CENTRAL IRAQ (BP)–Iraqis cheered as a volunteer team moved through their neighborhood to give out cartons of food sent by Southern Baptist churches across America.
Children ran up to the five Southern Baptist men from Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., like they were long-lost uncles, giggling and jostling to get close. Mothers handed over their babies to be held, and the few men around extended greetings.
If there were any anti-American feelings, they were well-hidden in this impoverished Shiite Muslim village, where some families have had relatives killed or tortured under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
“It reminded me of kids coming up to Jesus,” marveled Jim Walker, a digital press artist from East Bend, N.C.
The 10-day project in late October and early November was just a small part of a massive, months-long Southern Baptist effort to help the Iraqi people.
During late October the last of 69 truckload-sized cargo containers — carrying a total of some 45,000 boxes of food — arrived by truck and were off-loaded in a warehouse for distribution to needy people across Iraq.
Many thousands of Southern Baptists in America had stuffed each carton with about 70 pounds of flour, sugar and other basic foodstuffs, enough to feed a family of four for several weeks. If all 45,000 cartons could be stacked up, the pile would have been more than eight miles high.
Distribution of the cartons was halted in August because of fears that supporters of Saddam Hussein might target humanitarian workers. Even during this period, however, a small crew of Southern Baptist workers continued to distribute food, working through Iraqi churches, community councils and other organizations.
Under the leadership of a retiree from Greer, S.C., about half the food has been distributed and the rest is expected to be delivered by the end of this year.
While the Calvary team members went unharmed during their visit, sporadic attacks continued while they were in the country, including the bombing of a Red Cross facility and a downtown Baghdad hotel.
In one neighborhood, hundreds of food boxes were delivered to a school building in a poor area far from downtown. People have built modest homes of mud bricks on land taken by squatter’s rights. Raw sewage runs through the dirt streets and livestock wanders unimpeded.
Even there, village council members had determined the most needy families to receive food boxes. Volunteer team members went with the government leaders, who carried lists of eligible families. The families were given tickets entitling them to claim a food box.
At one home, volunteers Larry Ledford of Winston-Salem and Hal Newell of Lewisville, N.C., handed a ticket to a woman who was surrounded by babies and children. While they could not understand her Arabic, there was no mistaking the radiant gratitude in her face and gestures.
‘NO FOOD AT ALL’
At another home, a man dressed in a working man’s uniform humbly accepted a ticket while his family peeked from the door of their simple mud-and-brick home. “There are seven children in this household, and they have no food at all,” a village leader said through a translator. Two of the volunteers prayed for the man after giving him a ticket for a food box.
Calvary member Larry Ledford told of visiting a home where a man had been tortured by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen. Terror filled the adult man’s eyes, and he stayed behind his mother, trembling violently. “I was able to put a hand on his shoulder, and we prayed for him before we left,” Hal Newell said.
They saw one man who had lost a leg to torture, one whose eye had been gouged out, and another whose hands had been smashed by a hammer during torture. A red flag flew over one house where a family member had been killed by Saddam Hussein loyalists.
Although few people in the community spoke English, they understood who was bringing the food.
‘THE LOVE OF CHRIST’
One man said it was the Christians from America bringing us food. “Where are the Muslims?” the man asked, recounted volunteer Doug Wells, a sales analyst with a major baking company in Winston-Salem. “It struck me that the people realize we’re trying to help them. And we’re trying to show them the love of Christ.”
The need for food became clear one afternoon when delivery of the food boxes was delayed. A noisy crowd gathered outside the school. One woman cried aloud. People jostled at a window, trying to shove their identity cards in to Iraqi helpers who were identifying people on the needy list.
Some food boxes were distributed through Muslim mosques, which function as community centers. One local leader said the mosque maintains a list of needy families and delivered food to those. He also said he knows of many families whose men died in Iraq’s wars.
“The Iraqi people suffered under Saddam Hussein and they are still suffering,” he said, adding that people need medicine as well as food.
Providing food through the mosques led to one mosque leader publicly thanking God for Southern Baptists in America and the food they sent. The Calvary Baptist Church team went home, happy to have helped.
More on Iraq ministry efforts: http://www.imb.org/urgent.
Your gifts will help: http://www.resources.imb.org/index.cfm/fa/prod/ProdID/961.htm.
Iraq video and audio clips: http://www.imb.org/urgent/media2.asp.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BIG HIT, HUNGRY, WORRIED and RELIEF!