SYRACUSE, N.Y. (BP) -- When Ronnie Wyatt moved with his wife and three of his daughters from North Carolina to central New York state, they settled into one of the roughest neighborhoods in North Syracuse. Having left a secure pastorate in the South, Wyatt soon learned that only about 4 percent of Syracuse's residents are Christians.

"There are more Muslims in our area than Christians," said Wyatt, a North American Mission Board church planter who is starting The Neighborhood Church.

He has counted more than 10 nationalities in the impoverished Butternut/Schiller Park neighborhood where his family now lives. The neighborhood is so crime-ridden that Syracuse police have told Wyatt they only go there to respond to 911 calls. The neighborhood is that dangerous, Wyatt said.

"God really broke our heart for the neighborhood," he said.

The Wyatts began home Bible studies last August and now have as many as 50 people attending, of which he estimates that 35 have never associated with a church. And most families are among the lower socioeconomic strata.

"High poverty and high crime -- they usually work hand in hand," Wyatt said.

"Four blocks over from where I am right now, a man was shot and killed in the street," Wyatt continued. "A few days later his wife came to look at the (impromptu) memorial and was shot and killed in the same place."

Wyatt soon learned that acts of kindness created inroads to the community. That's when he got a phone call about distributing children's backpacks for Christmas.

Backpacks for Appalachia began in 2001 when Appalachian Regional Ministries missionary Bill Barker received 300 gift boxes for children from an Atlanta-area church. He sent them to West Virginia. Now a national missionary appointed by the North American Mission Board, Barker said the initiative has continued to mature and grow. Last December, Southern Baptists delivered nearly 24,000 backpacks to children throughout Appalachia filled with toys, schools supplies, food, clothes, a copy of the Christmas story and an invitation to take a correspondence Bible course.

"The intent has been to show the love of Christ by sharing Christmas with a child in an appropriate way," Barker said.

Wyatt delivered two of those backpacks to a North Syracuse home where the Muslim dad was in prison. The mom began attending The Neighborhood Church's home Bible study. He noticed one night that she was agitated and asked what was bothering her.

"I just realized that if I die right now I'm going to go to hell," the woman said. "Can we get me saved first and then get back to the Bible study?"

The study stopped as she committed her life to Christ. The next day, her husband got out of prison and attended the following Saturday's Bible study.

Similar stories emerged throughout the Appalachian Regional Ministries region, which involves 12 state Baptist conventions.

Cedaridge Ministries in Williamsburg, Ky., helped 1,600 children and recorded 60 professions of faith among adults. One Accord Ministries in east Tennessee gave backpacks to 1,440 children along with boxes of food for their family, and 149 adults made professions of faith in Christ.

In 2013, Backpacks for Appalachia was primarily a Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) initiative. John Waters, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Statesboro, Ga., and president of Georgia's convention, issued a statewide challenge that resulted in 21,004 backpacks from Georgia. State missionary Frank Nuckolls, who coordinates the GBC's associational ministries, orchestrated a logistics plan that culminated in every Georgia Baptist association serving as a collection point. Churches of all sizes were able to participate.

In 2014 the Christmas backpack initiative will go national, Barker said. Not only will it serve Appalachia, but also the Mississippi River Ministry (MRM), which he also oversees. The goal is 40,000 backpacks as more state Baptist conventions participate.

Barker recommends other state conventions utilize the Georgia logistics model. As the initiative expands, Barker will ask state Baptist conventions west of the Mississippi River to focus their efforts on MRM's Delta region, where leaders have already identified 50 distribution sites.

Each state Baptist convention will be involved in the delivery and distribution of their backpacks, making the initiative as hands-on as possible, Barker said.

Serving Appalachia and the Delta meets just a fraction of the poverty challenge in the United States where an estimated 46.5 million people live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those who did receive help in 2013 were often quick to say thank you. Children near Blackey, Ky., wrote thank-you notes, itemizing each gift they received. One girl wrote, "However, I did not need the deodorant or the hair brush, so I gave them to my mother who needed them BAD!"

Barker also learned of another boy who longed to have a particular shirt that his parents couldn't afford. The backpack he received happened to have that shirt. But the boy didn't keep it. His best friend did not receive a backpack, and he needed a shirt, too. The friend received the coveted shirt.

Barker hopes Southern Baptists will be as selfless in 2014 as the boy who gave up the shirt.

"The backpacks have provided an avenue," Barker said of the ministry opportunities. "This (kind of result) was not happening until we started doing the backpacks."

To learn more about the LoveLoud Christmas Backpack ministry and how you can participate, go to http://namb.net/Backpacks.

Jim Burton, a photojournalist living in Cumming, Ga., writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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