Failed Missionary

“WHY did you choose Turkey? I get asked that question a lot, after my effsive recitation of the highlights of eight years I spent living and working there.

I hesitate. Do they really want to know? Or, more to the point, do I really want to tell them? Should I get into the missionary stuff? Pm embarrassed to admit it, but the reason I went to Turkey was to evangelize Muslims – “unreached peoples,” in missionary lingo. I had done a stint in Pakistan and was uncomfortable with the restrictions imposed by a strict Islamic state. Turkey was more modern, easier; you didn’t have to wear a head covering and could move about quite freely as a single woman. But I would still be bringing the message of salvation to the group of people that, at least in the eyes of my mission superiors, needed it the most.

Because proselytizing in Turkey was illegal, I had to come up with some other convincing story for why I had left a lucrative nursing career in the States. “To learn Turkish,” I insisted brightly to anyone who asked, misinterpreting their polite silence and subsequent “don’t ask, don tell” indulgence of me as acquiescent acceptance of my ruse. As it turned out, my long denim jumpers and conservative lifestyle marked me as a religious worker anyway. The only one I was really fooling was myself.

Living with a Turkish family was encouraged by my mission organization as an excellent way to learn the culture along with the language. After securing a spot in a Turkish language school, I turned to my church colleagues for advice on finding a suitable family. Katie, a missionary veteran, was quick to oblige. “Mustafa amca and Gülsüm teyze, they’re the sweetest couple,” gushed Katie, using the Turkish honorifics for aunt and uncle out of respect for their age. “Their son is getting married and they want to rent out a room for extra cash. It’d be a perfect place for you.”

Katie arranged to accompany me and the mission director’s wife to the family’s four-story concrete walkup apartment, minutes from Istanbul’s bustling city center of Taksim. We were met at the door by Gülsüm teyze, smooth-faced, gracious, headscarf tied neatly under her chin. Mustafa amca, right behind her, was tanned and handsome, with a striking white mustache. They ushered me to a spot behind the chunky living room table, where I sat, wedged up against the wall with no avenue for escape. The two women I came with chatted amiably with our hosts. I understood nothing. As we were leaving, they showed us the room where I would be staying. It was no more than 10 feet by 10 feet, with a fold-out divan shoved up against the back wall and a round metal table with an oversized television set on it squeezed in between the door and the bed. A cheap fiberboard chest of drawers leaned precariously against the other wall. I disguised my dismay at the bleakness of the tiny space with an enthusiastic nod, and with that, the deal was sealed.
Two days later, while unpacking my meager belongings, I paused to pray for God’s blessings on this momentous beginning to my fledgling missionary career. I asked God to protect me from the influence of the Muslim faith, which I had been programmed to believe was Satan-inspired and dangerous. I asked God to use me to draw this family closer to Him through Jesus Christ. It never occurred to me that perhaps some members of this family were closer to God than I was, or that they just might be more in tune with the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than most Christians. This proselytizer was about to meet her match. Gülsüm and Mustafa were a modest, hard-working couple with roots in a Southern mountain village, just north of Antalya. They had recently retired from the yogurt-making business and were now reinvesting a good portion of their prodigious energy into making me feel welcome. As an American, whose mother had long since ceased to interfere in her personal life, the intense nature of the attention was a bit overwhelming for me. Suddenly, I had someone who was concerned with the state of my ovaries; if I didn’t keep my slippers on, I would freeze the fragile organs and forfeit my life-purpose of having babies. I quickly became a member of the impossible-to-clean-your-plate club. Until I learned to pat my tummy and insist emphatically, at least three times in succession, that I was, indeed, full to bursting – Doydum! – the portions kept on coming. And it was very difficult to get any time alone.

