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The perils of living ‘the Christian life’

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In an exile, a poet who runs a coffee shop, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who found God in Turkey as a teen and tried to do the right thing by spending the rest of his life there

Ryan Keating has appeared in court more than 20 times in the past two years, according to a website called Middle East Concern (MEC). Just a day before our interview (we meet at Rüstem, in north Nicosia), he and his lawyer were summoned to a ‘government’ office in the north and told that the authorities “have been receiving ‘many complaints’” – he gives the words an ironic little spin – “about papazlik faaliyetleri, which means ‘priestly activities’. Neighbours are complaining that there’s papazlik faaliyetleri going on at the café!”. The café in question is the Exile Café in Famagusta, where he also makes his own wine and roasts his own coffee – and yes, also holds Christian church meetings on Sundays, “and that’s perfectly legal”.

The harassment is part of a pattern. Ryan is also being accused of illegally importing Bibles and, somewhat hilariously, “providing unlawful training on barista skills and wine appreciation,” according to MEC. (There’s also another court case which he’s bringing himself, for defamation, against a local paper.) Importing Bibles isn’t illegal, but “they’re claiming proper customs wasn’t paid on these Bibles,” he explains. “The charges are not true, I haven’t smuggled anything.” He laughs, as if suddenly struck by the idiocy of having to clarify this: “Really not true”. It’s unfortunate, he sighs, “and doesn’t represent so much of my experience of north Cyprus – but there is an element of that,” certain higher-ups and officials trying to make his life difficult. “The attention that we were getting in Turkey followed us here.”

He was deported from Turkey in 2016, forced to leave with his family and banned for life from re-entering – though in fact a higher court later ruled that it was merely an ‘entry restriction’. “The difference between ‘entry restriction’ and ‘entry ban’…” he shrugs – then grins, gesturing vaguely at his cup of coffee: “That plus 30 Turkish lira will buy you a coffee”. Ryan is soft-spoken and articulate, more discerning academic than religious zealot – not just a Christian pastor in a Muslim land (in effect, a missionary) but also, as already mentioned, a trained aficionado roasting specialty coffee on a small hand-cranked roaster (he also makes his own natural wine, harassment permitting), as well as a scholar and published poet, having placed around six dozen poems in around 20 different literary journals.

He’s a shrewd, attentive man, looking quite dapper in charcoal-grey shirt and brown corduroy jacket, his hair and beard neatly trimmed; he’s one of those people who seem to be all of a piece. Any bad habits? “If you ask my wife,” he replies smoothly, “she would say that doing too much – taking on too many things – is probably the thing about which she complains the most.” He and his wife Vanessa met at Biola University in California where Ryan was doing Biblical Studies (he later did a Master’s at Yale Divinity School and most of a PhD at Ankara University, cut short by his deportation); even then, one of the first things he told her – once it was clear there was something serious between them – was that “I’m planning to spend my life in Turkey, so she had to consider that and be okay with it”. They spent a decade in that country (the younger two of their four kids were born there), first Malatya in the east then Ankara – ministering to thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria, as well as locals – then the past six years in Famagusta.

profile ryan with his family
Ryan with his family

The obvious question is ‘Why?’; why the fixation on Turkey, even to the extent of moving to the next-best thing after being expelled from it? Many will assume some hidden institutional agenda but in fact, he assures me, he’s not employed by any religious (let alone political) organisation in the States; his brand of Christianity – evangelical, non-denominational – is quite decentralised. “We have friends and family praying for us and supporting us – but no, there’s not any shadowy forces moving us around!” The Keatings make their own way through life, including financially, Ryan teaching and translating (and now running the Exile Café) to supplement whatever comes through the ministry.

Still, though: why Turkey? His answer goes back 30 years, to when he was 16 (he turned 46 a few days ago) and went to Mersin as an exchange student, spending a year with a local family. He knew nothing about Turkey; his first choice was actually Japan, but that programme had been cancelled unexpectedly. Ryan was already active in a local church in his native Connecticut, though his background doesn’t sound especially churchy: his dad (a man of “several incarnations,” like his son) worked as an English teacher and news photographer; his mother worked for the state, helping people with mental disabilities. Once in Turkey, like a lot of young people – especially young people taken out of their comfort zone – the transplanted teen found himself assailed by doubts. “What do I think about God? What do I think about the faith that I grew up with?” By the end of that year, however, he’d made a personal commitment – just “between me and God” – to minister in Turkey.

As with most such stories, the defining factor was a sign, the Almighty showing His face at a pivotal moment. “I spent several weeks wrestling internally with these questions, and one night it came to a head for me – emotionally, personally. My host family was going to dinner, but I declined to go with them.” Instead, he spent that night “praying and crying out to God – and it was quite a dramatic and youthful kind of prayer: ‘God, knock me off my feet and let me know that you’re real. And send Christians!’.” (The 16-year-old had been mildly disconcerted – though of course “I knew it theoretically” – to find himself the only Christian in his new home.) The very next day, something happened: a ship docked at the harbour, and his school sent the junior-high kids on a field trip to practise their English. Ryan tagged along, as a teaching assistant – and was thrilled to see a man on the ship walking by with a Bible. “Immediately I was thinking of that prayer I had prayed the night before: did God send a Christian?” In fact, God had sent 300 Christians; the ship was the Doulos, a Christian mission vessel and floating library. And the punchline? The Doulos was never scheduled to dock in Mersin – “It was, in fact, on its way to Cyprus” – but had made, for whatever reason, a last-minute detour.

