A Christmas tale at Easter

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Hugh Fisher
For the Salisbury Post
CONCORD ó Many people think of Easter weekend as a time for reflecting on the culmination of the Christ story ó and, most likely, bunnies and colorful eggs to boot.
With trees and flowers blooming, Christmas seems far gone even though it wasn’t that long ago that millions around the world celebrated the holiday. Among the gifts were tens of thousands of boxes packed for children, sent to faraway parts of the world through Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse.
Buddy and Gail Ervin of Concord have worked with Operation Christmas Child for more than a decade, volunteering to give presentations and, for about four months of the year, to collect shoeboxes full of gifts for poor children in more than 100 nations.
In 2006, they became area coordinators for the southern Piedmont district, which covers Rowan, Cabarrus and the southern portion of Iredell County.
Gifts collected by churches and community organizations across that region are shipped to Charlotte before being loaded into container ships for the journey across the ocean.
“It’s a very demanding job,” Buddy Ervin said. “There’s a good bit of time involved, and it’s all volunteer.”
Then, last December, Samaritan’s Purse offered the Ervins an even more demanding, and rewarding, opportunity ó and one they had been hoping to get for a long time.
They were invited to travel to one of the sites where the gift boxes were being distributed: Lima, Peru.
Many of Lima’s 7.6 million people live in what Buddy described as “third-world conditions,” without adequate access to running water or electricity.
But the Ervins jumped at the chance to go overseas as representatives of Operation Christmas Child. Gail said they had planned for the call.
“We had talked about it … We had our passports ready and had some funds put aside,” Gail said.
Samaritan’s Purse extends the invitation to its volunteers but doesn’t foot the bill.
Gail and Buddy paid their own way to Lima, arriving on Feb. 4 after spending much of the previous 24 hours flying.
“We got to sleep about 3 o’clock in the morning, and we got up at 6,” Gail said.
And they went right to work, meeting fellow volunteers and getting ready for their first gift distribution that morning.
A long journey
The Ervins said most people think Operation Christmas Child gifts are whisked across the ocean in time for Christmas morning.
The truth is, international red tape and logistics make the road a little more winding.
“The gift boxes have to be inspected for dangerous or inappropriate items,” Buddy said. “Then they’re loaded onto container ships and sent to wherever they are going.”
It takes several weeks for the gifts to arrive, then they have to go through customs and be inspected again.
Meanwhile, just as volunteers at churches and organizations in the United States helped send the gifts on their way, volunteers in other countries help organize their distribution to children who need them most.
On that first February morning, the Ervins met their Peruvian counterparts for a quick session before heading to a distribution site at a small church.
“If you went to Peru as a tourist, you’d see a very different sight from what we did,” Buddy said.
Downtown Lima and the tourist districts have modern skyscrapers, luxury hotels, shopping malls, lush trees and green vegetation.
Outside of the city center, it’s like another world.
Cinder-block houses line dirt streets crowded with mini-buses and taxis.
“There are horns blowing everywhere,” Gail said. “Not out of anger, but just because it’s so crowded. They’re saying ‘I’m here, I’m here, don’t hit me.’ ”
The first church where the Ervins helped distribute gifts was Mision Cristos La Gloria de Dios, and it was far different from American churches.
“It had dirt floors and walls made out of plywood,” Buddy said.
“Most of these churches didn’t have running water. Some of them didn’t have electricity, and if they did, it was just one wire.”
But he said they would never forget stepping into the first church and seeing kids and their families’ reactions to the gifts.
“It was a moment of joy, of just pure joy, seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter,” Buddy said.
“And so many hugs,” Gail added. “Everywhere you turned, those kids would hug you.”
Samaritan’s Purse doesn’t just hand gift boxes to children. As a Christian ministry, the story of Jesus Christ is key.
Telling the tale
Local volunteers offer the story of Christmas in some imaginative and child-friendly ways.
Volunteers provided music, dance and a presentation by a Peruvian man who told stories through pantomime.
“The message was always that Christ is God’s gift to us, the greatest gift of all,” Gail said.
That’s also the title of the storybook that’s given to each child along with his or her gift. It tells the story of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection in the local language and with colorful drawings.
The Ervins’ job was to help distribute those boxes and storybooks, while also meeting and making friends with the Peruvian children.