There is a word for privacy in the Turkish language, but in this household, it remained a vague concept, not a practical reality. People simply did not spend time alone behind closed doors unless they were sleeping or dead, or engaged in some kind of unmentionable activity. Five minutes after arriving home and collapsing on my bed, I would hear a gentle tap, tap, tap. “Gel çay var.” Come have tea. Determined not to cause offense and lacking the language skills to defend my need for downtime, I would join Gülsüm teyze for 5 o’clock tea, or bes çay t, as it is affectionately known among the Turks.

Initially, our conversations were limited to my halting replies to her gentle, simply phrased queries: “What did you do today? Where did you go? Who did you see?” Before long, she had coaxed out my entire life history – my family back home, my life as a nurse, my daily routines, and the names and foibles of all my friends. She was a shrewd judge of character with a calm authority and quiet wisdom that belied her humble village origins. I was becoming as addicted to her wry humor and insightful social commentary as I was to the hot fragrant Turkish tea. Soon, I was bringing home friends in long denim jumpers to meet her, friends who had also, coincidentally, moved to Turkey to learn Turkish. Aside from general references to “the church,” we were careful not to volunteer any information about our real agenda, and Gülsüm teyze never asked. She welcomed us warmly, as individuals, with impeccable Turkish hospitality. I felt nurtured and loved in a completely unexpected and wonderful way.

The rest of the family was just as welcoming. Older son Hasan lived downstairs with his wife Nazmiye and their 4year-old daughter, Sinem; younger son Mehmet and his new wife, Dilek, lived upstairs. They all absorbed me easily into the rhythm of family life, except for Sinem, who sensed a threat to her position as the house sovereign and center of attention. But it didn’t take her long to discover my value as a live-in playmate, and soon my room was even less private than before. She chattered on in simple understandable Turkish, unconsciously correcting my imprecise phraseology. It was the perfect way to learn and gave me the courage to tackle conversations with the adults.

Tentatively, I joined them for evenings in front of the television set, watching maudlin Turkish movies and raucous comedy skit shows, drinking more cups of piping hot tea. At first, I politely excused myself at 10 o’clock sharp, exhausted from the mental effort of trying to pluck a few meaningful words from the swirling soup of conversation that flowed about me. But gradual!}’, my bedtime became more flexible as I began to relax, basking in the simple warmth and lively camaraderie of a close-knit Turkish family. I was given a Turkish name – Rezzan, and a family position as hala, the paternal aunt. It was feeling more and more like home.

But wait, I was here to evangelize. I couldn’t sit around all day drinking tea and watching television. I had to justify my existence to the eager supporters back home. We had all decided that these people were lost; it was up to me to bring them the message of salvation. Trouble was, it was more often me who needed the rescuing.

One sweltering August day, we went to a relative’s home for a mevlut, a ceremony of thanksgiving that is held 40 days after the birth of a baby. As the major attraction, upstaging even the baby, I was fawned over and passed from person to person, no doubt, so everyone could share equally in the humor of my mangled Turkish. The room was filling up; every seat around the edge of the room was occupied, mostly with hefty matrons clad in the silk headscarves and long raincoats that constitute one of the more popular uniforms of conservative Muslim women in this country.

“OturP* Sit, commanded one of the raincoats. She pulled me down to the springy sofa cushion between herself and her amply proportioned mother, and handed me a headscarf. It was then that I realized that I was about to take part in a Muslim prayer session. I glanced around in panic, looking for my handlers. Just then, the cadence of Arabic prayers began.

The two women next to me wiped their faces with their hands and raised them to Allah, indicating that I should do the same. I panicked. I was a Christian. I couldn’t pray to Allah. Or could I? I didn’t want to be impolite, but I didn’t want to betray Jesus either. Was I supposed to take a stand for Jesus? Confused, I covered my head awkwardly and tried to block out the incomprehensible drone of Qur’anic recitation. I repeated Bible verses silently to myself, praying furiously for God to forgive me for any real or potential transgressions.

