OUTLOOK - It will be a unique celebration of Christmas for a local couple who are working on language and cultural learning since making their home in the Republic of Turkey.
Wendell and Maureen lived in the village of Glenside for the past six years and have roots that run deep in the area. Wendell’s great grandfather homesteaded two miles south of Glenside on land his father later purchased from his grandmother Annie and farmed part time until the late 1990’s. That land is still in the family name.
Wendell said they made good friends in Glenside but were excited about an opportunity to head to the Middle East and continue the type of work they have done in the past. “The idea of a move internationally is not new to us,” Wendell remarked, “as we have been involved in overseas short-term work for more than three decades.”
Their group of churches has a team in the Middle East that was in need of a team leader and they were approached. “Due to our history and passion for this part of the world, we were asked to consider this opportunity,” Wendell explained.
The Republic of Turkey has a population of 85 million and occupies a unique geographic position situated partly in Asia and partly in Europe. It is bordered by Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
The couple arrived in September and are living in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city at 18 million people, which Wendell says has been “a large contrast from village life in Glenside.”
Istanbul spreads across both the European and Asian sides of the Bosporus strait. Wendell and Maureen live in an apartment on the Asian side, directly beside the biggest mosque in Turkey.
Istanbul has been connected to significant political, religious and artistic history for more than 2,000 years. Its skyline, built up over many centuries, boasts architecture that is recognized worldwide.
For their first two years the couple will focus on language and culture. “We bus one hour to our Turkish classes three days a week,” Wendell explained, “and at least one hour return trip. We are quite thrilled when we are able to find a seat on the bus, but standing up and holding on has been one of those cultural experiences.”
They are discovering just how different life can be. “Just the simple task of grocery shopping or buying a light bulb can be quite the learning adventure and a time consuming one also,” he said.
But other differences have more serious ramifications, including the political situation as the country prepares for national elections in June 2023. Recently, a bomb was detonated by a woman on Istikal Avenue in a popular neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul, tragically killing six and injuring 81. Included in the six who died were mothers, fathers and children aged nine and 15. “No group claimed responsibility,” Wendell said, “but Turkey has pursued a group in Syria and arrests were also made in Bulgaria. A Turkish man told us that in the past, these situations have happened often and go hand in hand with elections.”
More than 90% of the population is Muslim, with small Jewish and Christian groups. There is no restriction on worship. “Christian churches are few and small in number,” Wendell explained, “but are registered legally with the government.”
Living in another country at Christmas means being separated from family and familiar holiday traditions, but Wendell and Maureen see an opportunity to discover new customs, even as they continue to uphold what is meaningful for them.
A new tradition is shopping on Christmas Day. “In a Muslim country, Christmas is not a holiday and is like every other day. It’s business as usual. School as usual,” he said. There is, however, a commercial Christmas, meaning “stores decorate and sell what we would call Christmas related decorations.” He said this gives them a good opportunity to talk about Christmas. “There is an interest in what Christians do and believe about the season and the team often share their story with their Turkish friends.”
The couple will be focused on those around them and what the season means. “We will miss celebrating with our children, friends and family,” Wendell shared. “However, we have a team here who are like family. Together we will focus on the reason for the season, Jesus Christ, and what God has provided for us in this country.”