CLARKSTON, Ga. — Georgia Baptists are taking the gospel to the state’s rapidly growing refugee population one backpack at a time.
In fact, backpacks have become crucial evangelistic tools in Georgia, a state that’s home to more than 1 million people who were born in other countries — often in places that are hostile to the gospel.
With a robust economy and plentiful jobs, Georgia has become a popular destination for refugees fleeing war-torn homelands in search of a safe place to begin new lives.
“They’re fleeing fresh trauma, and with that, leaving behind everything they know, leaving behind families, communities, the systems that they know,” said Emma Pirela, a Mission Georgia refugee mobilizer. “And they have to start over from scratch with a language they don’t understand and with nobody they know.”
Georgia Baptists are meeting them at the airports when they arrive, helping them find homes and jobs, gather furniture, get drivers licenses, learn English, and acclimate to life in the Bible Belt.
“Honestly, it’s hard for us to comprehend how hard it is for refugee families,” said Lorna Bius, the primary mobilizer for Mission Georgia, an initiative of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “They start out with nothing, literally. Usually, they come only with the clothes they are wearing.”
That’s why more than 50 volunteers gathered at Clarkston International Bible Church on Saturday, filling backpacks with school supplies that will be given to refugee children in the most ethnically diverse community in America. Many of the Clarkston residents come from places like the Congo, Sudan, and Syria where war and civil unrest had put them in grave danger.
The backpacks are delivered in person by Georgia Baptists who take time to build relationships and share the gospel.
Mission Georgia’s backpack ministry isn’t limited to refugees. Sometimes volunteers fill backpacks with basic necessities for women and children rescued out of human trafficking. Sometimes they’re packed with children’s books to help kids learn to read at grade level because studies have shown that children who fall behind their classmates in reading are more likely to drop out of school as they grow older, become dependent on government welfare programs, and to go to jail.
More than 100 volunteers gathered at Second Baptist Church in Warner Robins in April to stuff some 3,000 books into backpacks that will be sent to at-risk students in schools across the state.
But on Saturday, the items being placed in backpacks were aimed specifically at refugee families.
“They had to leave very traumatic situations,” Bius said. “Just the uncertainly and confusion of coming to a new country is bad enough, but then, on top of all that, they have to figure out how to function in everyday life with nothing.”
As quickly as possible, they have to find homes and jobs, and they have to enroll their children in school.
“Any parent knows the required school supplies cost between $150 and $200, and when you’re first coming to the United States, your money has to go to rent and food. When we all chip in together, and we give these kids school supplies, we’re helping their families survive and thrive.”
That excites Georgia Baptists who have a long tradition of handing out backpacks filled with goodies for impoverished children during Christmas, especially in the Appalachian region.
“We’re expanding Mission Georgia to a year-round emphasis, not just at Christmas,” Bius said. “And we’re expanding it to reach all of Geogia.”
At the Clarkston church, volunteers from eight congregations filled more than 1,200 backpacks. No matter what’s placed inside, the primary component is the gospel.
“At Clarkston, we had women’s groups, senior adults, families, a lot of different age groups,” Bius said. “It was exciting for everybody to come together and do something fun and meaningful that would impact lives.”
The ultimate goal goes beyond meeting physical needs.
“Backpacks give us the opportunity to personalize the love the Christ,” Bius said. “Backpacks are a way Georgia Baptists can step in and show the love the Christ and share the love of Christ verbally. These people have physical needs, but they also have spiritual needs.”
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