Friday, 13 May 2016

Asa Jennings, Smyna's Schindler: a real Christian in a crisis

On Sunday 10th September 1922 the Greek army in Smyrna, now Izmir, finally surrendered to the Turks. The 1919 invasion of Turkey by Greeks had ended in complete disaster. It was not Greeks though who first had to bear the anger of the Turks’ revenge. It was the Armenians. On Monday 11th September, Turkish soldiers savagely ransacked their streets. There was murder, there was rape. On Wednesday 13th September the Armenian quarter was torched, and the blaze guided towards the Greek area of the city. Soon the entire Christian population of Smyrna, more than 300,000, were forced to leave their houses and make their way to the city’s quay. And there on the water’s edge they waited: a scorching furnace behind them, dark waters in front of them. There was no escape. It was hell on earth. One eye witness wrote that the quay had become, ‘a reeking sewer….when the crowd stirred the stench was beyond belief.’ There was only one thing these Christians could do. Pray. And pray they did. Listen to the same eye witness –

‘There was a strange murmur of many voices rising and falling along the waterfront. The sound was mournful, like the moaning of the sea, increasing in volume as the darkness deepened. The language was unfamiliar, the tone minor, and the effect weird and incredibly uncanny. ‘What are they doing?’ I asked this girl. ‘Praying’ she answered simply, ‘Praying for ships.’

Smyrna 1922. A city on fire. At least three hundred thousand refugees. Soldiers bent on revenge. It is a vast, epic, crisis.

Thankfully our generation has been spared war. A few miles from here you would find Londoners who remembered the blitz; in clubs and pubs there are old men who would tell you about D Day, or Italy or North Africa. As yet we have had not had to face a Smyrna.

But most families hit storms at some point. Crises come to us all, as crises came to the most of the vast cast of Biblical characters. And as you look at these crises, a truth emerges for us Christians –

It is life’s crises that reveal the reality of our Christian life.

In that appalling crisis in Smyrna there was one man whose faith in a crisis showed it was the real thing. His name was Asa Jennings and he showed he had at least qualities that made it clear he was a real Christian. Four qualities that prove you are a Christian.

What were they?

1. Ordinary faithfulness.

I am sure that some of you here will have heard of Asa Jennings. But not all of you. Certainly in August 1922 hardly anyone in Smyrna had heard of him. He did not belong to the old rich Greek families who had been there for years; nor was a big shot in business; nor was he a high flying diplomat. From the world’s point of view he was a nobody. A loser in his forties from New York. He was in Smyrna with his family working as an assistant at the YMCA. That was it. A second tier charity worker. He was very ordinary. Even physically there was nothing to mark him out. He was small, just over five foot. He was a nobody, he was ordinary. But he was a Christian. A devout Methodist. He had faithfully walked his very ordinary walk with Christ, and this had led him to Smyrna to work at the YMCA.

There is nothing glamorous about being an ordinary faithful Christian. But if Asa Jennings hadn’t first been ordinary and faithful, he wouldn’t have been in Smyrna, and now for sure nobody would have remembered him. Being ordinary and faithful is a very important quality for us Christians. It’s the starting point. Think of Moses, being very ordinary and faithful looking after a few sheep; think of David, doing a very menial task taking food to his brothers; think of Nehemiah day in day out being a waiter; or Stephen, just enters the pages of Scripture as a faithful ordinary guy.. Wherever you look at the lives of people who went on to do great things for God in the Bible you see there is this being ordinary and faithful. It’s a quality. It’s a foundation. It’s the starting point. And it’s the first thing a crisis will show up…who are the people at their post, doing what they should be doing.

It is life’s crises that reveal the reality of our Christian life.

Asa Jennings teaches us the first quality that gets revealed when the crisis comes. He was there in Smyrna. Quite content being a nobody, faithfully serving Christ as the assistant at the YMCA.

What about you and me? I am a second tier charity worker. An assistant. It’s not very glamorous. It’s pretty ordinary. But it’s where God has called me. Probably some of you feel the same about your circumstances. They are ordinary. But it’s the ordinary and the faithful that comes up trumps in a crisis, as we’ll see. Let’s take to heart the apostles admonition, ‘Do not be weary in well doing’. Let’s keep on being faithful and ordinary. It’s a great quality.

