I didn’t have the heart to part with it: a silver-plated cream and sugar set with matching tray, now tarnished by age. Judy and I were sifting through boxes of stuff we had acquired in more than fifty years of marriage–items that had once graced the living spaces of our home and now lie buried like shards in our basement-tel. I turned the tray over and read the words engraved there: Van (from) Hilghe Stede Voor (for) Tom Boogaart.
Hilghe Stede was an old mansion in Helpman, a village just outside the city of Groningen, the Netherlands. In the spring of 1980, members of the Reformed Church in Helpman secured it to provide shelter for ten Syrian Orthodox families who were refugees from eastern Turkey and threatened with deportation and almost certain death.
The silver-plated cream and sugar set was a farewell gift from these ten families to thank me for all the work I had done to protect them from deportation and help them settle in the Netherlands. It triggered vivid memories. I could see again the faces of my Syrian Orthodox friends, hear their plea for help, and feel their desperation. These memories are still alive in me, and the issues raised about my call and my Christian identity are still alive as well. For more than a year, the fate of the Syrian Orthodox had become my central concern. It was certainly one of the most affecting years of my life. It was the year I was a Christian.
The Katalanc Family
Isa Katalanc left his home in the village of Kephri one late summer morning to tend his fields. Isa, Sumuni, and their family were Syrian Orthodox, a Christian minority in Kurdish dominated eastern Turkey, tracing its origin to the church that the Apostle Paul founded in Antioch. Aramaic, the language of the early church, was still their liturgical language. Before Isa reached his fields, he was grabbed by three Kurdish men and staked to the ground. Having started a fire, they took off his rubber sandals, melted them, and poured the molten rubber over his chest and legs. They threatened that worse would happen to him and his family if he did not turn his harvest over to them. They said their action was retaliation for all the evil that the Christians had done to Muslims during the recent conflicts on the island of Cyprus and in Lebanon. Isa’s torture was the latest but not the final episode in the long history of violence against the Syrian Orthodox community.
With his ancient community collapsing around him, Isa Katalanc, like many before him, left the village of his birth to seek a fresh start in the city of Istanbul, where he got a job in a jewelry store. Word eventually got back to Kephri as to his whereabouts, and his three Kurdish friends decided to pay him a visit in Istanbul. One evening they entered the store where he was working, beat him up, and stole jewelry. They threatened to harm his relatives back home should he reveal their identity to the owner of the store and the police. Isa lost his job and was unable to find other work.
He had heard from some distant relatives that there was work in the Netherlands and that, unlike Turkey, the Netherlands was a Christian country. Isa could hardly imagine it. A whole country of Christians who would come to your aid when you were threatened, not just a few isolated villages in eastern Turkey like Kephri. Full of hope, he and his family made their exodus to the Netherlands and requested political asylum.
Isa could not have arrived in the promised land at a worse time. Throughout most of the 1970s the Dutch economy had been booming and begging for workers, especially for the hardest and dirtiest jobs. Refugees, both economic and political, were welcome, and these gastarbeiters (guest workers) were readily granted tijdelijke verblijfsvergunningen (temporary residency permits). In the late 70s, however, the economy faltered, and the guest workers suddenly were no longer needed nor welcome. When Isa’s request for asylum was processed, he was defined by the Dutch courts as an economic refugee rather than a political one.
The courts had concluded that Isa had come to the Netherlands for his own economic advancement, not because he had a well-founded fear of persecution in his native country. Indeed, the courts had inquired and received assurances from the indignant Turkish government that it guaranteed the basic rights of all its citizens. How could anyone suggest that Turkey did not belong among the modern democracies of the world? As far as the Dutch courts could determine, those scars on Isa’s chest and legs could have come from a cooking accident.
About to be deported by the government of the Netherlands and fearing reprisals from militias in Kurdish-dominated eastern Turkey, Isa and Sumuni Katalanc and nine other Syrian Orthodox families approached a group of Christians from the Reformed Church in Helpman. Through an interpreter, they addressed the church’s governing body and pleaded, “We are Christians; you are Christians. Help us in the name of Jesus Christ.”
That plea would have drawn an immediate and positive response in Christian Kephri, but drew a perplexed and anxious one in Christian Helpman. The Syrian Orthodox forced the Reformed Church in Helpman to ask the most basic question of all: what does it mean to bear the name of Jesus Christ?
Hearing the plea of the Syrian Orthodox, I realized that no one had ever laid a claim on me because I bore the name of Christ. “Christian” was the box that I checked in surveys and governmental forms to distinguish myself from Muslims or Hindus. Being “Christian” was a status that I had been granted by the unconditional election of God. While I knew salvation was not a private transaction between God and me, while I knew that the Christian church was an international community and demanded my ultimate allegiance, I had just never felt intimately connected to such a community.
“Yes, But” Is No
One evening about two weeks after hearing the plea of the Syrian Orthodox, approximately 40 people from the church gathered to give an answer. The atmosphere was tense. We all knew that we were potentially facing some form of civil disobedience.