After what seemed like an eternity, the prayers ended and glass party plates with tightly wrapped stuffed grape leaves and stale breadsticks started arriving. I bolted from the sofa, desperate to escape from the heat and the humiliation of my predicament. I pressed through the crush of bodies, looking desperately for a familiar face. Where were they? Where was my family? By then I was sobbing, completely unable to articulate my angst to any of the concerned faces around me. Then, my savior Nazmiye appeared. Without a word, she whisked me off to a cool dark corner of the house where I could rest and compose myself. She kept the curious wellwishers at bay, slipped me some grape leaves and a cola, and, in the process, taught me a gentle lesson about compassion.

Other lessons were forthcoming. All of the good Christian values that I had been led to believe were the result of Jesus’ transformative power were alive and well in the lives of this typical Turkish family. They weren’t acting like they were “lost.”
Service. The motto of my mission organization was “We take servanthood seriously.” That could’ve been Mustafa amcah motto. He rose selflessly before anyone else to build a fire in the wood stove every morning and would run to get the bread from the bakery up the road when those younger and healthier were too tired. He insisted on being the one to stand in line to pay the electric and phone bills and would heave my oversized suitcases up three flights of stairs when I arrived back from vacations, despite my protests. In a society where male machismo behavior is common, Mustafa amca regularly took up the teakettle and served the rest of us.

Stewardship of God’s gifts. Nothing was wasted in this household. AU of our casual discards were carefully stowed away in the “flea market,” the upstairs bedroom of their village home, awaiting careful allocation to people in need. Gülsüm teyze knew which young man needed a suit of clothes for a job interview, which construction worker’s wife had just given birth to triplets, what little boy needed a toy car or a pair of socks.

God’s provision. “God provides for my needs before I even ask Him,” she once marveled, unconsciously repeating a Bible verse that I thought was the exclusive province of Christianity. “Just last week I realized that I needed a rug for that space in front of the washing machine, and this week, your friend Ruth gave me one that is the perfect size.” I remember my surprise at hearing a Muslim pray to God for mundane things in the same way that we Christians did.

Justice. Gülsüm teyze told me the story of their hired hand, who, after many years of faithful service, absconded with their butter machine, forcing them to shutter the family yogurt business they had run for 30 years. Hasan was furious and wanted revenge. Gülsüm and Mustafa decided to leave the matter in God’s hands. A familiar Bible verse came to mind: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay.” Sure enough, years later the man turned up on their doorstep, ruined and begging for forgiveness. “You sinned against God,” they said. “Go to God for forgiveness.”

Patience and kindness. Language learning is a humiliating experience. It is also a very tedious process for the people who have to listen to you. The temptation to make fun can be irresistible. My family worked overtime to unobtrusively run interference for me in interactions with relatives, interpreting the intended meanings of my half-sentences and mispronunciations. I felt like an autistic child with a “special language” that only the close family members could understand. But they never laughed at me.

Eventually, my Turkish did improve and we were able to talk about deeper, more important things. One late night, between more sips of more hot tea, Nazmiye popped the question: “Just what do you mean when you say that Jesus is the Son of God?” There it was, my opportunity! Missionaries live for questions like that. In my head, I quickly reviewed the main points of my trusty Four Spiritual Laws booklet, the missionary’s shortcut guide to salvation: “God loves you, God has a plan for your life. We have all sinned …” But no, there was no textbook answer for the kinds of questions that we were discussing. We were fellow seekers trying to understand the mysteries of the universe. I struggled to find the right words in Turkish, in any language, to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. Nazmiye was eager to help. “God has a son whose mother is a virgin?” she prompted. “So, he is half-man, half-god?” Her eyes widened and she cocked a skeptical eyebrow at my subsequent explanation. “All god, all man? How can that be?” She eyed me quizzically. I shrugged helplessly. Doctrines like this, it seemed, made a lot more sense in the church pews of my youth than they did in an Istanbul living room.