Not least because it can lead to more, as it did for Asa Jennings.

2. Not walking by on the other side.

Asa Jennings was the assistant, but that late summer , his boss was away and he was in charge when the end of the Greek Turkish war turned Smyrna into a vast terrain of terror and lawlessness, full of suffering people. Starving refugees. Expectant mothers. Orphans.

And because he had been faithful in the ordinary, Asa Jennings now did what an ordinary and faithful Christian does. He reaches out to help. He refuses to walk by on the other side. As the looting and rampaging and torching got under way, Asa Jennings took over two empty buildings, draped them with the American flag, and invited in all pregnant women and orphans. Soon he was looking after over one thousand people. It was simple, it was decisive, and it made a huge difference to those women and children. While other Americans, including the ambassador, were hurrying off to the safety of a US ship in the harbour, Jennings chose to stay looking after the mothers and orphans in the crumbling city. He acted instinctively. He did this because he was a real Christian. Jesus taught us not to walk by on the other side, so when this ordinary faithful Christian was surrounded by the bloodied victims of violence, he stopped. He was acting out Jesus’ story. And so many other stories in the Bible. David did the ordinary job of taking sandwiches to his brothers, but then refused to walk away from the challenge of Goliath; there was Nehemiah serving wine, and he heard about the walls of Jerusalem, something had to be done; or Esther hearing about the plot to kill all the Jews, again, something had to be done; or Stephen, because he is faithful, he is more than up to doing something about the poor knocking on the door of the early church and ends up running the soup kitchen. And Paul, he made his tents…but then he had to preach to those who hadn’t heard, and organise that famine relief.

This is a fundamental quality of real Christians. We don’t walk by on the other side. We don’t walk away from crises. We don’t walk away from pain. We don’t retreat into philosophy and committee reports. We do something. Anything. It’s a quality that comes out when there’s a crisis on, and it’s a quality Jennings had. He went over to the other side.

How about us? Do we walk by on the other side when we hear the cry for help? It won’t be the groans of the Smyrna refugees, but there will be other cries…they can be ignored, but not if you are a Christian. It’s a fundamental quality we must have.

And there’s more,  there was a third quality Asa Jennings revealed.

3. Ready to fight for what was right.

By the 20th September the prayers of the 300,000 refugees on the quayside had not been answered. No ships were coming to the rescue. The USA, the UK, other European powers, they did not want to risk enraging Turkey.The horror of this hit Asa Jennings. With the city ruined, staying in Smyrna was impossible. The only escape for the refugees was on ships. And if none came, there was only one outcome. Three hundred thousand would die. Something welled up inside Asa Jennings. He had to fight. This was 1922, there were thousands of ships which in a few hours could come and rescue these people. Action was needed. Without the permission of the Turks though, nothing was possible. Jennings went straight to the top. Calling himself the American Relief Committee he secured an appointment with Mostafa Attaturk, the charismatic leader of the new Turkey. What a contrast. On one side of the table the master of Turkey whose word was law, with a nod of his head he could order an execution, and on the other, Asa Jennings – with no troops, no money, no diplomatic contacts. Nothing. Except…faith in God, faith in what was right, faith in what a Christian can do in a crisis. Asa Jennings walked away from that meeting with permission to evacuate as many refugees as he could in seven days, bar men of military age. Jennings got straight to work and used bribes to persuade the captain of an Italian ship to take two thousand of the refugees to Greece. He of course needed many more ships to save the rest. He directly contacted the Greek government in Athens asking for permission to commandeer all Greek merchants ships in the Aegean. They hesitated. Jennings had no time for stalling. So he blackmailed them. His first telegram had been in code. He sent another saying that if he had not heard from them in the next few hours he would write an open telegram that could be picked up by all the world’s news services saying that when asked the Greek government refused to send ships to save Greeks and Armenians from certain death. His bluff worked. He received this telegram, ‘All ships in the Aegean placed under your command to remove refugees from Smyrna.’ And so this unknown ordinary Methodist from New York suddenly became an admiral with a small fleet of ships which he led back to Smyrna. When the answer to their prayers was, seen a cry of joy went up from the waiting crowds. Of course the suffering continued, even as the refugees stumbled on board those ships, not all made it. But thousands did. Indeed most of the three hundred thousand were taken to safety.

