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Pastors for Peace on Mercy Mission to Nicaragua Coast

July 27, 1989|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

At a time in life when many people choose to slow down, the Rev. George Hill of Claremont is putting the pedal to the metal.

Last week, the 72-year-old Baptist minister climbed into the cab of an 11-ton, 10-wheel truck in San Francisco to begin a 4,000-mile trip to Nicaragua. The trailer of Hill's rig is a soundproof audiology lab that will be used to diagnose hearing loss among residents of Managua.

Later this month, Hill will rendezvous in San Juan, Tex., with 89 other drivers--a third of them clergy--to convoy down the Pan-American Highway in 43 trucks carrying everything from construction materials to fish-processing equipment to baseball gear.

Most of the material is earmarked for Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, which was devastated last year by Hurricane Gilbert.

In Liberal Camp

But the objective of the journey, organized by a group called Pastors for Peace, is more than just disaster relief. As the activist truckers caravan through various parts of the United States, they will stop along the way to deliver a political message.

"It will be a chance to talk about what our destructive policies against Nicaragua have done to reduce the people there to poverty," Hill said, referring to U.S. support of Contras who oppose the Sandinista regime. "People believe that (the Contras) are freedom fighters, that they are defenders of democracy--that is a total lie."

Such views may lead some to brand the minister a liberal. "Yes, I'm in the liberal camp and unashamed of it, even though the word has fallen into disrepair," he said. Hill defines liberal as "being willing to err on the side of being humane and generous, rather than pinched and overly cautious."

Hill said his political beliefs are an outgrowth of the same religious convictions that led him to the ministry. A graduate of USC with a degree in business administration, he had planned to go to law school but decided after some soul-searching to enter the seminary.

'All Hell Broke Loose'

As a pastor in Los Angeles during World War II, Hill spoke out against the placement of Japanese-Americans in internment camps. Later in the 1940s, he opposed the budding anti-communist sentiment that later blossomed into McCarthyism.

"During those years I was really involved in trying to keep people sane and rational," Hill said.

In 1957, Hill took a post as minister of a Baptist church in Rochester, N.Y., a city that was to be engulfed by a race riot seven years later. As president of the local Council of Churches, Hill helped blacks organize politically and pressured business owners to provide equal employment opportunity.

"All hell broke loose over our heads for the audacity of trying to organize the blacks," he said. "Eleven of our Baptist pastors were forced out of their churches . . . If I had it do over again, I'd do the same things. Blacks were able to enter the mainstream. They were elected to public office."

As the turbulence of the 1960s subsided, Hill moved to Washington in 1971 to become pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, where his congregation included several members of Congress. Hill led efforts to create the U.S. Institute for Peace, which was established by Congress in 1984.

Trip to Russia

On the local front, he focused his attention on poverty and homelessness.

"We had homeless women sleeping in the basement of the church, 35 of them every night, eight blocks from the White House at the same time (then-presidential adviser Edwin) Meese was saying there's no poverty," he said.

During occasional respites from his ministry, Hill has traveled to 65 countries on four continents, including a cross-country camping trip in the Soviet Union in 1969.

Since his retirement three years ago, Hill said he has tried to take it easy--without much success.

After an extensive visit to China, he was invited to New York for a 15-month stint as interim minister of the Riverside Church.

Hill said he first heard about the Nicaragua expedition this spring and decided immediately to go.

"I've wanted to get down to Nicaragua because I've learned from 15 years of living in Washington, D.C. that the State Department's scenario of what's going on there is only a scenario," he said. "Those who have lived there say it's a different world from that. I'm going down to sort it out for myself."

Hill insists that he is not unpatriotic.

"I love my country," he said. "But my love does not mean I bless everything it does. I want it to conform to its best traditions."

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