“….let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:28,29
August 17, 1999
Ken and I have flown to the cultural capital of Turkey, Istanbul, to attend a conference. From time to time we would gather with other Christians from various nations to spend time in corporate worship, prayer and reflection. I so looked forward to these special events. Invariably I came away from such times with renewed faith and determination. I often still need to be reminded that God called me to advocate for the abandoned and disabled, and it is at these types of conferences that I often hear something which helps me make new steps forward in this work.
Istanbul is one of the most magnificent cities in the world. Set at the mouth of the narrow waterway connecting the Marmara Sea and the larger Black Sea, its rich history and cultures make it such a primary world-class travel destination. Ruins, museums, and monuments abound giving testimony to its resilience and variety.
Modern-day Istanbul, crowded, polluted, and chaotic as it is with its population of nearly 15 million, still holds a fascination for me and every time I visit, I can’t wait to get down to the waterfront to watch the ferries and massive cargo ships vie for right of way on the Bosporus straits dividing the city between Asia and Europe.
Tourists love this place. The places-to-visit list is endless with ancient churches, mosques, and palaces open to the public and the crowds of tour guides who stand hawking their linguistic expertise and historical knowledge at the gates of each site.
The week before we had hosted special educator friends from Los Angeles in Ankara where they served with us out at the orphanage. When Paula, Carol and Doris booked their flights, I suggested they take a few days before leaving to see the sites of old Istanbul. They’d arrived in town and were staying at a small hotel situated a short walk from one of the most visited museum squares in the old city, Sultan Ahmet Square.
Not going as tourists, we looked for less expensive housing and were thankful when friends of our arranged for us to stay and house-sit an apartment– the home of friends of theirs.
Ko and Jan-suk met us at the door of the building with the keys and led us up the five flights of narrow stairs into a nicely furnished place. They showed us where to put our backpacks, the note from the owner regarding water, phone line and power, and after settling in, we prepared to leave to find a restaurant near-by in the city center.
Before we walked out though, I was struck by the presence of a large display in the corner of the living room.
Staring at me like a life-sized effigy of Darth Vader, a complete display of Korean martial arts armor sat in the corner. The helmet, body armor, shield gauntlets and weapons gleamed menacingly in black.. When I asked about them, Ko explained that his friends are martial arts experts and as such, wanted to share their passion with neighbors and friends who might not understand what this sport is all about.
“It’s an easy way to engage people in conversation here. Turks love taekwondo and judo.”
I had no such interest; in fact, I found the display a bit off-putting but was willing to regard the home-owners’ decorating choice as a tribute to cross-cultural preference, “Different strokes for different folks, but what would some of my interior decorator friends think, “ I chuckled to myself.
It was extremely hot and unbearably humid that evening. After a late supper, we decided to get to sleep and wake up early to get to the pre-conference prayer session. But getting to sleep was a challenge. Still restless, I got up at about 2 a.m., got a drink of water, and migrated with a sheet out to the living room. Maybe it was the closeness of the small bedroom, a foreign pillow, sounds from the open windows—I don’t know—which were keeping me from sleeping deeply. In any case, I felt a bit less uncomfortable as I stretched out on the sofa.
The next thing I knew the entire building was shaking and swaying. I fell off the sofa. Climbing onto my knees I shouted , “Dear Lord Jesus, keep this building up! Keep this building up!” The swaying, shuddering and shaking went on and on. I could hear the sound of glass breaking, and screaming through the open windows. The apartment building was in a densely built up area of the city so your neighbors were less than twenty feet away.
As Ken stumbled into the room from the bedroom, the power was cut. Out of this darkness, we heard another large “Boom!”. Just missing the glass coffee table, “Darth Vader” had crashed, helmet and weapons scattering over the tiled floor.
We uttered a short prayer of thanksgiving and decided we needed to leave the building as quickly as possible should an aftershock do more damage. I was starting to shake but Ken, amazingly calm in this emergency, told me to get my shoes on and get out. Realizing we might need water, he put his shoes on—better to avoid getting cut by broken glass—and walked into the kitchen to get a bottle of water.
I was charged with getting the keys and getting out. But neither of us could remember where we put the keys. We must not leave the place unlocked—looters were always out and about after an earthquake, so we needed the keys. Ken handed me his cell phone and with the little green light from that I started looking around the flat, finally finding the set of keys in the bed(!). We rushed out the door together.
Everyone else in the building has already evacuated, it appeared. We walked down the narrow stairwell in the pitch black, again using the cell phone light to help and reached the front door.
“Oh no, oh no,” I started to panic. “The latch lock on the front door is jammed. When the power is cut, the lock stays locked!” I then began imagining the entire building coming crashing down on us as we stood there so close to freedom.
Ken reached over to the handle and wrenched the electrically operated lock open with a “bang.” We scrambled outside to the parking lot behind the building where everyone in the neighborhood had gathered. Except for a few children calling out to their friends, everyone was silent. It was very eerie.