Because one man had decided to fight for what was right. Like Moses decided to fight Pharaoh; like David decided to fight Goliath; like Nehemiah decided to fight to build Jerusalem’s walls, and Esther decided to fight to save the Jews from a day of slaughter, and Stephen decided to fight the Sanhedrin, and Paul decided to fight for the Gospel…and so down church history, hundreds upon hundreds of ordinary faithful believers, who when the crisis comes, instinctively reach out to the suffering and fight for what is right. That is what Asa Jennings did. And it is these qualities, revealed in that Smyrna crisis, that prove he was a real Christian. Because this is the truth of this story -

It is life’s crises that reveal the reality of our Christian life.

I don’t how you have done when there’s been a need to fight. I expect most of us would want to slip away like the American ambassador did. But that’s not an option if we are Christians. We are people of faith. But our faith is proved in action, and if there is no action, then there’s a question mark over our faith. Hopefully we won’t ever have a situation like Smyrna to handle. But crises that need a fight will come our way, and when they do let’s remember that one man or woman with God on his side can make a huge difference, as Asa Jennings did.

There is a final quality that the Smyrna crisis revealed in Jennings’s character that we need to consider.

4. He was ready to die

Asa Jennings was forty five with a wife and children. He might have been ordinary, but he had a lot to live for. But there must have been a specific point in time during those ghastly September days in Smyrna in 1922 that he made a decision. He was ready to die there trying to do something to help. Death was all around him. There was looting and pillage and rape and murder in the streets. There was the violence of the newly arrived Turkish soldiers. There was the lack of food and drinking water. There was disease. Anyone who wanted a good chance of living were getting out of Smyrna in September 1922. But not Asa Jennings – because you couldn’t get out of Smyrna and help the refugees. You had to stay to help. That was the reality. Asa Jennings looked at that reality of the crisis and chose to stay. He was ready to die trying to help others. That was the fourth quality this crisis revealed about his Christian walk that proved it was real.

For Christians are the ones who are ready to die. It’s not that we hate our lives or our families. But come the crisis, that’s something fixed in our hearts, we will die for others. It is in our DNA. Because our whole faith lives off the fact that Someone has died for us. We have joy because He had despair. We have wine because he shed his blood. Our bodies are whole because his was broken. We do not thirst, because he was thirsty. We live because he died. We feel heaven, because he felt hell. We are free from sin, because he became sin. We have peace with God, because He was separated from God. This is the heart of the Christian faith. This is the cross. It’s not a theory, it’s not a slogan, it’s not a symbol. It’s a reality that enters into us, and because it has entered into us…so we are ready to die for others, happy to follow our master. And that’s what’s been happening even since the church got going…a long line of Christians who gladly gave their lives away for others, right up to our own day. Next Saturday the Iranian church will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the martyrdom of Revd. Soodmand. He could have left Iran, but he chose to stay because he had a flock. And the good shepherds don’t run away. And because he stayed, they arrested him and hanged him in Mashad prison on December 3rd, 1990.

I don’t suppose we know whether we have this quality until perhaps suddenly the situation is there, but I sure hope that if that crisis comes, I am willing not just to say I will die, but to actually die. Because that’s what our faith is all about.


It is life’s crises that reveal the reality of our Christian life.

The crisis in Asa Jennings’ life certainly revealed he was a real Christian. He was faithfully doing an ordinary job; he refused to walk by on the other side when he heard the cries of the needy; he fought for what was right; and all the time he was ready to die. These are the qualities that prove we are Christians.

And tonight, I would like to salute Asa Jennings for what he did in Smyrna in the autumn of 1922, and I would like to salute him for reminding us Christians of what our faith has to be about to be real.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. It is so important to remember such episode, and the 'active' faithfulness of 'ordinary' people. This is a story that so deserves to be told, both for itself - but also because it vividly illustrates the qualities we need for the times we are moving into. It perfectly exemplifies the story told in Ecclesiastes 9:14-15

    There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’
    May the Lord raise up many like Asa Jennings to be instruments of aid and change for so many communities and people groups in extreme need!

  2. Thank wise man can do a lot. May God give the UK some wise men and women in high places who can save us from the imploding that always happens when a society spits at God's laws