Mission: Ararat 2020
By Gary Fallesen, founding president, Climbing For Christ
Saturday, Aug. 1
Our team photo in front of Mount Ararat: (left to right) Holly, Behzat, Elaine, and Gary.
“How was your trip?” It is a commonly asked question.
If you ask Elaine about her fifth journey to Turkey (and 20th Climbing For Christ mission overall), she will tell you: “It was bomba!”
Bomba translates into “the bomb.” It is Turkish slang for “excellent.”
“I experienced more priceless C4C firsts,” Elaine said. “From witnessing a dying man come to Christ, to Gary performing a baptism in Lake Van, to watching seeds get planted in young nomad hearts searching for the Truth.”
If you ask Holly, who was on her first Evangelic Expedition with us, she will probably say: “The trip was amazing!”
She said she “loved experiencing the Kurdish culture and meeting people along the way.” She can go into detail about how our team was able to share the Gospel with several families and how some were “very receptive and actually seeking the Truth apart from their Muslim upbringing.”
Holly, Elaine, and I returned to our hometown of Rochester, NY this afternoon, flying in from Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. This marks the end of this particular 16-day mission trip – our beloved ministry’s 109th Evangelic Expedition; one that was chock full of God moments – and the next step in the good works God has prepared for us to walk in among the Kurdish people in Turkey.
Friday, July 31
We flew from Istanbul to Dulles in Washington, D.C. as we continued what is a flight-a-day for three days to return home. Such is life during the coronavirus pandemic as there are far fewer flights and poorer connections. As a result, we flew from Van to Istanbul yesterday, Istanbul to D.C. today, and D.C. to Rochester tomorrow.
Today’s flight was, thankfully, uneventful. The airline practiced socially distanced seating (as opposed to the full flight we took to Istanbul two weeks ago). Dulles was not as empty as when we returned from Mission: Malawi in March, when COVID-19 really took off in America. But there still weren’t too many people at the airport.
We had only one temperature check all day – as we boarded the flight out of Turkey.
Holly, Elaine, and I feel great. We are tired from an intense schedule but rejoicing in all that God allowed us to see Him do. Thanking all our prayer warriors for standing with and for us.
Thursday, July 30
Holly dubbed them “urban sheep” after Elaine asked, “Behzat, what’s the deal with the sheep all over the city?” Shepherds with small flocks of sheep were on sidewalks and street corners throughout Van. People also were congesting the sidewalks (on foot) and streets (in cars), too. The Eid al-Adha begins tomorrow. It is the “Feast of the Sacrifice,” a commemoration in the Muslim world of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ismael.
Apply brakes here.
Yes, Muslims think it was Ismael, not his half-brother Isaac, who was to be sacrificed when God provided a lamb in the boy’s place. “Take your son, your only son – yes, Isaac, whom you love so much – and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you” (Genesis 22:2, NLT).
So, many sheep are about to die for the wrong reason – no reason, really. Because, after all, the Lamb of God shed His blood to take away the sin of the world. It is grace not works that invites us into paradise.
We will continue to share this message until the whole world hears.
But, for now, our time in eastern Turkey is done. We said our goodbyes to Behzat and Adem this morning and flew from Van to Istanbul, beginning our three-day journey home. As day turned to night in Istanbul, we were listening to the jarring blare from the minarets across the city.
I was moved earlier today to enlist the intercession of our 370-member international Prayer Team. We are lifting the growth of the Church in the place where the early church began. We are praying for an Acts-like movement. May a revival spark a joyful noise that will replace the duplicitous sound currently filling the air. For HE is worthy.
“Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” – Psalm 98:4 (ESV)
Wednesday, July 29
Behzat emerges from the water of baptism in Lake Van. (Photos by Elaine Fallesen)
Behzat and I met this morning for a Bible lesson on baptism. We read from John 3:1-7, focusing on verse 5 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.”
Behzat was born physically 43 years ago. But to be part of the family of God, he needed to be Born Again. That was a spiritual event, which took place last year. Today, we celebrated what the Spirit has done in him by baptizing him in Lake Van in eastern Turkey.
We talked about the different types of baptism and I told him, “We are going to immerse you in water because that is how Jesus Himself was baptized in the Jordan River.” We then read Matthew 3:13-17 and I pointed him to verse 15, which again quotes Jesus telling His disciples, “we must carry out all that God requires.” We are called to fulfill the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:18-20.
“By being a baptized believer,” I said, “you are dedicating your life to Christ.”
We read Romans 6:3-4, which we had already read as a team during our daily study of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. I explained that his full immersion would symbolize his being “buried” in water. “When you come up out of the water, this will symbolize resurrection and your new life in Christ.”
