Westmont Magazine Living in the Land of the "Enemy"
Living in the Middle East has never been easy for Norita Sarian Erickson ’73 and her family. Anti-Christian propaganda is common in the Muslim country and few churches or ministries operate there. The challenge has been especially great for Norita, an Armenian-American.
“I had to have ‘heart surgery’ under the gentle direction of the Holy Spirit,” she says. “I needed to learn to love people whose ancestors were responsible for the ethnic cleansing of my ancestors.
“Nearly 100 years ago the Lord saved my grandparents from sure extermination. They honored him in public testimony and faithful service. After 25 years abroad working with Muslims, my husband and I celebrate our 18th year in the land of my forebears. Although difficult at times, our road has been full of joy, marked by the presence of Jesus, who is preeminent in all things.”
Since she graduated from Westmont, Norita has encountered a series of new cultures, languages and friends. Her first job was teaching English in a Los Angeles barrio; her husband, Ken, lived in a Christian community on an Amsterdam houseboat before they married.
“Ken’s overseas experiences convinced him that he should do further study, so he took classes at Fuller Seminary while I subbed and worked on my master’s degree in literature at UC Los Angeles,” she says.
“Living in close proximity to ‘two-thirds world’ Christian leaders changed us forever,” Norita says.“ We heard God calling us to leave father and mother and go to a land He would show us. Little did I think He would lead us to the land of my ancestors, to the enemy, so to speak. Little did I think we would be broken over and over, brought continually to repentance from self-sufficiency, cultural arrogance and lovelessness.”
The Ericksons spent seven years in Amsterdam reaching out to Middle Eastern guest workers and refugees from Muslim and Christian backgrounds. “This experience was monumental in changing my view of the Lord Jesus’ plan and power,” she says. “No amount of course work in seminary, Bible school or college could have prepared us for the paradigm shift we’ve experienced.
“For the past 18 years we have served the body of Christ as well as non-believers in the Middle East in the capital city of the land of my father’s birth,” she adds. “Our new extended family includes a vibrant church of believers from a Muslim background as well as people who have come from many continents to share their faith and lives here.”
In addition to starting an expatriate women’s study and prayer group, Norita opened a bookstore in 1994 in a large, upscale mall. “It was the perfect place to share good news in a relaxed atmosphere. The conversations and friendships formed were marvelous,” she says.
For several years, Norita has taught and worked at children’s camps. “Children come from all over the country to attend our two-week, primitive but joy-filled celebrations. My two children count those camps as some of their best childhood memories and influential experiences.”
In 1992 the Ericksons felt God leading them to undertake a new outreach.“We began to focus on those people who were the closest to His heart: the poor, the disabled, the rejected. My husband left his teaching position at a local university to begin a company that manufactures low-cost, high-quality wheelchairs. The needs of several hundred mentally and physically impaired bed-bound children had transformed me. I discovered children being brutalized and abused by a corrupt and inhumane bureaucracy.”
The Ericksons train and hire advocates to care for children in the state-run orphanage for the disabled. “The Crocus group is dedicated to demonstrating the love of Jesus through hands-on care and advocacy for the disabled and their families,” Norita explains. “Friends in Thousand Oaks, Calif., have formed a foundation, Friends of Kardelen, to help channel funds to our work. We host volunteer ‘hug teams’ from churches and schools who spend a week or two with these children. In this nation of 70 million people, more than 15 percent of the population is significantly disabled. Nearly every family is affected and very few have any idea that their Creator cares for them personally or is close to them in their predicament. We have good news and, with God’s grace, we are good news too.”
Throughout her experiences, Norita has been thankful for her years at Westmont. “The disciplines of scriptural study, apologetics, philosophy and literature I learned there have formed an essential block of the foundation for my marriage, family and ministry,” she says. “The spiritual and emotional connections forged at Westmont have continued to be sources of challenge and encouragement. The college gave me a solid, Christ-centered intellectual foundation.”