How God Changed Norita Erickson’s ‘heart of stone’ and Gave Her a Love for the Turkish People
By Boaz Wadel
Southern California-born Norita Erickson of Kardelen Mercy Teams (www.kardelenmercyteams.org) is based in Ankara, Turkey, where she works with Turkish people with disabilities, and. she has an extraordinary story to tell.
Norita is from an Armenian background and during what was called the "Armenian Genocide", an estimated 1 and 1.5 million of her people were slaughtered or exiled by Ottoman soldiers and mercenaries, so she had every reason to not feel any warmth towards the Turks.
But, after struggling with un-forgiveness and unbelief for a period in her life, she said that God changed her "heart of stone" and gave her a deep love for the Turkish peoples. She has lived there since 1987 with her husband, Ken.
Norita, who was born in Los Angeles to Armenian parents, moved with her husband to Amsterdam, Holland, in 1979 to work with Youth With A Mission. They wanted to serve Muslim guest workers and refugees who had fled there to escape the problems in their home countries.
In an interview for my Front Page Radio program, she said, "While we were there, we had our hearts broken for all the people who moved to Western Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, and who had no clue or idea who Jesus was, or that He loved them or died for them. They included Berbers, Turks, Kurds, Iranians and Afghans."
But really, the Turks were the last people on her mind when they first began their ministry in Amsterdam, as the "Armenian Genocide" was still on her mind.
Kardelen's Care Team visits this mom and her two children on a monthly basis. Her estranged husband every now and then shows up, and after one unpleasant visit, she became pregnant with this little boy
"All of my forefathers came from Cilicia, in the southern part of Turkey," she said. "There was an Armenian nation there for hundreds of years and, in the latter half of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century, as the Ottoman Empire [sometimes referred to as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey], began to disintegrate, this Christian minority was decimated.
"It was the first known ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century. Over a million and a half Armenians disappeared -- moved out of their homes towns and villages and led to Northern Syria where, today, we're experiencing so much violence and evil. My grandfather was a pastor who had been revived in the latter half of the nineteenth century and he trained as a protestant minister and was a teacher.
"The Lord spoke to him in the early nineteen-hundreds -- 1914 or so -- and said, 'You're not going to die,' and gave him a scripture from Psalm 118 that he took to mean that he would not die. Although he went through very many trials and tribulations, it's quite miraculous how he, and my family survived. All my great grandparents did not survive however. They were killed in 1915."
Why were the Armenians so hated?
Single-mom Daria takes Ekeem outside for a walk. Ekeem suffers from Cerebral Palsy, and since having his chair, he is able to breath, eat and function better
Norita replied, "I believe that it was the political issue at the time as there were Armenians who wanted to create their own nation state. They were siding with foreign powers such as the British who had troops in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. So nationalism was on the move -- both Turkish, Russian and Armenian -- and it was an opportunity to wipe these people out and therefore take their land."
I then asked her what she and Ken discovered when they first arrived in Amsterdam.
She replied, "We had our hearts broken one Easter when we went to the national outdoor Easter celebration and discovered a man pouring over a little leaflet that had scripture and hymns in it. He looked puzzled, so we walked up to him and I asked him, 'Do you know what this is?' and he said, 'No'. He explained he was from Egypt and so we told him that we were celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He then said, 'Who'? And when we heard that, we knew the Lord had was telling us that He wanted us to tell people like this Egyptian who Jesus is.
"We prayed, and sought the Lord about this, and the specific people group that we were to minister to, and shortly afterwards my husband came to me and said, 'I believe God is calling us to the Turks'. And I said, 'No, He's not Ken. He could never call us to the Turks. They're under a blood curse. They've never admitted to the genocide, and they killed all my great grandparents. They're scary people. I could never go there.'
"But Ken would not give up and said that we should keep on praying until we 'got on the same page'. So we prayed and every day. I got on my knees, cried out to God and I said, 'Show my husband that he's missed Your will and show him that he's wrong'. But at the end of that month, he came back to me with a testimony that he'd heard of a Turk who had found new life in Jesus and who had stood up at a meeting in Germany and asked for forgiveness for what his people had done to the Armenians.
A mission team from the U.S. sponsored a picnic in a nearby park for those we serve. It was a full day that included a barbecue, games, wheelchair donations and a birthday cake
"And when I heard that testimony, God broke my heart. I began to weep and I sensed the Lord speaking to me and say, 'If I love them, how can you not'? I knew that at that point I needed to cry tears of repentance because I had put God in a little box. I had thought these people were under a blood curse, that they could not be saved so I had reasoned "Why would God call us to an impossible task?" And instead the Lord showed me that nothing is impossible with Him and that He loved them. So I repented of my hard heart and I asked him to give me a heart of forgiveness, and within a very short time that's what I got. I started to talk to Turkish people in the city and just fell in love with them. I found that I had so much in common with them. My upbringing in an Armenian-American home had a lot that was in common with the Eastern culture of Turks."
During their seven years with Youth With A Mission in Amsterdam, the couple took a year off during that time to go to Turkey to learn the language and the culture.
"We lived in a village and it was very difficult," said Norita. "I got hepatitis and I had a baby girl to look after as well. I thought this was a crazy thing and I would never come back here. When we got back to Amsterdam, we could speak Turkish and then, we providentially met a fundamentalist Muslim who had found Christ. I just happened to go to his workplace and found him."
She said that he was working at a sewing machine and when he heard Norita share about God and knew that she was a Christian, he felt he had to come and talk to her and her husband.