We then closed our lesson by reading Galatians 3:27: “And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.”
Behzat needed to wait most of the day for this special event to occur. We drove from Dogubayazit to Van, stopping along the way in the village where the Kurdish shepherd had been struck by a tractor-trailer truck on Saturday. We learned that he survived! He had head injuries that required surgery and he was in intensive care, but yesterday he was moved from ICU to a regular room in the Van hospital.
When we reached Van, a city of nearly 500,000, we had to have the famous Van breakfast. Fifteen-to-20 – mostly delicious – breakfast items are served all at once.
Later in the afternoon, we finally took the boat ride to Akdamar Island, where the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross stands as a museum. The church was built in the 10th century and is one of many reminders of the Armenian church’s presence in this part of the world before the genocide of 1915-1923.
The cross on the Akdamar church can be seen across Lake Van. Behzat was baptized in the water beneath this church-turned-museum, signifying that the Church is still alive.
Behzat made Elaine put her hand on his chest to feel how hard his heart was pounding as we arrived on Akdamar Island. “I’m so exciting,” he declared, meaning that he was excited.
With that, we stepped off the shore into the warm, Mediterranean blue water of Lake Van. I asked if Jesus was his Lord and Savior, if he repented for his sins, and if he wanted to be baptized. He eagerly answered “yes” to all three questions. He was baptized and then we prayed over him on the rocky beach.
“I am sooo happy,” Behzat said, jubilantly. “Can you see how happy I am?”
A happy man.
PRAYER REQUEST: We ask our heavenly Father to watch over Behzat, protect him, and grow him. We give thanks for how He has used us to minister to our brother and ask Him to bless us with the opportunity to continue walking alongside him. We, too, are excited for this member of our family and ask God to use Him to expand His kingdom in eastern Turkey.
Tuesday, July 28
Osman Polat with his wife Shemen, one of the Jeveron girls we have known since 2013. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
Shemen Jeveron married Osman Polat shortly after we last saw her in 2015. One year into their marriage, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. Now 32, he lies on a bed in the living room of his house, unable to walk, in constant pain (especially from his hips), waiting for death to arrive.
We arrived late this afternoon with Shemen’s father, Ahmet, and her baby sister, Ece. We brought Life with us.
After tea and talking about his disease, Behzat and I began to share with him about the love of Christ, and how salvation can only be found through Him. Osman was open to our discussion despite the presence of Muslim prayer beads on the table next to his bed and his family in the room.
We talked about how Jesus can heal – if not here then in the hereafter. I asked if he believed in life after death. He said he did. I told him Jesus could take him to paradise, a place where there is no pain or tears or suffering (Revelation 21:4). But I said he needed to believe in Jesus in his heart. He said he would and asked me to pray with him.
I held his hand and we invited Jesus into Osman’s heart. We felt the Spirit’s presence. The pain in his hips eased, if only for the moment, and he was thankful that we had been sent to visit him this day.
He told me when I come back, I am welcome in his house, to just walk in the door without knocking. I am part of their family. More importantly, we believe Osman is part of our family.
On the drive back to the Jeveron’s house in a village outside Dogubayazit, Ece started talking to Behzat in the back of the vehicle. Behzat told us she is interested in joining the family, too. “She loves you. Loves your heart,” Behzat said about this precious 18-year-old we have watched grow up on and around Mount Ararat. “She loves what the Christian (faith) is about.”
But she must be careful because her father is still bound to Islam – and this day made her dress in the traditional head-covering and clothes to go out in public with us. We told her we would stay in contact and be praying for her. We will see her again soon.
It was that kind of glorious day for our team.
Walking toward nomads’ tents in a valley between 7,500 and 8,000 feet.
We began by driving about 40 miles west toward the city of Agri to a mountain area where scores of nomadic families have settled for the summer. Many of these families would be on Ararat now, but Turkey’s tallest peak is off limits to camping. Our friend Mehmut Aslan, once a nomad, took us to the area.
We were having tea in a tent with a woman and her three children when a young lady came to get water from a source next to where we were sitting. This was a divine appointment. Holly went out and started talking to Misra Guntas, a 16-year-old who is in high school (grade 11) in Istanbul. Misra speaks and understands some English.
She invited Holly to “come” to her family tent. We accepted the invitation and walked to their tent. “Mom, put on the water, I’m bringing friends for chai” is the loose translation of what she shouted ahead.
More tea. More conversation. This led to an opportunity to tell several children the story of Jesus using the Gospel and Witness bracelets.
