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Disaster Relief a Symbol of Faith in God

Retirement in 1990 gave Southern Baptist Chuck Erikson, now 75, the chance to fulfill a religious commitment to provide for others.

May 24, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Never mind that Chuck Erikson is 75 and still limping from knee surgery. There's a crisis afoot -- hungry people in war-torn Iraq -- and so the longtime Southern Baptist has whirled into action, just as he's done ever since he retired more than a decade ago to devote his life to disaster relief.

At Chapman Avenue Baptist Church in Garden Grove this week, Erikson coordinated Southern California contributions to his denomination's national campaign to collect food boxes for needy Iraqis. He helped unload boxes from cars that pulled up from various Baptist congregations. He buttonholed volunteers, including 37-year-old David Aristondo of the church's Spanish-speaking congregation, to drive the forklift. He supervised efforts to get the boxes loaded onto trucks bound for a central collection point in Houston.

In between, the affable Texas native with a thick drawl and white mustache explained why he has faced floods, fires, earthquakes and other mayhem for total strangers.

"People have needs," Erikson said. "God commands me to help others."

The Iraq food campaign, called Gifts of Love, is expected to collect as many as 95,000 boxes nationwide from the 42,000 congregations of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to Mark Kelly, spokesman for the convention's International Mission Board.

Each box, filled with about 70 pounds of rice, beans, lentils, flour, salt, sugar and other staples, will feed a family of five for a month. The boxes are expected to arrive in Kuwait in mid-June.

The convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, has instructed its members not to include any evangelistic tracts, which could cause the aid shipment to be rejected. A label on the outside of the box will identify the box as a gift from Southern Baptist churches of America and quote John 1:17 in Arabic: "For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ."

In Southern California, 15 churches had donated 215 boxes by week's end. They included the Orangewood Avenue Baptist Church in Garden Grove, whose two boxes were delivered Sunday by Clarinda Williamson, a 65-year-old Anaheim nurse.

Asked why her congregation wanted to help Iraqis, Williamson said the members hoped to demonstrate that Americans were caring, not the selfish and materialistic people often portrayed.

"It's just one way we can reach out to people so they can see what we are, rather than what they've heard," she said.

The Iraqi food campaign marks the latest effort in the Southern Baptist Convention's 36-year disaster relief program. The program was started by Texan Baptist men and youths who were on a weeklong camp-out when a hurricane hit. The group took everything they had to feed and help the storm victims, inspiring a program that now deploys 28,000 volunteers from 37 of 42 Baptist state conventions, according to national disaster relief director Mickey Caison.

Caison said the number of volunteers is growing by more than 15% every year. "A lot of people are interested in having a hands-on demonstration of their faith, rather than just sitting in a pew," he said.

The trained volunteers have sent winter coats to North Koreans ravaged by famine, set up water-purification systems for Hondurans hit by Hurricane Mitch, rebuilt homes destroyed in floods and fires, and dished up countless hot meals in mobile kitchens across the nation -- including in New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In California, the relief team draws about 1,000 volunteers -- more than half, Erikson said, between the ages of 60 and 83. He joined in 1990 after retiring from the refrigerator repair business. Like every volunteer, he was required to complete a training program that included everything from crisis counseling to setting up and sanitizing a mobile kitchen.

In 1993, Erikson cut his teeth on his first disaster: wildfires that destroyed 400 homes in Laguna Beach. For 39 days, he helped fill and lay down sandbags on the hills to prevent mudslides and ran the mobile canteen to feed people hamburgers, hot dogs and coffee.

The next year came the Northridge earthquake. He and his wife, Monta, 72, were summoned by the Red Cross to operate the Baptist convention's full-sized feeding units, which dished out as many as 15,000 meals a day of hot stew, chili and other items. The Red Cross provided the food and the Baptists prepared it. Erikson also helped to repair damaged churches.

In 1997, Erikson traveled to El Salvador to join his first foreign disaster-relief operation. He stayed for the better part of seven months, cleaning out hundreds of wells polluted by flood waters. He went back a few years later to help again after the earthquake.

Erikson says he grew so close to the villagers that they began to call him "Tio" -- uncle -- and invited him to share in their meals of iguana in cream sauce.

"It didn't taste much different than alligator," Erikson said.

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