Antakya, Turkey. This once bustling city of 400,000 now looks post-apocalyptic.
What structures weren’t reduced to rubble by a massive February earthquake are leaning, cracked or both. More than 300,000 became homeless in less than two minutes — many fleeing the city.
Six volunteers from Dallas-based Texas Baptist Men went to the devastated area to put together simple homes for families who had lost theirs to the quake. The metal structures give residents safe places to live for the next several years, empowering them to move out of damaged structures or flimsy tents.
The semi-cylindrical shelters are being built in a place that feels like a scene out of a movie. Electricity is difficult to come by; water even more so. Don’t even ask about sewage.
People — often children — scavenge through the rubble for scrap metal they can sell or reuse. Emergency tents dot the city, giving a small source of protection for families. Long lines form daily for food and water distribution, as well as government support checks.
Where does a ministry even start with relief efforts in such a situation?
Starting with the basics
A TBM team started with the basics.
“Historically, Christians were first called Christians here in Antioch,” said team leader Robert Watson. “They were called that because they were ‘little Christs.’ They were living out the teachings of Jesus. That’s what we want to do here.”
Volunteers, working alongside an in-country partner, fought supply-chain issues and used the trial-and-error method to devise a custom template for housing, outlining a system whereby the structures — measuring 3 by 9 meters — can be crafted and installed more quickly by future volunteers.
TBM has provided funds for 20 houses in the city, after sending 10,000 blankets and installing 10 community water systems immediately after the earthquake. That won’t meet the needs of everyone — no one team or organization could — but the Texas volunteers sought to do what they could.
“We’re trying to make an impact in individual homes and families,” said team member Mike Gillert. “Hopefully it will make a difference for families, and they will know God loves them.”
Residents appreciated the team’s work and pitched in to help where they could, cleaning lots for the houses and working alongside the Texans. Even children excitedly stepped in to hold tools and drive in stakes.
Using hand gestures and Google Translate, team members were able to communicate and connect with those they served. In many cases, residents wanted to know everything they could about the people who traveled around the globe to help them.
After building the houses, the teams gave some of the families water filters and boxes of food. Conversations led to opportunities to encourage and pray with them.
“They’re just as interested in us as we are in them,” team member Chris Roberts said. “They want to know where we’re from, why we’re doing this.”
‘Building homes for Jesus and His children’
The volunteers were particularly affected by serving a woman in a wheelchair. After the quake she was unable to return to her upstairs apartment and was living in a makeshift area in a damaged living room. As soon as the team arrived she rolled out to greet them and expressed appreciation, requesting a photo with the team to help her remember them.
At another home, 8-year-old Amen joined the crew to help with construction, even in the rain. Seeing his excitement and energy spurred the team along.
“That’s our job,” said volunteer Joe Fuller. “Jesus told us what we do for the least of these we do for Him. As far as I’m concerned, we’re building these homes for Jesus and His children.”
Hugs and tears were abundant upon the completion of each structure. Families often offered coffee, tea and even sweets from their small supplies.
“They’re thrilled,” Roberts said. “They’re overwhelmed. I’m honored to be able to help give them a place to rest their head where they can get out of the weather.”
‘Just like you and me’
The experience transformed the team as well as the Turkish people. Instead of seeing Turkey simply in political and religious terms, they met the people themselves and found it easy to identify things in common — children want to play, parents want to provide for them; they want what’s best for their families and community.
“These are folks just like you and me who need help,” Roberts said. “I’m glad to see the human side of it. They’re just folks like us. We can help them.”
Hoisting Amen on his shoulders, team member R.L. Barnard smiled as the child waved a flag of Turkey. The road to recovery is long. But for the families these Texans served, the journey has started.
“I have a real soft spot for these people,” Barnard said. “And I always will.”