Misra knew of what we spoke. She has been studying world religions, seeking the truth. “Her grandfather and father said they are Muslim so she should be Muslim,” Behzat said, translating for Misra. “But she says she wants to see for herself.”
Misra Guntas speaking to us with some of the other children who learned about Jesus.
After Holly and Elaine were done sharing, I offered Misra a small booklet called, “The Father’s Love.” It is the story of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15:11-32. That is a story about God’s love and the restoration of honor, which resonates in this culture.
We shared with others and drank many more cups of tea this day. But these are some of the highlights as God used us to speak truth and love to Kurdish people we have known for years and others we just met.
PRAYER REQUEST: Pray for Osman, for his health and for his walk with Jesus. Lift the rest of the Jeveron and Polat families, who heard the Good News about salvation found in Christ alone. Please also pray for the nomads we encountered and for the big event we have planned tomorrow.
Monday, July 27
Elaine hiking down from Cevirme Mezrasi village on Mount Ararat. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)
The horseman’s family in Cevirme Mezrasi woke up early to lead the sheep from their pen back out onto Mount Ararat. Their “summer home” is in the last village on the mountain at about 6,500 feet. After taking care of their early morning chores, they cared for us – serving us breakfast – before we packed up and headed out.
We walked through the small village and found another home where we were invited for tea. A 16-year-old girl named Ganesh – with a smile as bright and constant as the snow on top of Ararat – brought us tea and Turkish delights. We talked to her about many things when I felt the Spirit’s nudge: “How will she hear unless someone tells her?” I said to Behzat, “Would Ganesh like to hear a story about Jesus?”
Why, yes; yes, she would.
Holly, wearing the last of our Gospel bracelets, explained the meaning behind each of the beads and then told her about the “Witness” bracelet before giving it to her.
Ganesh, holding a sheet that explains in Kurdish and Turkish the five symbols on the ‘Witness’ bracelet. (Photo by Elaine Fallesen)
Behzat is especially moved to share about Jesus with “the next generation.” Here again we succeeded in planting seeds in a young person’s heart.
We then descended about 1,400 feet over more than 3 ½ miles back to Demirtepe to revisit blind Yusuf and his family. We had been invited for lunch, which Yusuf’s wife Filiz served us joyfully. Filiz is one of the many women thrilled to see Elaine again when we come to visit. She had tears in her eyes when we left this time.
Another woman happy to see Elaine and our team was Gulizar Aslan. The Aslans, Gulizar and her husband Mehmut, moved into Dogubayazit shortly after we last saw them on Mission: Ararat 2015. Their two youngest daughters, Gamze and Melek, also married after that and each has one child. Gamze, 22, lives in Istanbul with her husband. But Melek, 20, and her 1 ½-year-old son, Toprak (“Top-Rock”), were at her parents’ house when we arrived for dinner.
We first met Gulizar, Gamze, and Melek on Mission: Ararat 2013, when we visited their summer camp at 10,000 feet numerous times and showed them the Jesus film in Kurdish. We stayed overnight at their home in Topcatan at the base of Ararat in 2014 and 2015.
Like so many other children we first met on the mountain, Melek is now a young woman with a family of her own. Another generation waiting to hear about the One they prayerfully will call on to believe (Romans 10:14), which is why we keep GO-ing no matter the circumstance.
PRAYER REQUEST: Mehmut Aslan is going to take us tomorrow to another mountain area where many of the Ararat nomads have moved this summer. This is a change in our itinerary. We are praying the Lord is directing our steps to reach more old friends and make new ones among the Kurdish people for HIS glory. May it again be said, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15, NIV).
Sunday, July 26
Gary prays for Yusuf with Behzat and Holly. (Photo by Elaine Fallesen)
Blind Yusuf Bagdin dreamed we were coming the night before I arrived in 2015. When I saw him today for the first time in five years, I asked if he remembered that dream. “You’re not going to believe it,” Behzat said, translating our conversation. “He dreamed about a visit last night. He saw people coming in light. That’s a good sign for Kurds – to dream about people coming in daylight.”
We are people of the Light.
“For you are all children of the light and of the day; we don’t belong to darkness and night.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:5 (NLT)
We returned to villages around Mount Ararat for the first time since Mission: Ararat 2015 and were welcomed back into the life of many old Kurdish friends. These are people we ministered to from 2013 to 2015 and we have prayed for since.
“I am very happy,” 70-year-old Yusuf said about our visit. “I feel like my son has come back to Turkey.”
Things have changed in the villages. Police checkpoints block the roads in and out as the government seeks to control any perceived Kurdish resistance. Sheep have been tagged and herds are counted to make sure sheep are not being given to PKK rebels, who are thought to be on the mountain.
