CLARKSTON — If the old African saying is true that it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly is true that it takes a village of churches to reach one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse communities.
That is what occurred on August 4 as 15 churches throughout Atlanta and two adjoining states combined resources to host another outreach to the Clarkston community. The event was Clarkston International Bible Church’s annual backpacks distribution, which has almost become as looked forward to as the arrival of Santa Claus a few months later.
Clarkston is known as the most ethnically diverse square mile in the nation. The New York Times has acknowledged as much in stories about the critical role it plays in the resettlement of refugees from around the world.
For Georgia Baptists, ground zero of evangelistic ministry is the church across the railroad tracks that divide the city but provide an open door to eternal life.
On Saturday morning residents as well as immigrants began showing up as early as 7:30 a.m. for the morning extravaganza, which included free back-to- school supplies valued at $50 a backpack, information about government assistance, and health care screenings.
Gideons handed out free New Testaments with every backpack to be sure each recipient had an opportunity to read God’s Word. One of the many shaded tents offered a variety of evangelistic tracts that explained the way to eternal life. And volunteers were prepared to share their faith as opportunities presented themselves.
It was the partnership of multiple churches which made the event come together on this hot August morning.
As parents left the backpacks distribution area, Ray Pinkerton and a fellow Gideon from nearby Rehoboth Baptist Church passed out copies of the New Testament with Proverbs and Psalms.
“Isaiah 55:4 tells us that God’s Word will not return void. We believe that the Bible is inerrant and completely true and provides the way to eternal life,” Pinkerton explained.
“We have testimonies from people around the world who tell us that they came to faith in Christ from reading one of the Bibles that we distributed. That is why we are out here today in Clarkston.”
Ariel Guilfoyle, a volunteer from New Life Community Church, drove with 10 teens and three leaders from her Asheville, NC church to serve with the event. She had no problem explaining the different world she encountered when she arrived in the suburban city. The previous day she and others assembled nearly 4,000 backpacks and on this day, they were placing them in the hands of the less fortunate.
“This is my first mission trip and it’s like stepping into a foreign country … or a dozen foreign countries,” she said. “I had never experienced anything like this back home. We have been totally immersed in the local culture and my eyes have been opened to the needs this church is meeting in the name of Christ.”
CIBC Pastor Trent DeLoach reflected on those ongoing needs that the congregation – with the help of others – strive to meet year round. Briefly stepping out of the hot sun into the shade of a tree, he reflected on the church’s goals.
“Today is one example of cooperation that we have with a variety of churches. The needs are too great for us to do it alone and we depend on these volunteers – about 100 today – to show Christ’s love to our community.
“I could not list off the top of my head each church that is helping but there are many from Georgia as well as one from North Carolina and another from South Carolina. However, I do need to say how much the support of Georgia WMU meant to us. Through the summer program at Camp Pinnacle they collected about $5,000 in a missions offering as well as contributing many items to the backpacks,” he said.
This year’s camping program focused on refugees and Christian responsibility. Idong Ekandem, a North American Mission Board missionary serving in Clarkston, taught the young women how Georgia Baptists are serving in the community and encouraged them to come and experience international missions in Atlanta.
DeLoach mentioned how the first Saturday in August has been a traditional outreach day for the church for more than a decade.
“A lot of people do not understand the financial hardship in which many of these families find themselves. A majority live well below the poverty line, and the list of back-to-school supplies easily costs $50 per child. Multiply that by 4 or 5 children and that can easily approach $300.”
DeLoach said the outreach is “a very tangible way to show the love of Christ in our community. Many of these families fled nations where there is no free education. It is so exciting to see the joy on the faces of these children when they realize they will attend school for the first time in their lives, and a group of believers is easing that burden.
By the time the event ended, more than 1,500 attended the event and 2,000 packpacks went into homes throughout Clarkston. DeLoach believes about 450 families were reached. Backpacks that were not handed out were distributed to schools who expressed interest in helping their students.
David Melber, North American Mission Board’s president of SEND Relief, echoed DeLoach’s sentiments.
“Culturally, we in America have allowed the church to cease to be the center of our communities. Historically it was always the place to go for help, whether that was physical or spiritual assistance. Somehow along the way we transferred that to government and ceased to be the salt and light in the world.”
Melber said that the agency wants to do anything it can, through such partnerships as with CIBC, to help churches reclaim their centerpiece role in society.
“I personally feel the same battle that each church member encounters. I ask myself if I want to be focused on my needs or on those of my neighbor; do I become the center of my desires or do I embrace being an ambassador for the purposes of God in my community?”
“We are all missionaries here today. I am the missionary in my neighborhood,” he added. “God has appointed me to be His ambassador as a minister of reconciliation. It is up to me as to how I will respond.
“Events like this help church members and volunteers see their community filled with people from around the world with individual names and struggles like their own, rather than as generic refugees from somewhere far away.
“They are people like themselves in need of a Savior.”