By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Children living in the Appalachian area of Tennessee have been beneficiaries of the Christmas Backpack Ministry for several years, most of which have been donated from outside the state itself.
The Christmas Backpack Ministry has evolved over the years since 2001 when some Girls in Action (GAs) in Georgia decided they wanted to do something special for children living in the Appalachian region of the United States.
Joe Sorah, compassion ministries specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, observed that approximately 87,000 backpacks were donated to Tennessee children between 2012 and 2017. Backpacks contain a variety of age-appropriate toys, clothing, hygiene items, candy, and other items.
In addition, more than 3,000 children professed faith in Jesus Christ as a result of witnessing opportunities provided by backpack distribution.
Sorah said that hearing testimonies from Tennessee church leaders who have distributed donated backpacks in the past convinced him that Tennessee Baptists needed to be on the giving end of the spectrum as well.
“Upon learning of this ministry and that Tennessee had never been asked to donate backpacks, I knew it was time for a change,” Sorah said.
Sorah issued the challenge for Tennessee Baptists to get involved in the ministry during the summer and Tennessee Baptists responded overwhelmingly by donating 3,344 backpacks.
More than 76,000 backpacks have been collected thus far from 13 state conventions and the number will increase, according to Bill Barker, national director of Appalachian Mountain Ministry with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
Those backpacks, combined with backpacks donated by sister Baptist state conventions will result in 15,474 Tennessee children receiving Christmas gifts this year, Sorah said.
“God has blessed many of us in Tennessee beyond measure,” he noted.
Observing that 22.4 percent of Tennessee children live in poverty, Sorah said he “knew that we could give backpacks to needy children in Tennessee in addition to the other ministries we do during Christmas.”
And, armed with the knowledge that the backpacks provided an avenue to share the gospel and that children and families were accepting Christ as Savior, he added, “I knew many Tennessee Baptists would want to be involved in this important ministry.”
How churches obtain and distribute the Christmas backpacks vary.
In New Tazewell, North American Mission Board missionaries Roger and Judy Hansard operate Regional Education Center Ministries and work through First Baptist Church, New Tazewell, to distribute backpacks. They expect to provide assistance to 350 families at FBC on Dec. 22.
“It is the perfect Christmas ministry for churches to be involved in,” said Roger Hansard. “It teaches church members to be very mindful of others’ needs.”
He noted other churches will be involved in the distribution. It gets them involved and allows them to see where their gifts are going, Hansard said. “That’s what I really like — to see church members bring the backpacks and actually hand them out to the child who will receive it.”
Hansard knows the backpacks make a difference. He shared the story of a 9-year-old girl who received a backpack and after everyone had left, returned and asked for a backpack for a friend who was too shy to attend the event.
“I told her that if she would invite her friend to church, she could take another one, so she did. Both girls came to First Baptist the next Sunday morning and did not miss church for a year,” he recalled.
In the far northeast corner of the state around Mountain City, the backpacks are distributed through local schools, said pastor David Hankal of Roan Creek Baptist Church, Mountain City.
He noted that the church distributed backpacks at the church in a special service where other churches participated. Some young people were saved and three people were baptized on Christmas Day 2016, Hankal said.
This year, Roan Creek and six other Mountain City area churches (First Baptist, Pleasant Grove, Nelson’s Chapel, Stateline, Bethany, and First Baptist, Shady) are distributing backpacks through the local elementary schools. Every child will receive a backpack, he said.
Hankal said the local schools are open to the ministry. “We can’t do an assembly but we are at least getting the backpacks (which include a list of the sponsoring churches) into the schools and start building relationships.
“We are just loving on people and hoping they will give us an opportunity down the line to share Jesus,” the pastor continued.
“It was a great opportunity for all seven churches to work together cooperatively to provide Christmas gifts for the local children,” the pastor added.
In Hancock County and surrounding communities in Virginia and Kentucky, church volunteers are able to distribute the backpacks in the schools, said pastor Ryan Martin of Alanthus Hill Baptist Church.
Martin, a bivocational pastor who also works with First Priority, a Christian ministry that has access to the schools, has built relationships with most of the local schools.
“God has let me get tracts and Bibles into the schools and actually go into schools to lead an assembly program where the backpacks are distributed,” he said.
Martin, who said he has a heart for evangelism, acknowledged that it is unusual to be allowed into the schools. “This is unheard of,” he admitted, but noted he “found a niche” and is continually building relationships.
Last year, local churches and volunteers distributed 1,800 backpacks and saw 280 decisions of faith for Christ, Martin said. This year, volunteers will distribute 2,000 backpacks, donated from primarily Ohio, Georgia, Virginia and some from Tennessee, he added.
Martin said the backpacks will be distributed in mid-December during an assembly in the schools which will include the Christmas story “from the womb to the tomb.”
Martin, who grew up in Appalachia, readily admits he wanted to become a missionary and move from the area.
“I did everything I could to get out of here, but God sent me back to Appalachia and has given me a heart for my people,” he said.
The pastor acknowledged there are “a lot of people in these mountains who need help. I just pray and God shows up.
“I have seen miracle after miracle about what God has done through this ministry,” Martin said.