Erik Meberg, a 2013 graduate of Erskine Theological Seminary (ETS), has traveled to Turkey twice over the past several months to assist Iraqi refugees there. For Erik—and for his wife Laurie, who accompanied him on one of his two journeys—it was a poignant return to a country where they had spent nine years as missionaries with World Witness, leaving in 2012 when the Turkish government canceled their visas.
Heeding a cry for help
Now back in the United States, Erik reflects on more than a decade of missionary service, seeing God’s guiding hand even through the “loss, hardships, transitions, and pain” he and his family have faced. Perhaps such experiences enhanced the Mebergs’ identification with the difficulties of Iraqi refugees in Turkey.
But there’s another reason that explains, at least in part, why they are especially attuned to the refugees’ suffering: they spent the last three years of their service in southeast Turkey, and through their work with a congregation of Muslim-background Christians were sent to a city on the border of Syria and Iraq. During the summer of 2014, long after leaving Turkey, the couple learned of atrocities being committed in a region where they had developed friendships.
“We were distraught,” Erik said. “One night in particular, I remember Laurie on the ground crying out to God asking Him what we could do.”
Laurie’s plea was soon answered.
“The very next morning we received an email from Pastor Ahmet, our Turkish friend in that region. He told us that thousands of the refugees from Iraq had shown up at their doorstep and he wanted to help.”
The Mebergs immediately contacted World Witness, which began publicizing the need for resources. The moderator of the ARP Synod, Larry Littlejohn, announced a day of prayer and fasting on behalf of the refugees.
“This led to a massive outpouring of support and aid that we have been able to send to the local Turkish churches as they distribute the aid to needy refugees in the nearby camps,” Erik said. “I have gone twice to the camps, the latest time in January with Laurie, to support the churches as they minister.”
Years before they agonized over the refugees’ plight, Erik and Laurie had considered what was next for them, and in both situations they relied on God to show them what to do.
The couple had met through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at the University of Maryland and married right after graduation. Laurie worked as an elementary school teacher, then became director of children’s ministry at Church of the Atonement (ARP) in Silver Spring, Md., while Erik worked with IVCF at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“During this time, a good friend of ours was teaching English in Istanbul as a tentmaker,” Erik said. “Through following his prayer letters, the Lord began to impress Turkey on my heart. Right at the same time, Atonement announced that they were making Turkey their missions focus in prayer, giving, and even sending.”
The Mebergs took this for an answer.
“We knew it wasn’t a mere coincidence that God was putting Turkey on our hearts just as He was leading our home church to adopt the same land!” Erik said.
“We led a short-term trip with college students in 2002 and while we were there that summer, the Lord called us to come to Turkey full-time. We came home, talked with many trusted friends, and ultimately joined World Witness in 2003.”
Faith, persecution, and seeking the Lord
During their nine years in Turkey, the Mebergs worked as church planters in four different cities, helping churches at various stages of establishment and growth. In a nation of more than 70 million, “The need was, and is, immense,” Erik said. “Church planting in that context required a holistic approach.”
The couple focused primarily on leading young people to the Lord and helping them grow as disciples. “Yet, for many of these people, choosing to follow Christ meant inviting persecution,” Erik said.
“Several of our brothers and sisters would lose their jobs, be disowned by family members, or simply cut off,” he explained. “For those people, the church became their new community. In that context, we often engaged in mercy ministry to take care of them as a church body.”
Erik recalled one young man who “was kicked out of his house for his faith and lived at the church for two years before reconciling with his family.”
In 2012, when the Mebergs were themselves “kicked out” of the country, they returned to the United States, where Erik finished his Master of Divinity degree at Erskine Seminary and they spent a year “seeking the Lord.”
Noting that he actually began his seminary studies while in Turkey, and took classes part-time while ministering there, “I like to say I squeezed my three-year degree into eight years,” Erik jokes.
“Seriously, though, Erskine was a great place for me to learn. Certainly doing my M.Div. on the field had its drawbacks. However, I felt as though I had an immediate context for everything I was learning. I was able to apply my classes into my ministry.”
Musing on his somewhat unusual experience as a seminary student, Erik continued, “My degree has allowed me to be a missionary-pastor wherever I’ve gone. In addition, I’ve always felt cared for by both students and faculty.”
He gave a special nod to two Due West residents, 2011 ETS graduate John Paul Marr and his wife Melanie, who “constantly opened their home to me as I commuted from all over the world!”
One of the highlights of his ETS experience has been “the prayer support we still receive from several of the professors,” Erik said. “At key times in my journey people like Dr. Dale Johnson, Dr. Mark Ross, and Dr. Robby Bell reached out and cared for us.”
As the Mebergs prayed and sought God’s direction, they considered a number of ministry options. Both still felt a strong call to continue in Muslim ministry.
“Rev. Tat Stewart has been a mentor figure for me over the years,” Erik said. “He asked if we would consider joining the Persian Ministries team in reaching out to Iranian Christians around the world.”
Now, Erik and Laurie are “learning Farsi, are involved with a local Persian church in Colorado, and learning from Tat,” their old friend, who serves the ARP Church as Director of Persian Ministries and has “introduced us and networked us into the larger worldwide Iranian church.”
The parents of three young children, the Mebergs are adjusting to yet another new situation as they begin their work in Colorado.
“The constant transitions have certainly taken their toll,” Erik said. “In many ways we feel like a military family with many moves and new places. One specific way we’ve struggled is trying to find community in each new place we’ve been. Our kids feel this especially hard.”
As seasoned missionaries, the Mebergs have seen God’s hand in many situations, and remain ready to follow Him.
“The life of faith and obedience to Christ is never easy,” Erik said. “He promises us that it will be hard. He calls it the narrow and rocky path. Yet, in the midst of it, Jesus is always near and always provides.”
Despite and through “loss, hardships, transitions, and pain,” the Mebergs “can say without a shadow of a doubt that God has never left us nor forsaken us,” Erik said.
“We have a hard-fought joy and peace,” he added.
“We’ve had a front row seat to the Lord’s work in and through us. While it’s a challenging life, the life of faith that God has called us into has been worth it,” he said.
“We have never once regretted following Him into the world as missionaries.”