We began walking to the seaside where the hotel for the conference was. Except for a few broken cement blocks here and there we saw no major damage, but the question foremost in our minds was “Where was the epicenter? That was one long quake—we figured it shook for more than 45 seconds. Somewhere damage had happened. Where? How much? Have people died, buildings collapsed?”
Both of us realized that we needed to phone family.
“I felt it too, Mom. That’s why I’m up,” Katrina, back in Ankara was fine. “Michael slept through it though. People are outside on the street right now. What should we do? Oh wait, the neighbors are at the door shouting for us to leave the building.” She hung up, then phoned us again
After re-assuring her that we were o.k. we told her to listen to the others in the neighborhood and that we’d get in touch with her as soon as we were settled at the hotel.
We phoned my mom in Los Angeles. “We’re o.k. You are going to hear about an earthquake in Turkey that just happened, but don’t worry, we’re all o.k.” Just as my startled mother began to ask to ask more questions, the connection broke. The whole system went down, jammed as thousands try to contact loved ones.
We decided to walk the mile and a half down to the hotel where the conference was scheduled to take place. Hundreds of people are out on the streets, many wandering around in their pajamas. We stopped to listen in with a group of about fifteen people crowded around a car. The radio news let us all know. “An earthquake of 7.4 magnitude has hit the Marmara region of Turkey. One building is reported collapsed with thirty casualties.”
“Wow,” I thought. “Only one building and thirty casualties? That’s bad but at least it’s not as bad as it could have been. It sure felt worse than that.”
August 17, 1999
Aftershocks waken us just as the sun begins to rise. The front desk is crowded with people, conference attendees from other countries in the region. We listen as they tell of just arriving at the Ataturk International Airport at 3a.m. only to be rocked nearly off their feet.
I am beginning to feel very disjointed at that moment. People are coming into the hotel excited about the upcoming gathering; I am being summoned to meetings where those of us who are musicians will practice together to prepare for the event. We will be leading the group of nearly 500 people in singing and exuberant worship. Most of these people are not from Turkey nor are they aware of the national crisis which is unfolding.
Just across the room from the main desk is a large-screen television. The local stations have suspended all regular programming and every network is showing footage of row after room of collapsed apartment buildings. The news broadcasters are trying hard not to cry on screen, and the toll of suspected dead reaches into the thousands before the morning is over.
The hotel employees manning the reception were working with the new guests coming in to the conference. They tried hard to understand the questions posed in English while answering in Turkish. Ken and I managed to get the attention of the man and woman in charge of distributing hotel room keys. They looked ready to collapse.
In Turkish I offered my condolences for what had happened to his people and land this night; then we asked him if he was affected.
“Oh Ma’am, I’m so upset and don’t know what to do. Actually there is nothing I can do. I was on night duty here last night, but I’m from a section of town that was completely destroyed. I can’t get through to my family. I have no idea if they were crushed or survived or what.” And he started to cry.
“My friend,” Ken grabbed his hand and I took his other one. “Almighty God is great and powerful and listens when we pray. May we pray for you and your loved ones?”
He nodded and closed his eyes. “Lord, Creator of Heaven and earth, you know where this man’s family is right now. You know how his heart aches and what fears he carries there. We ask you, in Jesus’ Name, to especially protect them wherever they are and to help him have peace and be re-united with them soon. Amen”
In typical Turkish fashion, he wiped his face with both hands to indicate that he was in agreement with this prayer and then looked at us, calm having returned. “Thank you, thank you” he continued, “You have no idea how I needed that just now. I feel something strange now, a peace about this. Thank you.”
He excused himself to get back to serving the in- coming guests.
Later in the morning, while we sat on the patio as part of the welcoming group for other new arrivals, another employee, this time a young waitress came up to serve us some tea. As she set down our glasses she blurted, “I know about you. You prayed for Yahya and his family. Please, will you pray for me and mine? I, too, am separated from them, and there is no way I can get the twenty miles I need to go to get re-united with them. I don’t know their state. I can’t stand it…” and she began shaking before bursting into tears.
As we prayed for her, she, too, welcomed the peace and sense of God’s presence at that moment. We looked up to find more of the staff of the hotel wanting to be prayed for. We knew of one other couple there who spoke the language, called them over and before long the tea tables had become little prayer cells.
The organizers of the gathering decided not to cancel the event but rather to make it a time where all those gathered could intercede in prayer and tears for the traumatized nation.
I have no idea just what the long-term effect of these prayers is going to be, but I sensed strongly that it was God’s plan for us to be here at this time in history.
My California friends joined us that afternoon to tell us how the LORD had used them in their hotel. No strangers to earthquakes, they remained fairly cool and collected when the hotel owner of the place they were staying at came banging on everyone’s doors telling them to evacuate immediately.
“The Lord is our shelter and refuge,” Carol had told him. “Do not fear. We will be fine and so will you.”
“Inshallah” he replied then later as they all sat on the curb outside in the dark facing Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, he scooted over to sit next to her.
“How can you be so confident that God is with you?” he asked sincerely. She was able to give him a reason for “the hope that was in her: Jesus, the same, yesterday, today and forever.