This is where cynics will chime in (to quote that annoying internet meme) with ‘Cool story bro’. Was this admittedly striking coincidence really enough to build a life on? It’s not even really an issue of whether it proves the existence of God, though of course many won’t believe that Ryan’s story is proof of anything. As he writes in his poem ‘Divine Hiddenness’:

“All the non-resistant non-believers
“Ask to see with opened eyes
“The one who might be hiding in the garden
“Among the trees and planets answering
“Too quietly for them to hear.”

But the question isn’t even whether Ryan Keating was somehow ‘called’ to Turkey. The question is why he stayed, even after it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t wanted. (It wasn’t just him; hundreds of foreigners doing Christian ministry have been kicked out, though “I had the distinction of being among the first”.) It’s not like the work is especially valuable – there are only a few thousand Turkish Christians, as opposed to ethnic Armenians and Greeks who have their own churches – and the risks are real. Even before his deportation, he and his family were deeply shocked by the so-called ‘Zirve publishing house murders’ in 2007, when three employees of a Bible company in Malatya – friends and colleagues of Ryan’s – were killed by nationalists; that was actually the spur for their move to Ankara. His family back in the US must be worried sick, I point out.

“Sometimes,” he agrees. “But part of the value of our life here is that, when people are tempted to react to us coming back to the States by saying ‘You must be glad to come back here’ or ‘Makes you grateful for everything you have over here’ – as if everything ‘over there’ is just punishment, just a bitter pill to swallow to appease an angry God – well, I’ve had an opportunity to correct that misperception. This is a good life.”

It’d be an easier life in the US, though.

“Sure. Easier doesn’t mean better.”

He’d have more time to write, for one thing.

“Yeah, certainly. But I think the life I’ve lived here has certainly made me a better writer.” The segue to poetry in the past few years may be significant. Ryan’s been a writer all his adult life, but for years it was mostly academic writing on the philosophy of religion (he’d love to finish that PhD someday; his dissertation was on “omnipresence, and God’s relationship to space”) – but perhaps poetry speaks more to his life nowadays. It’s quite poetic, and certainly quixotic, to persist in a rather precarious way of life for no better reason than a belief in its essential rightness.

He shows me two wristbands on his left arm. One reads ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ in Turkish and Greek, a nod to the bicommunal (another quixotic pursuit). The other features the Christian monogram with Greek initials that translate as ‘Jesus Christ Conquers’ – but Jesus’ conquest didn’t come through crushing his enemies, explains Ryan; He defeated them by dying for them. Could it be, I suggest discreetly, that he himself also has a bit of a martyr complex? – but he shakes his head: “No. I don’t think of myself as suffering. I enjoy the life that I’m living – we are genuinely living a good life. I’m not trying to accumulate suffering to get some spiritual benefit.”

He’s at the café every day, when not distracted by admin stuff (or court appearances). He and Vanessa are a team – she’s organised and detail-oriented; he’s good at “leading things, and pushing projects forward” – and the kids also seem to be thriving. Their eldest, 18-year-old Ruby, is heading to Wesleyan University (down the road from Ryan’s hometown of Bristol, Connecticut) on a scholarship; her brother Jonah skipped a grade when he arrived at the American Academy, a testament to his mother’s homeschooling as much as (actually more than) the Turkish public schools in which he grew up. “If you ask my kids ‘What’s the most important thing [in life]?’, the kids will give you a list of five,” says Ryan. “It’s kind of a bedtime litany from when they were little.” He counts them out on his fingers: “To love God. To love people. To never give up. To always be thankful. And to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, even when it’s hard.”

Isn’t there something of an elephant in the room, though? Promoting “the Christian life” in a Muslim country isn’t a neutral action; not post-9/11, not when religion is so closely intertwined with politics. But again, he shakes his head: “As a young person, I could’ve gone to the State Department and worked in an embassy or something – but I made a really clear decision: I wasn’t interested in politics, I wasn’t interested in government work… I don’t consider what I do to be political”. Yes, it’s about religious freedom – but he’s not promoting his religion, he insists, just trying to live it. On the one hand that’s slightly disingenuous, after all he could live just as righteously – and write his poems, and roast his coffee – in a less hostile environment. On the other, you have to admire his tenacity.

Ryan Keating is an exile, it says so in the name of his café – exiled from Turkey, but also in a deeper sense: “In the New Testament, ‘exile’ is used as a metaphor for the Christian life. Because we live as Christians between two worlds”. Living in an imperfect place (where officials keep trying to shut him down, for instance) makes the exile from a promised utopia of faith all the more vivid – but the point is to remain in the real world, and try to improve it. Does he ever regret having opted for this rather arduous existence? Unsurprisingly, he again shakes his head: “I don’t, no… So many things that I wish hadn’t happened that way – I don’t wish that my friends [in Malatya] had been murdered – but I don’t regret the way that we’ve lived our lives. Or even the cause for which they gave theirs”. Can he endure, or will he eventually be forced out of Cyprus? God only knows.

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