After an opening prayer, a man in his early 60s stood up and addressed the gathered faithful. The following is a translation of his words based on memory and notes I jotted down at the time:
“Paul tells us that God appoints governments to make and enforce laws for the good of all the people in the country. Our government has decided that the Syrian Orthodox cannot stay. To resist this decision would undermine respect for the law and bring an even greater evil upon us all. I say, reluctantly, that we must say no to their plea” (Wij moeten Nee tegen hun zeggen).
Another man in his 60s became angry. He stood and shouted:
“That is the same argument I heard people in the church use 40 years ago when the Nazis were deporting Jews family by family from the inner city of Groningen. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. There is a higher law which we must obey and by which we will be judged. We must say yes (Wij moeten Ja tegen hun zeggen) to the plea of our Christians brothers and sisters no matter where it leads.”
A woman was sitting between the two men. Caught up in the tension in the room, she was trembling. She tried to find some middle ground, a third way. She said:
“It’s our Christian duty to defend the Syrian Orthodox. Let’s do all we can to help them. I want so desperately to say yes to these poor people, but (Ich wil zo graag Ja tegen hun zeggen, maar…) if the government doesn’t change its mind, then we have to let them go.”
Suddenly, from the back of the room, a deep voice spoke through cupped hands: “Ja maar is nee.” (“Yes, but” is no).
The room fell silent, and slowly the meaning of the phrase seeped into the hearts and minds of those of us in attendance. Indeed, what difference would it make to the Syrian Orthodox if they were deported and imprisoned tomorrow or six months after tomorrow? “Yes, but” was just another way of saying, “No.”
As would happen often to me in the coming months, portions of Scripture came alive with new meaning. The remark, “Ja maar is nee” brought me to Jesus’ encounter with would-be disciples who wanted to say yes to Jesus but first wanted to bury a father or say goodbye to family. Whereupon, Jesus said: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). I suppose there are times in the life of a Christian community that it is vital to seek a middle ground, some version of “yes, but;” however, there are also times in which there is no middle ground, times when the choice is between life and death. The elusive wisdom that we all seek is knowing the times and knowing the difference.
Judy and I left the gathering enthused and eager to commit to the wellbeing of these Syrian Orthodox families. Joined by about twenty others, we were all in, not fully comprehending what such a commitment would mean. As the months passed, we were drawn deeper and deeper into the commitment at both the local and national level.
At the local level, we needed to find housing–we were able to secure Hilghe Stede, an old mansion that had stood empty for a number of years. We needed to find sponsors for each family–Judy and I agreed to sponsor Isa and Sumuni Katalanc and their children. We needed to find doctors and dentists–we dealt with a surprising number of medical conditions brought on by a combination of anxiety about deportation and a history of inadequate health care in Kephri.
At the national level, we joined forces with other groups throughout the Netherlands who were advocating for other Syrian Orthodox families–an estimated two thousand had fled eastern Turkey for the Netherlands in the late 1970s. We hired lawyers and argued before lawmakers that the Syrian Orthodox were indeed legitimate asylum seekers. We sent investigators to eastern Turkey to document their persecution. We created an underground network to hide families in the event that the police would receive orders to arrest and deport them–the chief of police in Groningen was sympathetic to our cause and intimated that he would afford us time should such orders come.
In our work with the Syrian Orthodox, we felt that we had come alive as Christians. The Bible broke out of its infallible straightjacket and began speaking directly into our lives. Living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, it informed us that we were not just wrestling against flesh and blood but also against spiritual powers. We began to see more clearly the powers at work in society and to name both those that were life-giving and those that were death-dealing. We went to worship not out of habit but to fortify ourselves in the work at hand, and we experienced its rituals not as perfunctory but as pathways into the presence of God.
My life had become sacramental, or so it felt to me at the time. Every aspect of it had been taken up into something larger, the work of the Spirit of Christ who holds all things together and draws all things into the arms of God. The Spirit of Christ was prompting me to expand my circle of care wider and wider, not only to envelop the Syrian Orthodox but also those whom Jesus identified as the “least of these.” I felt called, as others had been called, to help bend the arc of history toward justice. I had set my hand to the plow and was not going to look back.
Until, of course, I did.
Years before it became a part of the theological vocabulary, Abraham Joshua Heschel introduced the concept compassion fatigue in his 1936 doctrinal dissertation on the prophets. He was trying to explain the difference between the passion for justice among the prophets in Israel and that of ordinary believers, and he was trying to express his fear that believers in Germany would tire in their struggle to stem the rising tide of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism and institutionalized hatred. He wrote:
“To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophets is it dreadful. … Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence interminable, unbearable, permanent. …The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Yet those who are hurt and the Holy One who inhabits eternity, they neither slumber nor sleep.”
