By Kristen Camp
ALPHARETTA, Ga. – Weeks after the holidays have passed, backpacks filled with school supplies given by Southern Baptist churches continue to bless students living in the Appalachian region.
Teams from Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM) traveled all along the East Coast in December to deliver Christmas backpacks to more than 30,400 students just in time for the holiday season. After receiving their backpacks, these students, ranging from pre-school age to high school, had the opportunity to listen to a presentation of the gospel resulting in 129 salvation decisions.
“All in all this is a good approach to open doors to share the gospel,” said Bill Barker, North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary and ARM director.
The Christmas-centered activity builds good will that lasts throughout the year.
“We have seen individuals with such hostility towards the Church just melt because of the Christmas backpack ministry,” Barker said.
ARM, a NAMB ministry, started the backpack outreach in 2001 when a church in Cumming, Ga. collected backpacks full of school supplies to deliver to a poverty-stricken community in West Virginia. By 2011, the ministry was distributing more than 5,800 backpacks at Christmas to students in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
After a slight decline in the number of backpacks in 2012, John Waters, the president of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) at the time, challenged Georgia Baptists to get behind ARM and support the Christmas backpack ministry. The next year, ARM collected and distributed 23,800 backpacks, and the number grew again this past Christmas.
“We are seeing a lot of lives changed and Georgia Baptists are really leading the way,” said Barker. “Churches from Alabama, California and other states have contacted us after seeing the success we have had with this ministry on the East Coast.”
Churches from Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia participated in this year’s Christmas backpack initiative. The response was so positive that 1,100 backpacks were able to be shared with the Mississippi River Ministry for distribution through its partners. In 2014 more than 700 salvation decisions were record through the ministries of ARM and the Mississippi River Ministry.
But the Christmas backpack ministry doesn’t happen just once a year. Teams are working hard year around to provide for students and families in need. Each fall, ARM distributes backpacks filled with school supplies to students of all ages. There are also additional coats, shoes, clothing and food boxes available to students and their families at each distribution location.
ARM received approximately $67,000 in unsolicited funds in 2014 specifically for the Christmas backpack ministry. Each backpack contains $50-$60 worth of items on average, meaning those donated funds paid for more than 1,000 backpacks.
Along with accepting donations, volunteers are also welcome to assist ARM with the Christmas backpack ministry. ARM partners with different state conventions, local churches and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR). But there is always a need for individuals to help assemble, collect, deliver and distribute backpacks to their various destinations.
“It’s amazing to see how individuals come together to serve alongside this ministry. Entire congregations will take part in distributing backpacks, and church members who haven’t shown up to a service in five years will come to help make this ministry happen,” said Barker.
While ARM is accustomed to receiving calls from churches wanting to get involved with the backpack ministry, 2014 was the first year in which schools were calling and asking ARM to come on campus to distribute the backpacks to their students.
“We were surprised but thrilled to see how public schools were welcoming us onto their campuses,” said Barker.
Recently other church groups have taken the backpack idea and created similar ministry opportunities.
“We have had some Methodist churches contact us about the backpacks. A Disciples of Christ group took the idea and ran with it. This is just one way we have found to show others the love of Christ and to share His story. And as long as the gospel is shared, in the end that’s the ultimate goal,” said Barker.
Kristen Camp writes for the North American Mission Board.