At least twice a week, as he’s exiting the parking lot of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., Ingvald Larsen drives past a sign announcing his entry into the mission field.
It is a reminder, the 82-year-old grandfather said, that life wasn’t always so kind to him, and that he was once dependent on the kindnesses of others to help see his family through tough times.
And so for most of his life, Inky Larsen, as he is known, has tried to live the message of those signs, mindful that the real work of the church is beyond its walls.
“People help you, you help them," Larsen said. “That’s the Norwegian way."
Sometimes that plays out on foreign soil, where he joins his church on mission trips, and other times at the Albert T. Mills Enrichment Center, a ministry serving preschoolers from Atlanta’s toughest neighborhoods.
At first, he and his wife, Sandra, simply gave money to the center, but in 2005 they began adding food, clothing and shoes that Inky Larsen found on department store clearance racks.
Once or twice a week, he picks up donated food from Fresh Market and Bagelicious and delivers it to the center.
“The thing I appreciate so much is they thank me for picking the food up so they won’t have to throw it away," Larsen said.
Besides the mission trips with fellow members of Johnson Ferry Baptist, helping the children and the community that surround the enrichment center was one of the couple’s greatest pleasures.
And, perhaps, the center’s greatest blessing.
“Whenever we have a need, if I mention it to him he tries to help meet the need," said Rosa Arnold-Colbert, founder of the center. “Even though his wife passed, he’s carrying on the tradition."
The couple was on a cruise in December 2007 when suddenly Sandra couldn’t breathe. Weeks later she lost her battle with lung cancer, leaving her husband alone to carry out their mission to feed and clothe the needy.
He had to, because that’s what life had always demanded of him.
Larsen grew up in Brooklyn, the oldest of four children. At age 8 he started selling magazines to buy candy. When he learned he could make more money shining shoes, he found a spot in front of a local bar and became one of the best shoeshine boys in Brooklyn.
His childhood, he said, wasn’t much different from the children he helps at the enrichment.
“We were poor," Larsen said.
So poor, he said, camp would’ve been out of the question except someone donated the money to his mother.
“It was a good experience," Larsen said.
He learned to make a bed, which he said gave him a head start when the Air Force came calling in 1951.
He served four years, then got math degrees from Bemidji State College in Minnesota and the University of Tennessee and taught for five years in Gary, Ind. On Valentine’s Day 1964, he met Sandra, an Atlanta girl. Three months and two days later, on May 16, he married her.
The couple moved to Marietta in 1965 and Inky landed a job teaching math with the DeKalb County (Ga.) school system. Sandra worked for the Centers for Disease Control.
He retired in 1991 and Sandra followed in 1996. But Larsen says helping others isn’t something you start and stop at will. It’s what God calls us to do.
Besides, “every time I think I’m getting too old," he said, “the sign is a reminder to keep going."