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Alison Stendahl shares power of presence

Mission partner lends insights on Turkey, Islam

Alison Stendahl, who is retiring after 34 years as a missionary in education with the Near East Mission in Istanbul, Turkey, is sharing with area churches about history of the Middle East, religion and missions there, and current issues.

alison stendahl
Alison Stendahl met with Westminster, Chewelah, Colville and Veradale UCC churches at N-Sid-Sen.

Coming from Minnesota, she taught math a year in Zillah, Wash., four years in Tonasket and two years in Seattle before University Congregational UCC in Seattle commissioned her to go to Turkey.  She served with the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ Global Ministries.

She taught math from 1980 to 1985 at the Izmir American Collegiate Institute in Istanbul. Then she transferred to Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul to teach math.  She also was academic dean and head of the math department from 1985 to 1989 and from 1991 to 2014.  From 1996 to 2001, she helped develop a church history program at Bithynia Bible College. 

Interfaith dialogue was always important to her. 

“I learned from Muslims, Christians and Jews,” she said.

Alison said her ministry was one of presence and relationships.  One thing she learned from the Turks was to take time to be with people.

In relating with people, she did not seek to convert them, but to be present with them and share a common understanding of God as God speaks to them. She helped represent the UCC on the Near East School of Theology Board in Beirut.

“Anatolian history goes back thousands of years. Civilization upon civilization moved across the land,” Alison said. “Romans filled the region with pillars, temples and sculptures.  Names of Anatolian cities are in the Old and New Testaments.”

Christianity began to spread rapidly in the 300s after the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire stopped.  They replaced worship practices that had been in place until Constantine made the religion official, she said.

The Roman Empire split between West and East, with the East surviving as the Byzantine Empire until 1453.  Christian patriarchates in Constantine and Rome became predominant as Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were engulfed after the spread of Islam in the 7th century, she said. 

The Byzantine Empire fell when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.  The city was renamed Istanbul. 

The Ottoman Empire ruled for 600 years until 1914, at its maximum, controlled Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Caucuses.

“As that empire grew, bringing Islam to many, churches continued.  The empire became complacent and corrupt and fell,” Alison said.

In 1820, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) sent two missionaries, who had no success converting Jewish and Muslim people in Smyrna, a cosmopolitan port.  They talked theology with Armenian Orthodox Christians, who liked their theological ideas and became Protestant, Alison said.

“In addition to new churches being formed, they wanted education and health care, so there were opportunities for women missionaries,” she said.

Presbyterians split from the ABCFM in 1870 to work with the Arabic-speaking population. In 1914, the 24 Congregational mission stations had 209 missionaries, more than 400 schools and 1,299 staff members, comprising one-fourth of the American Board budget.

“World War I was pivotal in shaping politics of the Middle East.  Turkey had aligned with Germany, which was defeated.  The Ottoman, Austrian-Hungarian and Russian Empires fell,” she summarized.

“In 1915, Armenians were murdered or deported to deserts of Northern Syria, in what is termed the Armenian Genocide.  Turkey still has not acknowledged it was a genocide.  More than 1 million Armenians lost their lives,” she said.

Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, Alison said, Turkey drove out the English, French and Greeks. It established a secular democracy in 1923.  Bordering Turkey are Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia.

The American Board closed most of its institutions,  but continued to run a few under new secular guidelines.  Institutions founded by missionaries in the 19th century continue to operate today under the Health and Education Foundation (SEV), a foundation made up of graduates of American Board schools.

“Graduates of our schools have made a major impact in the society,” she said.  In the 1990s, SEV took over financial responsibility for three schools, a hospital and a the publishing company.

When Alison came, she was one of more than 30 missionaries paid by the church.  When she left in July, she was the last one. 

“We grew in partnership with the Turks and established a more equal basis for trust and respect,” she said. “SEV upgraded facilities and established strong academic programs to build leaders. Uskudar  and SEV continue to be Global Ministries partners.”

Through SEV, school facilities were upgraded as academic programs in the three remaining schools became stronger.   

Showing a photo of her last class, Alison said, “All are Muslim, but they ask the same questions about their futures as kids here.  They have high academic standards and do social service.  The American Board’s spirit lives on in the schools, even without missionaries.”

Turkey’s major problems include refugees, borders with Syria and Iraq, Kurds and other minorities, territorial claims of Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, women’s issues and freedom of the press.

Alison said Istanbul has a migrant problem because it is seen as the gateway to Europe, which many consider the promised land.  Many of  more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are in Istanbul.  Some have apartments. Others sleep on the streets.  In the Southeast, they live in refugee camps or cities.

Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant pastors formed the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program 20 years ago.  Turkey’s 100,000 Christians need ecumenical ties, she said. 

In 2002, Turkey elected a moderate Islamic party that changed the government from elite secularists, whose rule marginalized religions, including Islam.  Turkey is 99 percent Muslim.  The economy has grown since 1980, when the average income was $400 a year.  Now it’s $15,000.

Big on capitalism, Turks built thousands of shopping centers.  In 2013, massive demonstrations erupted over demolishing a park to build another shopping center.  Turkish news ran a documentary on penguins while there was violence in Istanbul. 

Journalists were imprisoned.  Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 154 of 163 countries in press freedom. 

The population has exploded from 60 to 80 million with 17.3 percent unemployed. 

“Women are still subjected to honor killings and abuse in their homes, and suffer underemployment.  In Istanbul, a girl who is covered can be seen walking arm-in-arm with a girl who is not covered, which is encouraging,” Alison said.

“Many tenets of Islam are about professing peace, reconciliation and forgiveness.  Christians, Muslims and Jews pray together and talk about God easily. It spreads into hospitality and a ministry of presence,” said Alison.  “My experience of Islam is Middle Eastern hospitality.”

Alison works with Global Ministries until the end of February.  Now there are 30 paid missionaries.  Some are paid by institutions in their countries.  The problem is our economy and diminishing funds in the UCC and DOC.

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Copyright October 2014 © Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


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