By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Although he is not normally prone to worry, in this instance, Joe Sorah was concerned.
With the COVID-19 pandemic creating havoc on the economy, Sorah couldn’t help but wonder if this year’s Christmas Backpack ministry would experience a significant downturn in donations.
At the very least, Sorah, compassion ministries specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, was concerned the ministry would lose the momentum it had gained in the past two years.
Turns out, he didn’t have any reason to be troubled.
Even though the ministry operated a little differently this year, due to COVID protocols and procedures, the ministry still saw an increase in the number of backpacks received. This year’s total was 5,826, which was a modest — and yet, in many ways, monumental — increase from the roughly 5,500 that were donated in 2019.
The backpacks are filled with school supplies, clothes, hygiene needs, food, toys and other children’s needs and are distributed to low-income families around the state.
“For us to see these numbers, with all that has gone on in 2020, is just amazing,” said Sorah.
“It is further proof of how much Tennessee Baptists care about impoverished children in Tennessee,” he said.“Honestly, I anticipated receiving fewer backpacks, but that did not happen, and the overall number of churches who donated this year was about the same as last year, too. It’s just been really exciting to see.”
The Tennessee Baptist Convention has been involved with the Christmas Backpack ministry since 2018, when the TBC joined with the other state conventions that were already doing Christmas backpacks. The ministry is part of a nationwide effort for Appalachian Mountain Ministry, which is now housed at the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
According to recent stats, 19.3 percent of Tennessee children grow up in families below the poverty line, and the pandemic has only created extra hardships for those dealing with financial burdens.
Sorah said churches in Tennessee could have used COVID as an excuse — a legitimate excuse — to not take part in the backpack ministry this year. Instead, churches found ways to ensure that the donations were collected at a time when they were perhaps needed more than ever before.
“The pandemic brought about many challenges for the Christmas Backpack ministry,” he said. “And many churches had to come up with new approaches. Since churches were not meeting together, promotion and coordinating within local churches was difficult, plus there were many people who were resistant to going shopping. And yet, people still found ways to help the ministry. For example, some people reported that they did all of their Christmas Backpack shopping online. It was encouraging to see that people were willing to do new things to make this happen.”
Churches and organizations that help distribute the Christmas Backpacks are normally asked to do some type of Christmas event and share the gospel. This year, those type of events were difficult, and in some cases, impossible, because of social distancing requirements and other COVID safety precautions.
Again, though, churches were willing to adapt.
“I think churches were able to understand and embrace that this year was probably more of a planting year than harvesting,” said Sorah. “It will be interesting to hear the reports as they come in for this year.”
Sorah said overall interest in the ministry was higher this year than ever before. He said the increase could be the result of several factors.
“I don’t know if the reason (for the increase) is that the word is just getting out or if the need has increased,” said Sorah. “We have always had a relatively high poverty rate in Tennessee, especially for children, but the pandemic seems to have brought more attention to poverty. Our churches have become more aware and intentional about addressing it in their communities.”
Tennessee Baptists provided more than 3,500 backpacks for the ministry in 2018, and the ministry has grown from there.
Sorah said he has been excited and encouraged to see churches of all sizes take part in the project.
“I have to say one of the greatest blessings for me is when I see small churches bring in carloads and truckloads of backpacks,” he said. “I know what a sacrifice that they have made. They understand that they can’t reach Tennessee all by themselves, but they want to be a part of getting it done.”
At some churches, the money that is normally used for VBS was donated to the Christmas Backpack ministry this year since many churches were unable to have on-campus VBS this year. It is this type of generosity and caring, Sorah said, that makes the ministry work.
“Those churches could have kept the money and used it elsewhere, but their heart for children would not let them,” said Sorah. “They had to share it. And many wanted to share it so that our children in Tennessee could be reached. Our churches are realizing that Tennessee is a mission field. They know no one else is going to reach our children if we don’t.”
Sorah said he is overwhelmed with gratitude for the churches and individuals who make Christmas Backpacks a high priority and who put their time, money and efforts into the project.
“I cannot say thank you enough for everyone who donated Christmas Backpacks and money this year,” he said. “You are making a difference. Our children thank you. Our churches and ministries thank you. And I thank you.”