We passed through the checkpoints and entered several villages. At first, we were disappointed to learn that one Kurdish family had moved from Golyuzu to another area about 55 miles (90 kilometers) away to spend the summer months in the mountains.
The disappointment was heightened when we found Taner Aslan, the now 27-year-old man paralyzed and stuck in a wheelchair since a fall from a horse as a boy. We had been told last year that Taner was walking. We celebrated this as God’s miracle. Sadly, it was a miscommunication.
Elaine tearfully prayed over Taner, who has burdened her heart, asking again that God would heal him.
Taner’s family is seemingly one tragedy after another. He was paralyzed. His father died when he accidentally shot himself while trying to get his gun to stop a wolf attacking his sheep. And his 2-year-old cousin, who I photographed with Taner in 2015, died shortly after we were here.
Taner and his mother, Keamet, live in Topcatan on his monthly disability of 500 Turkish lira ($73.50 USD). The Spirit moved me to match that government support before leaving. But before serving this physical need, Elaine addressed the spiritual. She reviewed the Gospel bracelets that were made here on previous visits and then taught a new lesson using “Witness” bracelets.
The bracelets contain five symbols, which mean “He came, He died, He arose, He ascended, and He’s coming back.”
Taner shows his ‘Witness’ bracelet, above. Below, the Jeveron family: Ahmet, center, with his wife Fatma, daughter Ece, and nephew Mehmet. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
The next stop was at the Jeveron family’s house in Topcatan. Ahmet sold his sheep many years ago when his health started to fail. Now 70, he has had heart surgery twice. But his wife Fatma complained that “life is so boring” without a herd to live with on the mountain.
Going up the mountain is but a dream for nomadic families these days.
The Jeveron’s youngest daughter, Ece, is 18 and still at home with them. Elaine talked to her about the Gospel bracelets they made when she was younger and introduced her to the Witness bracelet. Once very shy, she was very talkative today.
Mukaddes, center, responds to the Witness bracelet.
We then went to the home of 17-year-old Mukaddes Aslan, whose mother had invited us for lunch (lamb, rice, and bread). Mukaddes is another of the children we have watched grow up, while having opportunities to share with them about Jesus. Elaine again reviewed the Gospel bracelet before giving her a Witness bracelet.
From Topcatan we went to Demirtepe to see the Bagdin family. We were fed again and, of course, drank more tea. I prayed again for Yusuf, as I have since 2015, that Jesus would visit him in his dreams. I believe this will happen.
Finally, we drove farther up Ararat’s skirt to the village where we are staying the night with one of Adem’s old horsemen. Elaine asked Adem if he was happy to “be home again.” Adem is the godfather of Mount Ararat, having guided here for nearly 40 years.
“Yes,” Adem answered. “Five years I’ve been waiting to come here.”
Another dream come true.
PRAYER REQUEST: For physical healing for Taner and for these Kurdish families we revisited to come to faith in Christ.
Saturday, July 25
Mount Ararat from afar as we drove East toward the Iranian border. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
Our excitement for seeing Mount Ararat on the horizon was tempered by the accident scene in front of us on the highway. There was a dead sheep and then a severely injured Kurdish shepherd laying in the road with a tractor-trailer stopped next to him. People were running to the road from the nearby village and a woman knelt by the man, her hands held up, shrieking. Behzat jumped out to check. A doctor was tending to the man, who was still alive, but it did not look good.
A reminder that life is like a vapor. “Man is like a breath,” the psalmist wrote in Psalm 144:4 (ESV), “his days are like a passing shadow.”
We drove about 130 miles (210 kilometers) today to reach Dogubayazit, the jump-off point for Mount Ararat. It is the first time any of us, including our Turkish and Kurdish guides, have been here since Mission: Ararat 2015. The mountain has been closed since then. It remains closed to climbers and to the semi-nomadic Kurdish people who live on and around it.
The reason is the same: the government blames the threat of Kurdish separatists, namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is said to live in the mountains.
Despite the closure we have come to visit old Kurdish friends. It has been too long.
Behzat, standing in the Ishak Pasha Palace mosque, where his walk with Climbing For Christ and eventually Jesus began in 2013.
Before that, we made a regular sightseeing stop at the Ishak Pasha Palace, an 18th century structure where our relationship with Behzat began in 2013. We returned to the room where we had our first discussion about Jesus.
He remembered feeling pressured then as the conversation between him and our team members went on too long. But later he spoke with our daughter Hayley, who was also on the team, and she gently answered his questions. We walked with him for several years, patiently sharing the love of Jesus, and last year he “joined the family,” as he likes to say.