Nazmiye and I had other conversations. About prayer. About religious piety and rampant hypocrisy in the fundamentalist sects of our respective faith traditions. About heaven and hell. “Christians believe that all Muslims are going to hell and Muslims believe all Christians are going to hell,” observed Nazmiyc wryly. It was a turning point for both of us as we realized that neither one of us was willing to consign the other to eternal damnation, as the tenets of our respective religions demanded. Cracks in my airtight belief system started to appear as I found myself face-to-face with a Muslim individual who was anything but “dangerous” or “evil.” We were partners on a sacred adventure, probing the reaches of our understanding, speaking honestly of what we truly believed and allowing space for mystery in those areas where we weren’t quite sure.

As my worldview and my understanding of the meaning of spirituality was expanding, my life as a missionary was becoming increasingly constricting, and in a word, exhausting. Sunday was anything but a day of rest, full to the brim as it was with church services, post-church tea-and-biscuit duty, and assorted committee meetings and social obligations. By this point, I had a job working as a nurse at the American Consulate, but my days off were not for me. They were devoted to “ministry,” a euphemism for “taking care of everyone but yourself.” As my experience with the language and culture increased, so did my responsibilities.

“You’re doing too much,” said the family. “Come home and rest.”

“Can’t you do one more thing?” asked the church. “We can’t find anyone else to organize the food at the Spring Fair.”

I was also tired of living a double life. Before, I was a missionary masquerading as an ordinary citizen. Now, I felt like an ordinary citizen masquerading as a missionary. Although I had a great deal of love and respect for many of my missionary compatriots, I no longer shared their zeal for conversion of the so-called heathen. The Turks whom I had come to know in my new family circle had a vibrant spirituality that infused their daily lives with meaning and served as an example to me. The God whom I was coming to know was too big for the boxes that fundamentalist Christianity wanted to put Him in. I was no longer sure what I believed and was tired of feeling like a hypocrite.

The growing crisis of integrity, aggravated by an impossible workload, resulted in an emotional meltdown. It happened one morning in church. Exhausted after a late night ministering to a neighbor dying of cancer, I had wearily settled myself into a pew after the morning service to administer Hepatitis B injections to a newly arrived missionary couple. A harried church member came running up, brochure in hand: “Rhonda, it’s Spring Fair timei” The next thing I knew, I was stumbling out of the building in tears, fleeing to the one place where I knew I would find rest and comfort and unconditional love. I needed to be with people who loved me for who I was, not for what I could do for them. The family.

Within the week, my Turkish family spirited me away to their mountain village home for a much-needed rest. I lazed on the sofa, sleepy from the wood stove heat, my tummy full of Giilsiim teyze’s famous eggplant kebap. Mustafa amca hovered attentively, filling my teacup and ensuring that the biscuits were within my reach. I gazed out the window into the swirling snow and thought about my future. I didn’t want to leave Turkey. I didn’t want to leave this family. But the suffocating demands of my life in Istanbul and my growing disaffection for missionary life were taking an emotional and physical toll. I vowed to change my habits. I would delegate more of my responsibilities. I would do whatever I had to do to be able to stay.

But it was not to be. When I returned to Istanbul, I developed a severe case of bronchitis that threatened to land me in the hospital. When I got the news that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer, I knew that it was useless to fight anymore. God was emphatic; my dysfunctional Christian service in Turkey was over. Anger, confusion, sadness, relief – a storm of emotion clouded my memories of those final days in Istanbul and continued to dog me in the ensuing months as I tried to make sense of my experience.

I had joined the evangelical Christian movement when I was a junior in college as part of a general search for belonging and meaning. Emotionally immature and accustomed to acquiescing to authority, I absorbed the doctrines and teachings of the faith without question. I progressed through the ranks to what I considered to be the pinnacle of Christian service – missionary work abroad. I had come to Turkey with the best of intentions, as an idealistic do-gooder. Pressuring people to change their religious faith was never part of my strategy; I believed in the power of personal example and the ability of God’s spirit to change people for the better. I never expected that the most powerful personal examples would be those lived in front of me by Muslim friends. I never could have guessed that the person who would be changed for the better would be me.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed