I was detained by armed guards, recently, for feeding the poor. It probably won’t be the last time, since I don’t plan on giving up my apparently dangerous and subversive ways.
On Thursday evenings some friends and I started making a big pot of “nohutlu pilav” (rice and chick peas), a typical Turkish meal, to share with poor and homeless people at the bus station in Ankara, Turkey, where I live. Many of the city’s homeless people end up sleeping on the second floor of the waiting area, spreading out cardboard and newspapers on the benches.
The first time we went with a pot of food and a short stack of Styrofoam bowls, we ran out of rice and chickpeas within a few minutes. We came better prepared the next time and soon we were feeding around 50 people each trip. The people were grateful and curious about why we would keep coming to give away food. We answered by explaining we want to be a blessing in the city and that this is a need we can meet together.
We have taken inspiration for this ministry from Isaiah 57:14-21, which begins with a call to, “Build it up, build it up, prepare the way, remove [every] obstacle from My people’s way” (HCSB). We “build up the way” when we demonstrate and proclaim the kind of life God has called us to, when we love the things God loves and hate the things God hates, so the people around us can see a living example of the Gospel. God hates poverty and oppression; they are obstacles in the way of His people. And He loves the poor and the oppressed. In fact, verse 15 assures us God lives “… with the oppressed and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the oppressed.” God lives right there on the second floor of the waiting area at the bus station in Ankara. He wants to revive the hearts of those people, and a bowl of chickpeas and rice is a good place to start.
One evening I was introduced to an elderly woman whose belongings were spread out on one of the benches. She wore a flowery straw hat and a matching smile. She was so unaccustomed to being offered a free meal that she reached into her pocket and brought out a 1 lira coin to pay for the bowl of rice and chickpeas. It took a long minute of insisting to convince her we were truly offering our food free of charge. The workers at the bus station thanked me several times for helping out this woman whom they have all come to know as one of the long-term residents there.
However, on our last trip there, shortly after we arrived, eight security guards stopped us and surrounded our group. I was escorted by two uniformed guards to the manager’s office in the basement of the building while the other guards remained upstairs with my friends, apparently on the suspicion they might perpetrate another act of feeding the hungry at any moment.
I stepped into the plush office of the manager and was directed to sit in an upholstered chair across from his desk. The manager stared at me for a moment and asked in Turkish, “Why are you doing this?” I explained that we simply want to be a blessing in the city, and we want to feed the poor and hungry. The manager’s response took me by surprise: “There are no poor people here.” He was being serious. This was going to be a frustrating conversation. In an ironic twist, while the manager was explaining there are no poor or hungry people to feed, the guards waiting upstairs with my friends radioed in to the manager, saying: “There are people up here asking for this food. Can we let them have some?” With a frustrated look on his face, the manager denied the request. In the end, he didn’t want Christians serving in his bus station. A few minutes later I was escorted by the guards to my van where my friends were already waiting.
God wants to heal, guide and restore comfort to the men, women and children at the bus station. Isaiah anticipates the obstacles in the way, and he even anticipates my experience with the manager. He ends the passage with the words: “But the wicked are like the storm-tossed sea, for it cannot be still, and its waters churn up mire and muck. ‘There is no peace for the wicked,’ says my God.” (Isaiah 57:21 HCSB). It’s a picture of the wicked man’s inner world, unrestful and stirring up difficulty, and it’s a declaration of God’s ultimate justice. The bus station manager probably doesn’t intend to be wicked, but there he is churning up muck and mire.
We don’t know yet what we’ll do about the bus station. We won’t give up. It’s our job to build up the road and to remove the obstacles out of the way of God’s people. And it will always be one of the great honors of my life that I was caught feeding the poor.
Ryan Keating is a doctoral student in Philosophy of Religion at Ankara University. He directs a monastic ministry training program for Turkish and Iranian Christians at Kurtulus Church and coordinates Soup Day, which feeds feeds dozens of people every Tuesday afternoon in downtown Ankara. @keatingr