Now he eagerly desires to see other Kurds make the same fateful decision for Christ.
As we finished studying Romans 10 and 11 tonight, he said: “I hope they will believe in their hearts one day.”
“Who?” Holly asked.
“Everyone,” Behzat said. “Everyone in the world.”
“If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved.” – Romans 10:9-10 (NLT)
Friday, July 24
Holly (left to right), Behzat, Elaine, and Gary on top of a foothill beneath Mount Suphan on our way to do village outreach. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
We climbed up and over one of the foothills of Mount Suphan and as we descended toward the village of Yukisuphan a group of children gathered outside a home on the edge of town. They were eager to greet us and soon we were invited in for tea.
The openness of this family afforded us an opportunity to share about Jesus. Elaine broke out her Gospel bracelet craft and started working with eight children and four adults – three generations of Kostekces.
She explained how Jesus had died for our sins and washed us white as the snow that buries this part of eastern Turkey in the winter. “Jesus wants us to be in heaven with Him,” Elaine said.
“Amen!” said Nesrin, a 14-year-old daughter in high school. Her timing was divinely perfect.
“I know I will be there,” Elaine added, “and I want you to be there.”
“Thank you,” Nesrin said.
This is our prayer – for the Kostekce family and for the many other Kurdish families we have entered here and throughout southeastern and eastern Turkey.
Elaine making Gospel bracelets with Behzat, right, translating. All the children and adults wanted bracelets, including the father of the family, back left, who videotaped her presentation.
There were other houses and other villages visited and more cups of tea drunk than we can count as we traveled around the area.
After I was honored to have my birthday celebrated with our team, we followed up on an invitation from Thursday night. Behzat and Adem had taken Holly to a Kurdish wedding the past two nights. Kurdish weddings, like their homes, are open to everyone. All are invited. Elaine and I have attended two Kurdish weddings of complete strangers on previous trips to Turkey.
Thursday night, after participating in several Kurdish dances, Holly was asked by her new best friend Nisa to come to the family’s home for tea. By extension, we also were invited. We went tonight after dinner and were overwhelmed with hospitality.
God moment: Nisa kept asking Behzat how she knew me. Then she remembered. She saw us three days ago on a bridge outside a city 180 miles (290 kilometers) away. She was with her oldest sister, who was have wedding photos taken. She was standing next to us, by herself, taking selfies. There was no one else on the bridge at the time.
Two nights later she was doing Kurdish dances at another wedding with Holly and tonight she was meeting all of us. We are now part of this family and several other families here as well. We are praying they will become part of our family – the body of Christ.
PRAYER REQUEST: We have a brother in Christ who has served with Muslim people groups for the past quarter-century. He asks, “When we enter a room, does it change?” Is the presence of the Holy Spirit felt? That is our prayer for all of the rooms we are entering on this trip. We also ask for protection for the team’s health and continued improvement for Elaine (stomach).
Thursday, July 23
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it?” – Luke 15:4. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
We entered Mount Suphan and discovered that it, like Mount Ararat, has been closed by the government. As we drove into the village of Yildizköy, located at about 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) on the high plateaus of Suphan, 62-year-old Muzzafer was sitting by the side of the dirt road.
We stopped to talk, and he invited us into his home for tea – which turned into a breakfast of freshly baked bread with fresh sheep butter and cheese, and freshly picked tomatoes and cucumbers. Muzzafer told us the people in the villages, nomadic Kurds with large herds of sheep, are not allowed to move up the mountain again this summer because the government thinks they will support the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) by supplying them with meat, cheese, and yogurt. It has been this way since 2015.
Individuals still take their herds up to high elevations during the day but must return to the villages each night.
Elaine, Behzat, and Holly sharing about Jesus with two teen-age girls in Yildizköy.
Our plan to hike between Kurdish camps on the slopes of 13,314-foot (4,058-meter) Mount Suphan turned into home visits around Yildizköy and a lower village, Harmantepe. We started by sharing Gospel bracelets with two of Muzzafer’s daughters, 17-year-old Guderen and 12-year-old Oznur. They are two of his 11 children, most of whom have grown and moved away – uninterested in continuing the hard life of nomadic sheep-herding.
Elaine told the two girls God’s creation story and how sin entered the world and Jesus Christ was sent to restore our relationship for all eternity with our loving Father.
She repeated this later to the entire Karamercan family in Harmantepe. We met this beautiful family after Adem told them we were American tourists and would like to come in for tea. They invited us and we immediately got to know each other better.
