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Georgia Baptists lead Appalachia's Christmas Backpacks outreach


Joe Westbury/Index

The socioeconomic conditions of Appalachia have generated needs in vital areas, one being school supplies for children. Georgia leads state conventions in the annual giving of Christmas backpacks for the region’s children.

DULUTH — When the North Georgia and Murray County Baptist associations learned that another Georgia association would not be partnering with them to deliver Christmas Backpacks to Elkhorn City, KY, Susan Bagley got busy and posted the need on Facebook. The single mom who is on disability due to cancer felt compelled to act.

“I can’t stand having those kids standing in line and waiting for a backpack and there’s not enough [backpacks],” said Bagley, who attends Holly Creek Baptist Church, “or they get a backpack that doesn’t have enough in it.

“It just tugs at my heart strings,” Bagley said.

Bagley’s passion represents the fuel that drives many Georgia Baptists to participate.

Her father is long-time associational missionary Bob Bagley. The two associations he leads had set a goal of 400 backpacks, but with the extra effort of Susan and others, they eventually delivered 680 to children in Elkhorn City.

From across the state, Georgia Baptists delivered big in December by donating 22,549 Christmas backpacks for children in Appalachia.

Most Georgia Baptists brought their backpacks to Macon for the annual meeting in November. North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary Bill Barker, who leads the Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM) that spearheads the initiative, said that when the backpacks arrived on Southern Baptist Disaster Relief 18-wheel vehicles owned by NAMB, people noticed.

“The 18-wheelers are being called the Appalachian Christmas train on wheels,” Barker said.


Waters’ challenge

Multiple state conventions participate in the Christmas Backpacks for Appalachia outreach through ARM, but the Georgia response dwarfs all others as it accounts for approximately 74% of the gifts.

When John Waters, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Statesboro, was the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) president, he made the Christmas Backpacks one of his priorities in 2013.

Joe Westbury/Index

In 2013 then-GBC President John Waters issued a goal of collecting 20,000 backpacks for Appalachian schoolchildren. GBC Executive Director J. Robert White has proposed a goal of 25,000 backpacks for this year.

“I wanted to set a goal that was so large that the only way it could be reached was through God’s work among us,” Waters recently said. “I was following some advice from John Edmund Haggai who said, ‘Attempt something so great for God it’s doomed to failure unless God be in it.’ 

“A goal of 20,000 almost quadrupled the previous year, so it was a God-sized goal that could not be reached by our own efforts.”

Challenging autonomous Southern Baptist churches to cooperate can be akin to herding cats. Leaders have no authority to compel participation. Still, Georgia Baptists rallied and delivered.

“We saw widespread support and involvement because local churches wanted to be a part of the greater work of God,” Waters said. “God is up to something, changing and shaping all of us through the process, and I am glad to have been a part in it.”

To understand what God is up to, one needs to be on the receiving end of the Christmas Backpacks. In North Syracuse, N.Y., church planter Ronnie Wyatt distributed the backpacks door to door in a neighborhood where there are more Muslims than Christians. That entrée allows Wyatt and other church planters in Appalachia to meet the needs of families they hope to reach with the Gospel.

Joe Westbury/Index

The backpacks "meet an apparent physical need in the community that opens the door for sharing the Gospel," says Bill Barker of Appalachian Regional Ministry.

“The Christmas Backpacks meet an apparent physical need in the community that opens the door for sharing the Gospel,” Barker said.


Unity through cooperation

Georgia Baptists’ cooperative-missions method, best exemplified by the Cooperative Program, has long been what binds the state’s more than 3,000 churches. Barker consistently gets feedback from churches that say the Christmas Backpacks have increased their focus on missions more than anything else in recent years has. The same has happened within associations.

“Several associations in Georgia have said that nothing has united our association to be on mission like the Christmas Backpacks,” Barker said.

GBC Executive Director J. Robert White has proposed a goal of 25,000 Christmas Backpacks from Georgia this year.

With a tug at the heartstrings of Georgia Baptists, that goal is well within reach.


Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming.