By Ong Ching Hui

In March, when I first heard that True Way Presbyterian Church English Congregation was planning a trip to Turkey and Greece that would be led by Dr Tan Kim Huat, I jumped at the opportunity to go. I had attended a few classes with Dr Tan in Trinity Theological College and enjoyed his teaching immensely! 

Dr Tan did not come on the trip in the end, but I learnt many things.

I experienced three ‘firsts’ on the trip. Not only was this my first trip to Europe and my first overseas trip with a church I only joined at Easter this year, it was also my first trip as a married person. I didn’t travel much when I was younger, and apart from a few church camps and mission trips, this was my first ‘educational’ Christian expedition.

Ching Hui eats her birthday cake inside a Thessaloniki cafe.

My husband Jethro and I got married two weeks before our trip. I celebrated my birthday while on the trip—I guess this was another ‘first’ for me.

I am thankful for the preparation and leadership of our guides – Pastor Lee Kien Seng and Pastor Peter Poon. Pastor Peter is retired but continues to be involved in leadership and discipleship training. Pastor Loli Sani led devotions, services, songs, and gave lectures. Mehmet Ali and Yassin were our local Turkish guides, and Tanya and Nena our local Greek guides.

Pastor Peter Poon was Pastor Kien Seng’s teaching co-leader.

I had so many wonderful moments with my fellow travellers. I was the second youngest person on this trip. (The youngest was Isabel, a precocious 15 year old who travelled with her father Shaun.)

November came. We flew from Singapore late at night. During the first few days, I was very touched by a few aunties whom I didn’t know before. They came to me and asked how I was doing. “We were asked to look out for the young people in the group,” they declared. Though I’m not very young, I appreciated being spoilt in this way! It was very nice to know that other people were watching out for me.

Every meal was an opportunity to meet new people. There were more than 60 travellers in the group, so we didn’t get to speak to every single person who went. But I made friends with many people. A closely knit church makes a stronger body of Christ!

How true it is that people make friends and burnish relationships when they eat with each other. Photo by Alex Soh.

It was good to hear so many perspectives from people of varying backgrounds and age brackets. I loved meeting my friends’ parents whom I got to know as people and not just so-and-so’s mom and dad. I was encouraged through many deep conversations – we shared freely about our families, our calling and work.

Lunch, like this one with Peter and Lay Suan, was a time when we took food and drink, but also words, whether questions or answers, and emotions that lit faces and lifted hearts.

One memorable lunch conversation was with Lay Suan and Peter. We immediately connected when we discovered that they had been in the same Christian campus organisation we joined some thirty years later as university students.

Jethro and I are about their children’s age.

When I asked them “How do you feel Christianity in Singapore or True Way has changed over the years?”, they smiled and started talking. They have seen many changes. Peter shared about how life was simpler before, and people didn’t have so many competing commitments. Most worshippers of the past were keen or willing to serve in church. People today seem less ready to say yes quickly. From there, we talked about intergenerational worship, and how our formats and liturgies have changed. Jethro got recruited to serve in the livestream ministry at this lunch.

I most appreciated their nonjudgmental attitude in our conversation. They acknowledged that there was little need to make comparisons like “In my time, I used to bring all my crying babies to church. Why do today’s young parents stop coming on Sunday, whether it’s with, or without their kids, and say it’s because their kids were crying at home?”

Kimberly Chong was the other person from my discipleship group who came on the trip. Though we’d been in the same DG for more than a year, the chance to spend a lot of time together in Turkey and Greece, and talking late into the nights, helped us become firmer friends.

Jethro and I were affectionately called the ‘young people’. Certainly, we were the youngest people who travelled without parents and relatives. Why was the number of young people so low, why was the group largely populated by folks in their fifties and sixties? Well, a few people felt it may have been the high price point and difficulty getting leave arranged. Truthfully, Jethro was initially hesitant about going for this trip because it was expensive.

Choosing where to go when you don’t always have a lot of money or work leave can be hard. Young people may be unsure whether they should wait till they are older. But Jethro and I saw Scripture come alive at many points of the journey. Now, we know we made the right decision, and we feel the sacrifice we made was small.

Like their older counterparts, young people can learn so much from an educational church trip like this one.

We often met in hotel lobbies to exchange stories and rest our legs. Photo by Teo Teck Wee.

Would providing funds to help young travellers pay their way be helpful? I think it can be difficult to make a pitch for this. Can we really justify using church funds for a small segment of people? There were more people who didn’t go than people who went. We wondered aloud to Pastor Kien Seng whether ‘needier’ prospective travellers could be given permission to raise funds for themselves, perhaps selling food on Sunday. But we knew both ideas are problematic from governance standpoints.

A few other, more ‘experienced’ people laughed and said you can’t put up a group of 60 persons at a cluster of Airbnb’s in Turkey and Greece. Yes, Airbnb may sometimes be cheaper but they don’t come with many things we needed, large halls for discussions, for example, and the logistics of shepherding a big group from place to place across two continents will be hard.

Of course, we still had tons of fun on the trip. We took away fond memories of people strutting a cat walk, singing songs on ancient theatre stages, even performing a line dance.