These words of Heschel are painful to recall. They tell a truth that is hard to hear. I had expanded my circle of care beyond family and friends to the Syrian Orthodox refugees, but I did not have enough soul-substance to spread myself that far. We needed to advocate in so many different arenas–political, social, theological; there were so many demands and so little progress. In the course of the year, I went from enthusiasm to exhaustion. I needed to contract my circle of care. In the end, my conscience built its confines, was subject to fatigue.
Slowly, hardly realizing what I was doing, I began to disengage. I convinced myself that I had good reasons for doing so. I was an instructor at the time at the University of Groningen. It was a position designed to help doctoral students write their dissertations. Half my time was spent in tutoring and administration, and half writing my dissertation. I was a wetenschappelijke medewerker in tijdelijke dienst, (instructor in temporary service). I had put writing my dissertation on hold. Did I not have an obligation to the university to complete it and an obligation to the churches in the United States who had supported my Netherlands adventure and were expecting me to serve the RCA in some capacity? I started spending more time at the university and less time at Hilghe Stede. I finished my dissertation in fairly short order and made arrangements to return to the United States.
All ten families from Hilghe Stede and their sponsors organized a farewell dinner during which they gave me the silver-plated cream and sugar set. I received it with deep ambivalence. I was leaving them behind, and the threat of their deportation still loomed. Nothing had been resolved. I struggle for words to convey the ambivalence I felt at the time. Again Heschel helps. I was longing for comfort, lulling, and soothing. I wanted to sleep well at night, but the Syrian Orthodox who were hurt and the Holy One who was watching over them, they neither slumbered nor slept.
Reframing Reformed Theology
I sometimes think of that year supporting the Syrian Orthodox as the year I was a Christian. But that assessment is not quite right. It was the year that I became aware of what it meant to be a Christian, to bear the name of Christ. Their plea, “You are Christians; we are Christians. Help us in the name of Jesus Christ,” reframed my understanding of the key Reformed doctrines and challenged me to think more expansively about the nature and mission of the church.
Election:My Reformed mentors through the years had taught me that God initiated my salvation by planting a desire for Christ in my heart whose sweetness became irresistible to me and whose grace sustained me in the faith. The focus of the doctrine of election, at least as it trickled down to me, was on what it meant for me personally, not what it meant for the world. The doctrine encouraged me to think more about the rewards I accrued in being chosen than the responsibilities I bore, and it led me to debate constantly how limited or expansive the grace of God was.
The plea of the Syrian Orthodox awakened in me the realization that my life was not my own but had been taken up into the larger work of God in the world. I belonged to God, and God had elected me not only to seek the flourishing of my fellow Christians but also the flourishing of all my fellow human beings and of all the created order. Jesus came because God so loved the world, and Jesus revealed God’s special love for those who were vulnerable, the least of these. Election was enlistment.
Perseverance: My Reformed mentors taught me that perseverance meant that all those who are truly saved will persevere to the end and cannot lose their salvation because God’s will cannot be frustrated by humans. My personal salvation was guaranteed. The doctrine was an afterthought, a mere corollary of the doctrine of unconditional election, and it left the impression that God was busy saving individuals and not the world.
The doctrine of perseverance has come to mean something quite different to me. God has not only enlisted me in God’s glorification of the world but also empowered me to persevere. As I have described above, I expanded my circle of care when working with the Syrian Orthodox but did not have enough soul-substance to sustain me in this wider world. In the end, I needed to contract my circle and could not bring to completion the work that I had begun.
This pattern of expansion and contraction of my circle of care has repeated itself over the years. I have begun so many projects with great enthusiasm and ended with exhaustion. Yet, after a time of exhaustion, I have “gathered my nerves,” as my Grandmother used to say, and set out again. Looking back at my life I do not see irresoluteness: I see perseverance. And perseverance is a sign that God has been present, encouraging me each time to expand my circle of care wider than before. God has been prompting me to love as much of the world as my heart can possibly manage.
The doctrine of perseverance is not my guarantee that I am saved. It tells me that in the complexities and difficulties of life that I am not alone or on my own. I belong to God who both sanctifies and comforts my frail heart.
I returned to the United States and taught at Central College in Pella, Iowa. In 1983. my friends from the Netherlands wrote to tell me that the justice department of the Dutch government had responded to the pleas of the Syrian Orthodox and the pressure from interest groups. They had decided to compromise. They had set a specific date, and all the Syrian Orthodox who had come to the Netherlands before that date would receive residency permits and all coming after would be deported. All ten families at Hilghe Stede had come before that date.
In 1993, I received a letter from Aziz Katalanc, oldest son of Isa and Sumuni. He said that his parents sent their greetings. He added that they had never fully adjusted to life in the Netherlands and were isolated. But he reported that he and his siblings were doing well in school and very much looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunities that life in the Netherlands afforded them.
Decades later, in the midst of downsizing, Judy and I have to decide what to do with the silver-plated cream and sugar set. Keep it or pass it on to the local thrift store for someone else to enjoy? I think that we’ll keep it. The past is a vast land of forgetfulness, its contours lost to fading memories. Like Jacob, we have to set up markers so that we can find our way back and remember that the Lord was indeed in this place.