be leveled if they haven’t completely collapsed already. This means many years of rebuilding the decimated city. Many of those who initially fled the region have returned, looking for places to stay. As the heat of summer swelled, many who initially sheltered in tents realized that they needed more durable homes for the long haul.
Having foreseen this, we helped pioneer a tiny-home project. These wooden homes are sourced locally and built on-site with volunteer teams. Over the past eight months, we have erected more than 500 such homes with the help of many partners. Each home can be set up in three to five hours and costs roughly $2,500.
Recognizing the need for additional temporary homes, we approached a believer who runs a metal shop about building collapsible containers. Many container homes have been brought to the earthquake zone, but they must be transported on semitrucks and lifted with cranes. Instead, we produced a modular container home that can be transported in pieces on a pickup truck and then assembled quickly on-site. With funds from CMML, we ordered dozens of these, which have since been set up for needy families. We also bought a pickup truck for transporting materials and teams.
As we provide semipermanent shelter and a secure living space for desperate families, we also find opportunities to share the love of Christ. Over meals in orchards or makeshift tents and many cups of tea, we have heard all manner of harrowing stories about the earthquakes. Everyone lost loved ones, and those who could recover the bodies consider themselves fortunate. Their lives are marred forever. For many, the tiny house we build will be their only home for years to come. However, because they are still on their own land, they may continue working in their orchards and providing for their loved ones.
A strategy addresses today and tomorrow
At this time, the homes we have built may only be set up on property that an individual or family owns. However, scores of people lived in apartment buildings that the earthquake leveled. So we recently purchased a piece of land on the outskirts of one of Antakya’s hardest-hit areas. Incidentally, it is the same seaside town from where Paul and Barnabas set sail on their first missionary journey (Seleucia, Acts 13:4). The local municipality voiced an eagerness to help us implement this project by providing the infrastructure. Lord willing, by the time you read this article, we will have started building many of the 20 small homes we hope to provide on this land.
We have seen much interest in the Gospel from people in this community, and a small group has started meeting in a rental space. We trust that in the coming years, as many of the temporary residents move on to permanent homes, this property will be invaluable to the local church. We envision erecting a church building and even guest quarters so seminars and retreats can be hosted in this historic corner of Turkey.
In this same vein, we have helped believers in the city of Adiyaman, on the other end of the earthquake zone, purchase a small piece of land. Believers from Mardin, Yalova, and Antalya have been working together to offer relief to needy families in Adiyaman, and they have found many a kindred spirit. They plan to use this plot of land to continue their relief efforts and eventually establish a church with their many contacts.
Great challenges equal great opportunities
It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the devastation this earthquake brought. Eleven provinces with several major cities across the region were directly affected, displacing millions. This disaster coupled with the recent re-election of the same party that has governed Turkey for more than two decades and the plummeting Turkish lira give people little reason to be hopeful. The average family in Turkey survives on about $550–$750 per month. For those in the earthquake zone who have lost everything, this reality only adds insult to injury.
However, as is often the case, the Gospel of Christ can shine brightest in such dark times. Even as we mourn with those who have lost so much, we are glad for the opportunity to share God’s love in practical ways. We are also encouraged to see the fledgling Turkish church rise to this historic challenge. In a time when so many foreign Christian workers have been deported from the country, it is truly inspiring to see local believers lead the way in this relief effort. Of course, by now, many of those who have been working tirelessly are nearing exhaustion. They need continual encouragement and support from their fellow believers abroad.
We want to take this opportunity to thank the many who have expressed loving support for us and the work we are doing in Turkey. We are also grateful to witness the amazing financial contributions that make it possible for us to support the local churches in their efforts.
Finally, we urge you to keep the people in Turkey and Syria in your prayers. As is the case in most crises, after the initial outpouring of support, people in need are often forgotten and left to fend for themselves. We hope that the long-term initiatives we have started will come to fruition as will the many seeds of the Gospel planted in people’s hearts. So keep praying toward this end—that the name of Jesus will be made famous again in this historic land.
T. L. is commended from Stevensville Bible Chapel in Stevensville, Montana.
Jerry Mattix is commended from Tieton Drive Bible Chapel in Yakima, Washington.
Originally published in Missions magazine, November 2023. For more content, sign up for a free subscription (US) to Missions at CMML.us/magazine/subscribe.