We sat outside with three generations – grandmother Dilber; two of her sons, Ismael and Felemes; Felemes’ wife Fatma, and their five children (Berfin, 16; Nazlican, 13; Yagmur, 10; Havin, 6, and Muhammad, 5).
Elaine describes the meaning behind beads being put on bracelets by (left to right) Nazlican, Yagmur, Berfin, Muhammad, grandma Dilber, and Havin.
Elaine made Gospel bracelets with the children, while Behzat translated for her as she unpacked the story of our Savior, Jesus Christ. I then prayed for the family, asking the Holy Spirit to have His way here. Ismael asked if we would pray for his 5-year-old daughter, Sudenaz, who has cerebral palsy, and we lifted her and that part of the Karamercan family. May the God of the Bible be welcomed into each of their homes.
PRAYER REQUEST: We ask the Great Physician to keep our team’s strength up (Elaine was ill today but soldiered through) and we especially lift Sudenaz to His healing hand. May the Karamercan family witness a miracle. We also pray for these seeds that are being planted over cups of tea and the breaking of bread. May Jesus enter the hearts in these Kurdish homes.
Wednesday, July 22
Massive Mount Suphan, seen from a distance through the summer haze as we drove northeast around Lake Van. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
We left the big city in southeastern Turkey to head for the big hills in eastern Turkey. It was Elaine’s birthday so to honor her, on our way out of town, we stopped at the last Starbucks we will see for the next 1 ½ weeks for a taste of home. There were more surprises in store for Elaine as the day continued.
We drove for four hours or so toward Mount Suphan, Turkey’s second-highest peak (behind Ararat) at 13,314 feet/4,058 meters. We will spend the next two days trekking Suphan’s slopes to visit Kurdish nomads.
We stopped for a picnic lunch along the shore of Lake Van, a 74-mile long body of water, and then visited the Ahlat Seljuk Square Cemetery. The Ahlat Seljuk Square is the largest Islamic cemetery in Turkey, and a reminder of how many have already made a choice leading to eternal death and how many around us are on the same path.
This came up as we discussed Romans 6 in our daily Bible study. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, NLT). God has given us free will and the choice is ours: heaven with Him or hell without Him. He is not making anyone believe in Him. But has offered a gift of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.
When we arrived in the town where we are staying, we Facetimed with another brother who we were honored to be used by God to introduce to Jesus on past visits to Turkey. He is across the country working, but we are hoping to see him before the end of the trip.
Behzat lighting Elaine’s birthday cake.
Dinner at a local restaurant led to the surprise delivery of a birthday cake by Adem and Behzat. The theme from 20th Century Fox was played and the restaurant, led by the kitchen staff, sang a hearty chorus of “Happy Birthday” in multiple languages (Turkish, Kurdish, and English).
Tuesday, July 21
The Sur (city wall), dating back to Roman times, sits above the Tigris River and surrounds the ancient city. The Tigris, which has its source in the mountains of southeastern Turkey, is one of the four branches of the river that flowed from Eden, according to Genesis 2:14. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
We wandered around this city of more than 1.7 million people, walking nearly six miles in sunbaked temperatures that reached at least 109 degrees F. We were here in 2015 before the fighting escalated between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists and we have been back to worship in the one evangelical church we found five years ago.
One resident said, “It’s good to see tourists again!” Few foreigners have visited this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The mayors of this city have often run afoul of Turkey’s ruling party, which accuses them of being members of and/or supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by both the Turkish and the U.S. governments. Some Kurds consider this area the capital of Kurdistan, the unofficial country of the largest people group without a nation of its own in the world.
We would like them to know “this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come” (Hebrews 13:14, NLT) and “we are citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20) not any nation with lines drawn by man.
NOTE: We experienced problems with our Web site for about 40 hours from late Sunday until Tuesday.
Monday, July 20
Feyo sitting with us outside under a tree in 104-degree heat. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
Our brother and co-laborer took us to meet a Kurdish man who recently joined “the family.” Feyo is a 61-year-old nomad living near the top of 6,421-foot Karacadağ mountain with half of his herd of sheep. Our brother met him when he and another brother had car problems on the road at the foot of the mountain last winter. Feyo helped them and they returned later to share about Jesus.
Feyo was excited to meet us and we brought a picnic lunch to eat with him and one of his daughters.
Behzat, Adem, and Feyo (with his daughter in the background) made a picnic lunch of chicken, Turkish salad, bread, and melon for Holly, Elaine, and me.
