Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey, 1908 – 1923 by author Wendy Elliott came to my attention because of a man named James Perry, who was from my hometown on the coast of Maine. Perry was murdered by Turkish brigands in 1920 while on duty with the YMCA, leading a convoy to bring supplies to the starving of Armenia and Syria. His death is noted in just one paragraph of the tale related by Grit and Grace; just one note in a catalog of chaos.
I had thought the book was going to be about missionaries spreading Christianity in Turkey; instead, it is a narrative of the horrors and genocide and calamities of the beautiful Anatolian peninsula and the founding of the Republic of Turkey. It is a story of a particular place at a very particular time, with resolute main characters, which illuminates the wider history of a continent and an era.
Our entry into this “world gone mad” is through the clear writing and narrative style
of Wendy Elliott, and her chosen heroine, Susan Wealthy Orvis, of Dubuque, Iowa. “Susan Wealthy Orvis loved her name,” Elliott notes for us in her spare and clear style.
The book begins with a succinct history of the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and then looks at the missionaries who were introduced into a world of chaos, armed only with a “a firm belief that the best way to evangelize the world was through education, health care, and leading by example.” The mission, with a limited budget and staff, built schools and hospitals and began to educate not only boys but girls and women as well. The staff were also protected to some extent by the high regard for the educated Westerners among the population and officials. Not so lucky were native Christians, in a world of “growing violence in eastern Anatolia against Christian Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.”
The staff worked to build their mission, scrupulously obeying the official restrictions on
evangelizing. In addition to health and education, the mission tried to alleviate some of the poverty of local families by introducing home skills such as sewing and cooking. Their success in building relationships and a community in Talas forms an earnest background for the growing madness in Turkey. But there are very few chapters on the initial success and ostensible mission of the staff. As one Turk tried to warn an Armenian friend, “ A new storm is about to break upon the Armenians, and it will exceed anything that has happened before. You know I like you, so I hope you will save yourself. . . . Go to Mersine, get on a steamship, and escape to Europe.”
Elliott methodically sets the stage and delineates the organized goals and efforts of the Ottoman government. Finally the day came in August, 1915, when the orders arrived that all Armenians in Talas were to be deported. The harrowing responsibility of choosing who to save began for the missionaries. “‘Mothers and fathers came pleading for us to save their daughters from the fate of so many, many girls,’ said Stella. ‘One beautiful girl who had graduated just the year before, had been threatened by a government official and told that if she went out with her people on the road to Aleppo [Aleppo was a three or four week journey; many deportees were never seen again] she would be captured. We did not dare to take her into the school, for if we did this under the eyes of the government, we felt sure we would lose everything — the girls and women whom
we already had under our protection. So we had to refuse and to tell her to go bravely, trusting God, and be ready to accept Him whatever came.’ The local government did allow the missionaries to accept children whose parents were Protestant, Catholic, or military personnel. As the schools’ principals, Stella and Henry tried to rescue as many as possible. ‘The days of choosing and deciding which ones could be taken were hard, hard days,’ said Theda [the mission’s nurse].”
“The killings, kidnappings, deportations, and disrupted lives — it was all true. . . . ‘we were powerless to help them,’” continued another of the missionaries. The mission was closed in 1917 when America declared war on Germany, an ally of the Ottoman government.
The second part of the saga began when Susan Wealthy Orvis volunteered to serve in a
missionary center in Alexandropol, Russia, near the northern border with Turkey, just in time for the Russian Revolution. Susan arrived in Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railroad three days after the fighting had ended. “Evidence of the carnage was everywhere as they made their way through the city. . . . ‘House walls scarred with bullet marks or smashed by shell explosions; buildings charred and gutted from fire; snow soaked with blood in the streets.’” Susan and her colleagues made it once more to the Turkish border and set up a hospital, industries, and an orphanage, but were once more driven out by the dire and chaotic conditions, and caught the last train out.
She returned, after the war, in the spring of 1919 with the first relief train heading into the region. “It takes the breath away,” reported the Missionary Herald. “To enter a land so torn by war; depopulated, desolate; with towns and villages demolished, fields lying untilled, work animals destroyed; with the dreadful wreckage of battles and massacres, deportation and pillage visible on every hand, is enough to dismay the stoutest heart. . . . To seek to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees, to provide care for the destitute thousands of orphans, to establish hospitals and to set in operation medical service for all the diseased and debilitated sufferers from cruelty and want, to inspire hope, and rouse to renewed action those who have sunk into despair, and to do this over vast areas of country where means of transportation, always limited, have now broken down, and where bands of freebooters and brigands lurk along the highways of travel, is a task that might well seem impossible.”
Any portion of the tale told in Grit and Grace could be expanded to fill another book. The saga was not over when World War I came to an end. The burning of Smyrna was yet to occur; the final expulsion of Christians from Turkey was ordered in November, 1922. There were still 3,000 orphans (of the original 10,000 the missionaries found on their return in 1919), and they all needed transportation south into Syria and Lebanon. Wendy Elliott’s work to catalog, illuminate, and make a cohesive narrative out of the chaos is a remarkable achievement and a truly compelling read.