Last summer, Erich and I applied to join the Foursquare Disaster Relief (FDR) team. Disaster relief is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, but we never knew how to get connected. Our first trip was supposed to be a development trip to Jamaica in the beginning of March. However, after the earthquake in Turkiye, FDR asked if we could serve there for two weeks first. Erich would help with medical, and I would take photos to help raise awareness and support for the people of Turkiye. We packed our bags the next day and then found out the medical team was going to have to stand down until we got the proper authorization. They asked if I could still go and, with Erich and the kids’ encouragement, I flew out the next day.

Traveling was long and tedious, so I’ll leave that part out, but it took us three days to get to the quake zone. We packed for freezing weather and were prepared to sleep in tents and/or cars but were blessed to be welcomed into a local church where we had a warmer and safer place to sleep. Our first morning, we spent time talking with local leaders and doctors about the best way to help medically. Afterwards, one of the local doctors walked us through the downtown area of Antakya. I didn’t know until I arrived in Turkiye, that Antakya is actually Antioch in the Bible, and was, essentially, Paul’s headquarters when he started his missionary work. The cave where Paul and Barnabas met with other believers is said to be the oldest church in the world and is still standing. Anyhow, I had been following the news regarding the earthquake and was somewhat prepared for the destruction and devastation, but nothing really prepares you for the reality of the loss of life that occurs in a situation like that. We walked down streets where some buildings were untouched, some were cracked and damaged, and some were no more than a pile of rubble and debris. We saw apartment buildings that had collapsed, level upon level, with no space for survival. Cars were crushed, buildings were leaning domino style on each other, or tilting over the road where we walked. There were dogs and cats wandering the streets, and initially I thought they had been left behind when people fled, only to be crushed by the reality that their people probably didn’t survive. To say it was eerie, would be an understatement. As we walked by some homes, it seemed likely that the people would have escaped alive. And then there would be entire apartment buildings where the units were sandwiched on top of each other, and I wanted to weep, wondering how many families ceased to exist that day. The knowledge that hundreds, if not thousands, of bodies had yet to be recovered was not lost on me.

In those moments, my dream of being a photojournalist, became somewhat of a nightmare. I felt ashamed every time I raised my camera. Taking photos felt irreverent and disrespectful. I know that photos are powerful and that my job was to capture the reality of the situation and remind the world of what is happening there, and to share people’s stories. But I won’t lie, it felt horrible. Photography for me has always been about capturing life and all the things it’s made up of… emotions, memories, stories, and everyday moments. This felt like the opposite of that. More than once I saw people scowling at my camera, but when I explained that the photos weren’t for me, that they were for the world and that I wanted to share their stories, so that the world would not forget, their faces would light up and they would talk excitedly amongst themselves, nodding their approval. In those moments, I felt humbled and honored to be trusted with sharing the gravity of their situation. The reality is, I cannot even begin to fathom the recovery process for Turkiye and Syria. The population of Antakya and its surrounding areas alone is over 1.6 million, most of them either displaced or too afraid to enter their homes. While the downtown district is vacant, the people in the outlying areas remain, camping outside, hovering around campfires and wood stoves, too terrified to sleep in their own homes. In a moment that probably felt like an eternity, life came to a full stop. There have been thousands of aftershocks since the first quake. I felt one the first night as I climbed into my sleeping bag. The three-story cement building shook around me and I understood, to a very small degree, the fear they were living with.

As of this week, the death toll has passed 50,000 and is expected to continue to rise as recovery workers sort through the rubble. Over 2 million people are displaced, having fled to unaffected cities, or to nearby villages, or who are living in tent cities built by the government. What happens next? Most of the buildings in the affected cities will need to somehow be respectfully leveled and then rebuilt. But the scale and magnitude of the affected areas is overwhelming. I won’t lie, it seems hopeless. And yet, beyond all imagination, I saw smiling faces. I saw people reaching past their grief and their fear to love and serve others. We helped a family build a rather large, complex tent that was given to them by the military. It took me and my teammate and probably 8-10 local guys well over an hour to do it. Before we left, there was a glimpse of relief on their faces, their burdens just a tad lighter for the moment. After losing everything, their youngest daughter had enough joy to dance inside the tent, thankful for the shelter she would now call home. We delivered shoes and blankets to some kids whose families had set up camp in an orange grove. They had built a shelter out of what looked like bamboo and tarps. They beamed with pride as we admired at their work and asked how many people slept there. Twenty-one people were sleeping in that tent and the kids were all smiles. I wondered at their joy and, as we walked up the road, we ran into their moms, who were also beaming with joy. What a testimony to the power of hope. With every delivery we made of food, shoes, tents, blankets, and coats, people lovingly forced a gift on us, whether it was a cup of tea, or coffee, or a fresh orange. I did not see entitlement or anger, I saw gratitude and hope, and it filled me with love and admiration for the people of Turkiye.

When tragedies of this magnitude hit, it’s easy to feel like we cannot make a difference. It’s easy to feel small and insignificant when looking at the overwhelming need. It’s even less uncomfortable if we look away. But we can’t. As time has gone on, my calling has become more and more simple: to love God and love people. I can’t rebuild Antakya or even diminish the pain and grief of those who lost loved ones. But I can love people by making them feel seen and heard and loved. And when people feel seen and heard and loved… it sparks hope, and hope is a powerful thing. Join me in continuing to pray for the people of Turkiye and Syria and if you feel challenged, try every day to make someone you meet feel seen, heard, and loved.

Thank you to everyone who prayed for me, gave towards the trip, and supported my kids while I was away, I am forever grateful for each of you.

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. (Hebrews 6:19)

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your presence there. Praying for your safety, the people of Ukraine, and for the war to end.


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