We visited two other nomadic families on Karacadağ, which is a snow-covered ski slope in the winter. Today it was a far cry from that: sunny and 104 degrees F (40C). We drank hot tea, a Turkish and Kurdish staple, in each of the tents we visited. We will have our Kurdish brother revisit these places in the months ahead.
When we left Feyo, he said in Kurdish: “I will always keep you on the top of my head.” This is a Kurdish saying that means you are especially important to them. Likewise, they are especially important to us. The Kurdish people in southeast and eastern Turkey are never far from our hearts and our prayers.
PRAYER REQUEST: For continued protection from COVID-19 (the city we are currently in is one of Turkey’s five hotspots for coronavirus) and that God will use Climbing For Christ to bring many Kurdish people to Him.
Sunday, July 19
We dove into the Book of Romans this evening as we began our “Spirit Walk” together on Mission: Ararat 2020. It was Holly, Elaine, our Turkish and Kurdish guide friends, and me. As I read Romans 1, I paused and said, “Paul’s letter to the church in Rome could be my letter to you here.”
“For I long to visit you so I can bring you some spiritual gift that will help you grow strong in the Lord. When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouraged by yours” (Romans 1:11-12, NLT).
It made me think both of the years between our 2015 and 2019 visits when one thing or another cancelled trips, and also the four revisions made to this trip as coronavirus forced us to push it back a few weeks at a time.
As I read to them from my study Bible as we opened Psalm 16, “It is human nature to make our own plans and then ask God to bless them. Instead, we should seek God’s will first.”
We talked about communicating with God – through His living Word and in prayer – and how He determines our steps.
God brought us to southeastern Turkey early this morning with a flight out of Istanbul. Our guides were waiting, excitedly, to pick us up when we landed. After checking into our hotel, we made our way to church. Worship was winding down at the church we have visited twice before, but we were able to fellowship with members and drink tea afterward.
Then we walked around town in 105-degree heat to find a restaurant open and serving lunch.
Jetlag, heat, and stressful travel conspired to force a short nap before we gathered to start the “Spirit Walk,” a regular mission kickoff derived from the late Steve Smith’s book of the same name. God put Romans on my heart to help our Kurdish brother grow through Paul’s statement of faith. It occurred when I was reading the late Ravi Zacharias’ book Seeing Jesus from the East (co-authored with Abdu Murray) and he shared how the Book of Romans led him to the Lord.
“It quickly became evident that the Book of Romans is based on the Gospels but goes back to Genesis,” Ravi wrote. “Romans explains that one is justified by faith and not by works; it explains what the grace of God and sin mean. This was all so important to the Eastern minds of my friend and me …”
Because in the Eastern mind-set, it is all about earning your way into paradise. We did the first two chapters and will study one chapter each day throughout the trip.
“This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. … As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.’” – Romans 1:17 (NLT)
Saturday, July 18 (6 p.m. Istanbul)
A room with a view: looking out at Istanbul from our hotel. HIStoric Hagia Sophia, left of center, a church turned mosque turned museum, is once again a mosque. (Photo by Gary Fallesen)
We arrived safely in Istanbul after an overnight flight out of New York City on a full plane. We’d been told seats were assigned with open seats in between passengers, but nearly every row in our Turkish Air 777-300 was full (three on the side, three in the middle, three on the other side), which made the repeated announcement of keeping social distance in the aisle even more absurd.
When we landed there was no medical check, as we had also been told to expect. There was at least one thermal camera that we walked past, and we had a small information sheet asking if we have been around anyone with COVID-19 in the last two weeks that was given to the customs officer.
In other words, it was a mostly “normal” flight into Turkey.
Our driver was waiting outside the terminal (a change) and we were taken to the hotel, where we will be staying less than 12 hours. We have an early morning pickup and domestic flight tomorrow.
We went out to dinner to our favorite restaurant here (Buhara); they only reopened four days ago. The streets on what would normally be a bustling Saturday evening are devoid of tourists. Many shops remained closed – some probably for good.
Police armed with automatic weapons patrolled around Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century cathedral that stood at the center of Christendom for nearly a millennium before Sultan Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453, making it a mosque. We have visited the Hagia Sophia several times with team members because from 1935 until July 10 it was a museum. However, President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has decreed it to again be a mosque.
Friday, July 17 (8:30 p.m. ET)
Pinch me, we’re flying!
As our plane lifted off from Rochester, NY, I gave thanks to God for making this possible and for all the prayer warriors lifting us spiritually. Barb Rowley, a sweet Climbing For Christ member (aunt to former staffer Jordan), who introduced Holly to HIS ministry of C4C, surprised us at ROC to pray us off. She “celebrated” that we were GO-ing. Along with so many others.