“Many of them knew a few words of English and want to try them out on you,” Buddy said.
He and Gail learned a few phrases in Spanish, such as Jesus te amo ó Jesus loves you.
Translators also helped the Ervins communicate with the children.
“A lot of them asked where we were from and what it was like here,” Gail said. “Some of them would ask us to read them letters, if their box had a letter in it that was in English.”
The volunteers also got a taste of local culture, joining the dances and praise songs alongside the Peruvian children and worship leaders.
“We tried to sing and dance along as best we could!” Gail said. “Every church we went to, there was lots of music.”
Difficult moments
During the five days they were in Lima, the Ervins helped distribute hundreds of gift boxes from a total of 140,000 sent to that nation.
“But there are 8.7 million children in those age ranges in Peru,” Buddy said. “At these distributions, there were children packed outside the door that we didn’t have boxes for.”
Turning pages in the photo album that contains more than 200 images from their trip, he points to a small brick church with a crowd of about 30 children and families outside the door. The Peruvian man who gave the kids’ presentation is standing in the doorway.
“He had to explain to them, in their language, that the boxes were gone,” Buddy said.
At other places, the ways of life that most of the kids took for granted hit the Ervins hard.
“At the first church we went to, the church had a snack for the kids, and some Kool-Aid,” Gail said.
“The Kool-Aid was in a five-gallon bucket, and they only had five or six cups.”
So, the local adults who were in charge filled each cup, carried it to a child and let him drink.
“And when that child was done, they’d take the cup away and fill it back up,” Gail said. “And they’d go back and forth until every kid had a cup of Kool-Aid.”
In another of the photos, Buddy pointed out a steep hillside covered with rocks.
“You know, we have volunteers inspect the gift boxes,” Buddy said. Liquids and any inappropriate or dangerous toys are filtered out.
“Sometimes, one of (the volunteers) will ask about something like a pair of scissors and ask if we should really send that over to the kids,” Buddy said.
“What we don’t understand is that they live in areas where they’re accustomed to so much more danger than we are. They don’t have our standard of safety.”
But the children do have joy and happiness. They also had a great deal of interest in the Americans who came to visit and distribute gifts.
One in particular touched their hearts. Buddy pointed out the photo of a small girl who talked to him at one of the churches.
“I got the interpreter to come over and the girl told me, through him, that she wanted me to know that her name was Gabriella.”
“I told her I was happy to meet her,” Buddy said. They talked briefly and then he went on to meet others.
“About 30 minutes later, she came up and started talking again,” he said. “The interpreter told me, ‘This little girl wants to know if you remember her name.’ ”
Buddy couldn’t think of it.
With a quiet, almost trembling voice, he described what happened next.
“She said, ‘I’m going to tell you my name one more time, and you repeat it after me: Gabriella.’ ”
He did.
“I told her I would not forget her name this time,” Buddy said.
And he didn’t.
Christmas all year
Back in the states, the Ervins aren’t planning to head overseas again soon.
But they’d gladly travel again, if Samaritan’s Purse asks.
Right now, even though Easter candy and dogwood flowers are on most people’s minds, the Ervins are preparing for a summer of supporting Operation Christmas Child.
“We are going around to churches and organizations, letting them know we are available to come to their organization and give presentations on what Operation Christmas Child is,” Buddy said.
They’ll also be attending Kannapolis Intimidators games and other community events, organizing volunteers and getting ready for the busy months of October, November and December.
In 2007, they saw the southern Piedmont region collect more than 19,000 gift boxes. “We’d love to hit that 20,000 mark,” Buddy said.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, gift distributions are going on continually ó even during Easter week.
It takes so long for the boxes to be sent to remote areas that the gift-giving does not end for several months, Buddy said.
Gail said that the trip to Peru helped them see a side of the charity that truly amazed them: the fact that so many people join forces as volunteers so that poor children can have the joy of Christmas through the year.
“It’s an amazing thing, because it’s basically run by volunteers,” Gail said. “It’s a blessing for us to be a part of it.”
“There are very few ministries where you’re going to be able to reach so many people,” Buddy said. “Think of all those storybooks and how many other people in the families get to read them. That is a lot of seeds sown.”
Contact Hugh Fisher at 704-797-4245 or hfisher@salisburypost.com.