"He told me that he had 'seen Jesus' and that he had read the New Testament. Through that relationship that we developed, we learned about how village people understand Christ and the message of the Gospel. For him, baptism was the once-for-all 'ablution'. He was 'washed' by the Messiah."
Dr. S is a volunteer physical therapist who assists with the "Wheelchair For a Child" program. He is with Ayshe, who received a chair in July of 2013
Then finally, in 1987, God led them to return to Turkey, and so with their, by now, two children, they moved to Ankara, the capital city, where Ken got a job teaching in a school, and she settled down to being a housewife.
"I started English language book store in an upscale mall where we were also able to sell Bibles in many different languages. And all during this time from year to year seeking the Lord on where we should go from there," she said.
It wasn't long before Norita discovered what God had planned for her: help children and teenagers with special needs.
"I discovered that in that entire region, not just in Turkey, but throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and all the way up through Central Asia, that if you're born with a disability or you end up with a disability through an accident or sickness, you are considered cursed," she said. "Children are thrown away, hidden away, because the families are afraid that they'll be identified and stigmatized as cursed. And if you're cursed, nobody wants to marry your children, and if you're cursed you're the rejected. You're the pariahs of society.
"Turkey is a country of 75,000,000 people and 99% of the population is Islamic, some more strongly Islamic, while others are more moderate. But 17% of the Turkish population and that might include some Christian minorities too, has a disability. That's a very high percentage. Part of it is also a belief in fate. In many Islamic countries, they believe that God has written your whole life on your forehead and nothing you can do will change it. So you don't mess with fate because that's what God has given you as the test for your life. We have discovered that this worldview is quite strong and imprisoning."
Soon, she said, her husband changed jobs and began making "appropriate technology wheelchairs."
A Care Team member takes Mehmet out for a walk. Before Mehmet received his chair, he spent most of his day on the hard cement floor of the family's two-room hovel, unable to get outside
Norita went on to say, "My husband was busy doing this, but I had no interest as I was doing other things. I really didn't understand what it meant to serve the disabled until 1997 when I went into a state-run institution and was shocked to find 400 children who had been sent away to live in this place. They were tied in their beds, covered in their vomit and bodily filth, and were screaming, as there did not appear to be anyone there to care for them. No one appeared to know what to do with them; the attitude of the care givers was that these children were 'cursed' and they too were 'cursed' having to work in such a place and so they would just do a little as was needed until the little ones died.
"I was shocked and I ran out of that place and I cried out to God. I was angry. I said, 'How could You show this to me? I wish I didn't know what I just saw'. It was overwhelming - just like going into a concentration camp. The Lord didn't answer me at that point. But two weeks later, I got sick and I was up in the middle of the might praying; moaning and groaning, saying, 'I wish my mom were here to look after me and make me some chicken soup. Then, all of a sudden, I became enveloped in a black cloud of isolation. I felt so lonely. I started to cry and I heard the Holy Spirit saying, 'You are weeping my tears for these children.'
"And all of a sudden, I had a vision of a garden with trees and animals and flowers and children sitting up and some standing up and there were some adults there, laughing and enjoying the sunlight. The Lord spoke to me and said, 'I want you to do that.' I was confused and told Him that I didn't know anything about helping disabled kids and I was just a Bible teacher and child worker. However, the Lord convinced me that He was in this, so within a very few days, I called another of my Turkish friends who knew Jesus and asked this friend if she would come out to the institution and said, 'God has got something in mind for us out at this institution. So that was the inception of Kardelen Mercy Teams."
Norita explained that Kardelen is the Turkish word for a snowdrop flower. "In Turkey snowdrops are the first flower to emerge at the end of winter when they respond to the spring sunlight.
"I saw these children, and our ministry, like this. These children are hidden away, but they respond to the sunlight of God's love as we bring it into their homes and into these institutions," she said.
"From 1997, we worked for 12 years as volunteers in the state run institution and we went in five days a week, from nine to five, and during that time, we brought in over a million dollars' worth of goods and services to these neglected children.
"Our view was that we loved everybody there and modeled God's heart for every human being, and in that process, several of the physically handicapped young people came to the Lord. Many of them are with the Lord today. Some of them I got out of the institution; one is now part of my staff in Ankara, and we're working in another two places with care providers.
"Then, four years ago, we moved out of the institution and into the community. We now have Kardelen Mercy Teams and our brief is to go to the families who are most likely to send their children away to an institution. We learned in the very beginning of our ministry that there was a waiting list of 3,000 families to get their kids into that hell-hole, and we decided to go the families and love on them and show them they can work with their kids and show them that they are not cursed. So that is what we do now."
Norita said that one of the ways they do this is through birthday parties.
"We tell them that it is good that they have been born and we share with the parents that they are blessed to have such children," she said. "In so doing, we break the stigma on them, as they often do not have any relationship with their neighbors because they're considered cursed. We come in with balloons and a cake and do all kinds of fun things. Sometimes we also bring along a specially-designed wheelchair for the child, and we also bring diapers or food packages, and in the winter, we also bring coal to heat their homes.
"When we provided these things, we see that people are changed. They respond to us because we pray; we sing the Lord's Prayer over them. These are all Muslim people, but they have a heart beating and they have a need to know the Lord just like anybody else."
Norita then revealed that she has just released a book about the first 12 years of their ministry called "Cry Out," which, she said, "features the lessons that God showed us, the miracles He performed, and the opposition we experienced."