The Bosphorus is a beautiful natural strait and an internationally significant waterway located in Istanbul. It forms part of the continental boundary between Asia and Europe.

In Istanbul, where we spent one day, we took a cruise down the Bosphorus. On the boat, we got a crash course on the history of Turkey.

When I talk to my friends about visiting Turkey, those who have visited would usually tell me about their time in Istanbul and Cappadocia. Well, I would now recommend one other beautiful place – Pamukkale!

Feeling the sun’s bright rays and the warmth of water around your legs was an unforgettable experience.

Pamukkale means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is famous for its travertines, the almost-white terraces and pools formed from its hot springs. Rich in calcium carbonate, Pamukkale’s water evaporates as it flows across the land, leaving behind white crystals.

The highlight was the nice foot soak! It helped when they told us getting our feet wet was good for our skin!

At neighbouring Hierapolis, we saw the pool Mark Antony built for his mistress, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra; Hades’ temple; a Greek theatre; Apostle Philip’s tomb. My favourite memory at this site was walking down the slippery white travertines.

Hierapolis is mentioned in Col 4.13 and crucially, it is a mere 8km away from Laodicea. Some scholars argue that understanding geography is the key to uncovering the meaning of Rev 3.16 (where Laodicea was described as lukewarm). Hierapolis’ hot water could have been piped to Laodicea where archaeologists have found furred pipes. Perhaps Hierapolis’ high-calcium water was the cause of insoluble calcium deposition in pipes. Colossae didn’t have hot water springs, so the water it sent to Laodicea was cold. Rev 3.16’s criticism could thus be a reference for the lukewarm church at Laodicea. To be ‘useful,’ Laodicea would have had to be delightfully warm and comforting (Hierapolis) or refreshingly cool and tasty (Colossae). It was wonderful to feel the warmth of the water, and see the proximity of the sites.

Mehmet Ali was one of our two Turkey guides.

Because we were such a large group, we were placed on two buses. Jethro and I were on Mehmet’s bus. As our tour guide, Mehmet’s job was to tell us about the sights outside our bus windows and their cultural and historic significance. Tour guides know their stuff. Mehmet referred to the Bible many times during the trip. In his spiel, he used phrases like ‘This is what Paul said,’ or ‘God’s more interested in your heart attitude.’

I later asked him if he was Muslim, and he said yes. Yet when someone else asked him, he said that in his heart, he “feels for Christianity.”

I enjoyed learning about how different countries approached religious faith. For example, we learnt that the ‘Father’ of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was an aggressively secular leader. His sweeping progressive reforms modernized Turkey into an industrial nation that grew in power against its neighbours.

Under Ataturk, the famous Hagia Sophia had, from 1935 through 2020, been classified and run as a museum. Before that, it was originally an Eastern Orthodox church and then a mosque. In 2020, President Tayyip Erdogan, because of political motivations, turned the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and had most of the Christian art covered up. Erdogan wanted the country to be run according to Islamic principles.

On the trip, I thought often about the interplay of religious and political sensitivities in any given country. We saw a pro-Palestinian march in Turkey. We sang Christmas carols and songs in a Turkish site. Someone commented to me later that perhaps we should not have been singing so blatantly; Turkey, after all, is a Muslim country. Were we being insensitive, a public nuisance?

Because our days started early and often ended late, quite a number of us felt tired and napped on the buses. This notwithstanding, Pastor Kien Seng made sure we all learned as much as we could. Photo by Teo Teck Wee.

I wasn’t on Yassin’s bus. Yassin was the other tour guide. But I saw that the other group had lots of fun with him and developed a deep friendship with him. Yassin is married to a Singaporean woman. I remember him speaking in Hokkien. ‘Wa-ga-li-gong’ (let me tell you) was a phrase his mother-in-law taught him. He used it all the time.

Turkish food could be described as ‘cai fan’. Most of our meals were buffet-style. This was great for us. We didn’t have to wait long for our food, so this helped us get out of the restaurants quickly so we could do other things.

I felt that you had to like eggplant and cheese if you’re in Turkey. Luckily for me, I do!

In contrast to the fast-paced meals in Turkey, the Greeks really took their time eating. In Greece, we mostly ate in cafes and restaurants, which could take a couple of hours. On my birthday, we went to a café near Thessaloniki (Thessalonica). We started lunch late at 1pm and only finished at 4pm!

Jethro and I didn’t travel when we were dating, so this was our first trip together. A few people asked if this was our honeymoon trip, and why we had chosen to ‘share’ our honeymoon with a big church group.

Well, we’re quite an easy-going couple and we don’t feel our private time is any more important than time with the church group. We don’t really fight about these things.

Jethro’s standard answer was ‘Going for this tour meant that we didn’t need to plan for anything. We had enough planning to do for our wedding!’

After we returned to Singapore, I asked him again, and he said: “It’s good to place our marriage in the community.”

Ong Ching Hui is a civil servant. Her husband Jethro Fernandez is a video editor. They became members of TWPC at Easter this year.
All photos by Jethro Fernandez unless otherwise stated.

Opinions expressed are those of our authors. This is the second article of our December 2023 issue. All rights reserved. Please send comments to [email protected]. Previous issues are available at trueway.org.sg/newsletters.