"It's been fun watching God do God things," said Bill Barker, describing the collection and delivery of more than 23,000 backpacks stuffed with clothing, school supplies and toys for children across Appalachia.
Barker, director of the North American Mission Board's Appalachian Regional Ministry, said the bulk of the backpacks came from Georgia Baptists, but churches from Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and several other states also participated. The backpacks and their contents are valued at around $75 each.
This particular ministry journey began for Barker with a children's sermon 12 years ago. He spoke, for the first time as a missionary, in a church in north Georgia in 2001. Prior to his presentation to the congregation, the pastor unexpectedly asked Barker to deliver the children's sermon.
"I used the Scripture from Romans 10:15," Barker said. "'How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the Gospel of good things.' I had the children take off their shoes, and we talked about the Gospel. Then I told them there are children I serve who don't have any shoes or school supplies.
"The Woman's Missionary Union leader was so struck by that fact that as a Girls in Action project that year the church collected 300 shoe boxes of school supplies that we distributed in McDowell County, W.Va."
The vision for this year's significant increase came from John Waters, president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Statesboro. Waters said God placed on his heart the number of 20,000 backpacks to aid the ministry. Georgia associations and churches responded to the vision and exceeded that number by 1,000, with hundreds more received from Baptists beyond the state.
In the span of a dozen years, thousands of children have received gifts from churches through the Appalachian Regional Ministry. And Barker's garage became a warehouse, as it remains to this day.
In its second year, the project that would become today's backpack distribution grew from one church to dozens of churches participating from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. By 2011, more than 5,800 children received gifts throughout the Appalachian Regional Ministry's territory.
"A little in the hand of the Lord is a lot," said Keith Decker, director of Cedaridge Ministries in Williamsburg, Ky. The Cedaridge site hosted 1,600 recipients for a backpack distribution Dec. 14, 1,000 of them children. In addition to the backpacks and welcomed boxes of food, the Gospel was shared throughout the day. A total of 60 people came to faith in Christ as a result.
Crystal Hall is a single mother and struggles to provide for her children in the best of times.
"I'm here because I need help," Hall said. "With Christmas coming up I'm thankful for anything we can receive." Hall said she appreciated the dignity she and her children received, adding that it allowed her to not feel ashamed to ask for help.
"If we don't get involved," Decker said, "these families may not have any help. This is what He has called us to do."
The North American Mission Board's disaster relief team assisted with logistics and volunteers to help load, transport and deliver the backpacks. Seven semi-trucks full of backpacks were unloaded at 19 distribution sites. All of the loading and unloading was done by volunteers.
"I can't say enough about all of the help, the donations, the volunteers," Barker said. "The generosity of Georgia Baptists has been amazing. The volunteers, the help from the NAMB team, especially the disaster relief team -- it's been great. To say I am humbled would be an understatement."
One unanticipated benefit of this year's effort has been the sense of unity the project facilitated at every level.
"The Georgia Baptist Convention promoted the effort this year in cooperation with the GBC WMU," Barker said. "The GBC was purposeful in making it an associational project. As we received backpacks I heard again and again from directors of mission that nothing had unified their associations like this project in years. Pastor after pastor said that this project brought their churches together in powerful ways."
Even with 23,000-plus backpacks and others helping in outreach this year, needs remained. Barker shared with a congregation about the project's limitation, saying three requests in New York and Pennsylvania would not make this year's list. There was simply not enough to fill those needs.
"A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail," Barker said. "It was from a new widow who heard me speak. She said she knew her late husband would want to help, so she sold his woodworking tools and shop contents. In the letter was a check for $5,000." The three locations were added to the distribution list.
Barker said plans are already taking shape for next year, and Baptists in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia are inquiring about joining with Georgia and Appalachian Regional Ministry.
Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board. Learn more at namb.net/arm. To view a video of the backpack distribution at Cedaridge Ministries, visit namb.net/cedaridge. 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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