ORLANDO, Florida — A 30-year-old Seventh-day Adventist has organized a group of young believers reaching out to homeless people and families in this central Florida resort mecca.
Eric Camarillo, a first-generation believer who says the persuasive arguments of Adventist friends convinced him of the church’s message, is a human resources specialist who hopes to be able to leave his full-time job helping people with short-term disability claims next year in order to run the ministry full time. He earned a designation as a Certified Nonprofit Professional, or CNP, from the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, a national group, and is working on a master’s in nonprofit management at the University of Central Florida.
Called SALT, an acronym that stands for Service and Love Together, the group, according to its website, “aims to exemplify the character of Christ through relational evangelism, meeting the needs of the community, equipping people for service, and fostering spiritual growth.” The group recently exhibited at the 2018 convention of Adventist-laymen’s Services and Industries (ASI) held here.
Along with serving those in need, SALT’s spiritual emphasis is paying off. The group has a goal of 25 baptisms by the end of 2019, on top of the 23 baptisms, of the homeless and several SALT volunteers, already recorded.
Camarillo, a member of the Orlando Filipino Seventh-day Adventist Church in Altamonte Springs, FL, talks about ministering to “our homeless friends,” something that’s not always an easy task since city regulations “make it illegal to gather the homeless” for feedings in public spaces such as parks. Instead, SALT has permission to use the parking lot of a Greek Orthodox church downtown for ministry.
Part of exemplifying “the character of Christ” in their relational evangelism, Camarillo said, is finding out what the homeless need and helping to meet that need. The group has fundraised to provide clothing to the homeless, and has recently launched a mobile, four-compartment “shower trailer” to help those in need care for themselves.
Sometimes, the involvement is more personal, as when Camarillo took in a homeless person for about a year. “If God has put it in your mind to do [something],” he said, “do it.”
Such approaches win plaudits from those the group serves: “You guys are different,” Camarillo said, is the phrase he most often hears from the homeless he now calls “friends.” The group prides itself on being respectful of the needs of its clients, and on caring for the environment, being sure to clean up after public programs, whether at a church parking lot or in a low-income housing development, where they hold meetings for children, as well as a tutoring program.
The administrators at the housing development “dismissed the other ministries” who were coming there in favor of SALT, Camarillo said, “because we are organized and clean up after ourselves.”
Beside the glamor of resorts such as Disney World, Seaworld, and Universal Studios, hundreds in Orlando still have no place to call home, a 2018 report from the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida indicates. While this latest report shows a miniscule drop in the number of homeless here (a decline of 21 persons in a three-county area from 2017), the reality remains that 1,539 people are homeless in Orange County, which includes Orlando.
SALT is starting to break through the fundraising barrier, raising $70,000 in its sixth year of operation, up from the $12,000 to $15,000 it had raised annually its first five years, Camarillo said. This year’s goal is to raise “more” than the $70,000 figure, given the costs of projects such as the shower trailer. He said one way to accomplish this would be selling “logo space” for business sponsors on one side of the vehicle.
Conversion leads to service
Camarillo, who was raised in the Catholic faith, went through a relationship breakup at age 22, which prompted a spiritual search. He opened a Bible—given by his ex’s aunt—and began reading. Finding Jesus’ words printed in red letters, he wondered about that, while being attracted to the Sermon on the Mount and other parables.
He said he went to three groups of friends from his high school years—one of “non-denominational” Christians, the other two groups of Adventists—asking for their help in understanding the Bible and its message. The answers from his Adventist friends “made sense to me.” He was baptized in May of 2010, and the idea for SALT quickly took root.
Camarillo, who holds a degree in social work from UCF, said there wasn’t “a consistent outreach” by the church in the community, and created SALT “to bring young adults together for service,” because, he said, “young adults want to change the world, to do something great.”
With the prominence of SALT in the community and its gathering of volunteers to help those in need, it appears those young adults are, indeed, doing something great—both for the community and for themselves.