The mournful Call to Prayer echoed against the dark purple hills of Northern Turkey.  A smoky haze from hundreds of campfires hung in the air like a grey blanket.  After two devastating earthquakes, this small city teemed with green canvas army tents filled with families who had lost their homes and loved ones.


It was December and the holy month of Ramazan (as they call it in Turkey).  For one not born in a Muslim country, each of the five daily prayers took me by surprise.  A tremendous wall of sound, generated by large speakers hanging above every minaret in town, amplified the call of the muezzin and would whir to life suddenly, winding up like an old Victrola record player and pour over me as I worked.   I wished I spoke Arabic, so I could feel comforted by the prayer, but, to me the generated sound was loud and insistent, almost like a scolding.  After a few days I found that each prayer provided a rhythm to the work and a chance to slow down, but I longed for the comforting blanket of familiarity each Prayer seemed to hold for the Muslims around us.


On this day, Aaron and I were returning to eat with the other World Relief volunteers.  Our route took us through the rows and rows of portable grey shipping containers that volunteer crews were rushing to ready for the hundreds of waiting “tent” families.  As we passed one finished portable, a man with dark hair peppered with grey perched on his small wooden porch.  Covered in dirt, he looked tired and lost in thought, but when he saw us, he smiled and nodded.  We greeted him.  He gestured toward the open front door.  “Come.  Eat!”  It wasn’t a question, but a command.  The enticing smell of garlic, onions and mysterious spices drew us in.  We hesitated.  Breaking the daily fast at sundown was a very holy time for these families, but we were hungry and curious.  Smiling cautiously, we bent our heads into his small tin home.


Bright rugs of red, black and gold transformed the stark, grey walls of the container into a colorful quilt.  Two thin, bright-eyed children motioned to the floor cushions and we sat and exchanged smiles and simple Turkish and English greetings.  An older brother, with dusty hair and clothes darkened by the day’s work, saved our awkward conversation by helping to translate.  Soon, a quiet, dark-eyed woman with a flaming red headscarf, motioned us to a low round table filled with dishes of ground beef simmered in parsley and onion, plump white fava beans with garlic and lemon, a vinegar and oil cucumber and tomato salad and a plate of warm bread, flat and spongy.  We felt welcomed; two young American strangers and two more mouths to feed.  I was overwhelmingly humbled as we sat with them and took in this holy meal.  My full attention, coupled with gratefulness, were the only gifts I had to share.


As we bowed our heads, I listened to the cadence of the father’s prayer and wondered at a multifaceted God who can hold such a paradox of faiths.   I was reminded of the story of four blind men who ran into an elephant and tried to describe to the others what they found.  If we hold tight to what feels familiar, a trunk or tail, we are sure to miss an important aspect of the whole picture.


Returning to the camp later that evening, the final prayer rang out in the distance.  This time, the voice seemed more welcoming, more familiar.  I hesitated for a moment, almost afraid to breathe. With my next step, I was stepping forward as a grateful pilgrim.   That evening, through sharing an unexpected meal, I had found an extravagant and mysterious God that called me home through the Call to Prayer.

—Jill Townley