Georgia Baptists are bringing Christmas joy throughout Appalachia this month as a record number of backpacks are finding their way into the arms and hearts of underprivileged children.
Many churches are delivering the gifts in person through previously determined distribution sites; other backpacks are being delivered through local missionaries and churches. Thousands were delivered in semi-tractor trailer rigs provided by the North American Mission Board, which coordinates the distribution.
And by thousands, it means a record 32,733, surpassing last year’s record collection by 1,337. Georgia Baptists have shattered each year’s goal since the initial 4,400 were collected in 2012. That was the year when then-Georgia Baptist Convention President John Waters, pastor of First Baptist Church of Statesboro, issued the call and churches responded on relatively short notice.
This is the fourth year that big-hearted congregations of all sizes have responded to the call for the Christmas gifts for many children who otherwise would not have a Christmas. This year’s goal was 30,000 smiles, or backpacks. The final total will be posted later this month.
Bill Barker, director of Appalachian Regional Ministries (ARM), said he is confident a record 50,000 backpacks will be collected this season with Georgia being the front runner among four states. Thus far the total stands at at total 49,690 from Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.
As of Dec. 7 North Carolina was running second with 8,822, Alabama was third with 5,212, and Virginia with an undetermined amount.
That cooperation shows the world the best fact of Southern Baptists and their desire to help others, he added.
That cooperation is perhaps best modeled through the serendipitous interaction between Allen Hill, director of missions for Appalachee Baptist Association in Monroe. For the past two years a group from his Association has personally delivered backpacks to three ministry sites in Eastern Kentucky. A mechanical problem with their truck carrying more than 700 backpacks delayed their arrival at one site, which had closed. The team made the other two deliveries and were on their return trip with the undelivered 200 gifts. While driving through Sevierville, TN, earlier this week Hill made contact with fellow associational missionary Robert Nichols for Sevier County Baptist Association. That Association serves the fire-scorched resort towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
Learning of the dire local need, the team gave 150 of the backpacks to Roaring Fork Baptist Church, which had burned to the ground in early December due to the forest fire. The church has a popular bus ministry with 5 buses that transports more than 50 children to church services each week and their family needs were now even greater.
The congregation, with their building in ashes, gladly accepted the Georgia Baptist backpacks so they could continue their ministry to the children. The remaining 50 backpacks were donated to Faith Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, also in Gatlinburg, Hill added.
Team members felt like the backpacks they had spend months collecting were originally intended, in God's Providence, for the two congregations and the hurting children and their families. Hill noted the Association's gift also included a supply or warm blankets for the coming winter months.
Not all Georgia churches coordinate their collection through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, and that is acceptable, Barker said. But registering and receiving collection tips helps determine the number of backpacks coming in and helps with their distribution.
Some churches handle the collection and distribution themselves through ongoing, year-round ministry in Appalachia, he explained.
The NAMB missionary has talked with every ministry center in East Tennessee, East Kentucky, North Georgia, and West Virginia – areas which Georgia Baptists had committed to provide backpacks. Every site received backpacks except for one in Tennessee – but when that need was shared, a church responded by sending more than 2,000 Beanie Babies for the children.
State Missionary Frank Nuckolls, who oversees the program for Georgia Baptists, said last year’s donations of school supplies, warm winter coats, gender specific Christmas presents, and copies of the Christmas story resulted in 1,317 professions of faith.
“Thank you, Georgia Baptists, for your response to Christmas Backpacks for Appalachia and your commitment to meet the physical and spiritual needs of children in Appalachia,” he said.
“Because of your generosity, 32,733 backpacks were provided as Christmas gifts for children in Appalachia. I pray for many boys, girls, and their parents to come to salvation through Jesus Christ as these backpacks are distributed.”
Barker is keeping his hopes and prayers focused on his personal goal of 50,000 backpacks as the items continue to arrive. He keeps a close look on the tally, adjusting it as he learns of and verifies those that arrive but were not registered.
“I learned of 228 other Georgia backpacks this week that may not be reflected in any of our totals. We currently have 49,690 and if we are able to add those others, it will put us at 49,918. And it could possibly increase Georgia’s total to 32,961.
“If that is the case, I may just go out and purchase the remaining 82 backpacks myself to get us to the 50,000 goal,” he said. ”We are going to get there one way or the other.”