JetBlue distanced the 40-to-45 passengers on our flight from Rochester to JFK by assigning everyone to window seats, unless you were traveling with someone. Turkish Air is assigning open seats between passengers. We are waiting for that overnight flight to Istanbul.
I had heard today that air travel is down 90 percent, which explains the emptiness of both Rochester and JFK. It is not much busier than when we returned from Malawi 17 weeks ago as COVID-19 was shutting down the world. Experts also are forecasting that air travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. But we hope to be flying – wherever God sends us.
PRAY REQUEST: For good health throughout this trip and for the binding of any fear that might distract us from His purpose.
Approaching a semi-nomadic Kurdish family’s camp on Mount Ararat in 2015. (Photos by Gary Fallesen)
After the fourth revision of our Mission: Ararat 2020 itinerary, I again took this Evangelic Expedition to the Lord. I was reading Matthew 7:7, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for” (NLT), while at the same time posing questions to the manager of the trekking company we use in Turkey.
Mount Ararat has been closed since we were last there in 2015 but was scheduled to reopen this year – until COVID-19 struck. We learned in late June there was a chance Ararat could reopen in September. I contacted the trekking company. Should we postpone Mission: Ararat again?
I was in the middle of a 40-hour fast and praying for wisdom regarding this trip and others as we continued to try to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.
While Ararat might reopen, our friends at the trekking company informed me that the Kurdish nomads we seek would be off the mountain by then. I kept asking; God answered. “GO now!” We kept the July 17-Aug. 1 itinerary.
Proverbs 16:9 (“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps,” ESV) has been a ministry life verse through 108 Evangelic Expeditions. But it has never been tested quite like this.
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, which should make it fertile soil for Jesus. After all, He was the One who empowered His followers “who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ESV). He still empowers us.
So, we GO. Our team was reduced in size by coronavirus restrictions. But Holly DeSmitt of Rochester, NY, USA; my wife Elaine Fallesen, and I are scheduled to fly overnight tonight to Turkey. We are excited to get back to a place and a people we have been missing.
“As individualistic Westerners, we sometimes forget that the Gospel is for the whole family,” an April 22 blog on Honor/Shame said. “God made families. He wants them together, and we can honor that design by including the whole family in our disciple-making process.”
This has been our approach in Turkey since God first opened doors (tent doors) to our teams on Mission: Ararat 2013. My daughter Hayley was used by the Lord to make a breakthrough with Kurdish families on the slopes of HIStoric Mount Ararat. The following year Elaine was welcomed by the same families because she was Hayley’s mother. We grew even closer to those families when we returned on Mission: Ararat 2015.
Then, as happened after our inaugural Mission: Ararat 2010, the conflict between Turkey’s government and the Kurdish people in southeast and eastern Turkey escalated. Terrorism by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was blamed. But in 2015 it was sparked by the first election of Kurdish representatives to Turkey’s Parliament and the resulting loss of power (and honor) for the country’s president. Military action ensued – and Ararat was closed.
A year later there was an alleged coup attempt and state of emergency, which forced us to cancel Mission: Ararat 2016. This was especially frustrating to us because we planned for our entire family to GO together to minister to our Kurdish friends. As the Honor/Shame blog stated: “In most non-Western cultures, families – and even entire communities, tribes, or clans – make decisions together.”
“Family is everything in the East,” the late Ravi Zacharias and co-author Abdu Murray wrote in Seeing Jesus from the East: A Fresh Look at History’s Most Influential Figure.
Dinner in 2015 with a Kurdish family we love, above. Below, dancing at a Kurdish wedding in 2014.
“When a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Buddhist becomes a Christian, her family and community feel that she has elevated her individualism above the community and family,” Ravi Zacharias wrote in Seeing Jesus from the East. “She has betrayed everyone, especially family, by what is seen as a selfish act.”
That is what makes inviting the community so important. Ravi Zacharias told us that one of the lessons in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Luke 14:15-24) is the open invitation to everyone to enjoy “his [God’s] hospitality. Why does God invite everyone? So ‘that my house may be filled’ (verse 23, ESV).”
And Kurdish people, like so many Middle Eastern and Easterners, love weddings. (We have been invited to two that we were simply passing by.)
Last summer, after a four-year absence, we were able to return to Turkey. We could not visit Mount Ararat, but we trekked in the Aladaglar mountains in central Turkey. There, we met new members of what our converted friend (a Muslim background believer) calls “the family.” Believers in the East truly embrace the idea of the Christian family, the body of Christ.
This friend promised if we were able to return to Ararat in 2020 many would join our family That is our prayer as we (gratefully) head again in that direction.