By Mark Kelly
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Ten-year-old “Lily” was born in a refugee camp half a world away. When her parents were granted asylum in the United States, she was excited and curious about what life would be like. The camp had no schools and Lily knew education would change the course of her life.
The family was placed in Clarkston, Georgia, an eastern suburb of Atlanta home to immigrants from more than 60 countries. Lily speaks no English and the 100-plus languages spoken in Clarkston confused her even more — but school was about to start and her excitement knew no bounds.
But this refugee girl with no schooling, who could speak no English, was going to be placed in fifth grade. On top of that her parents were handed a list of required school supplies costing more than $100.
Even working multiple jobs how could they begin to afford that for their five children? And the entire family was only beginning to learn English so how could they help her with homework?
The best news of all arrived when an Alabama Baptist volunteer knocked on Lily’s door. Elizabeth Beavers of Crossroads Baptist Church, Warrior, was distributing flyers advertising a back-to-school event the next day, Aug. 3, at nearby Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC). The flyer announced the church’s ministry center would be providing backpacks filled with all the needed supplies — for free — and there would be registration tables for English classes and tutoring, as well as a host of other necessities such as free shoes, reading glasses and health screenings.
As many as 3,500 people came to the ministry center at CIBC, according to David Creswell, a Send Relief missionary with the North American Mission Board.
In addition to a warm welcome, each family was offered a New Testament and about 160 volunteers — many of them from Alabama — had opportunities to explain the good news of God’s love to a multitude who had never even heard of Jesus.
The 2,166 backpacks filled with more than 35,000 school supplies were provided by the 2018 “Christmas in August” campaign of national Woman’s Missionary Union, Creswell said.
But the event not only provided desperately needed resources and a gospel witness to refugee and immigrant families, it also gave the Lord an opportunity to speak to volunteers’ hearts about how He has brought the lost nations of the world to their own backyard.
For Craig Walston, youth pastor at New Life Community Church, Asheville, North Carolina, the backpack distribution helped his students understand the world is bigger and much different than they realize.
“It helps them see the face of God in other people and gain a broader understanding that everybody needs to hear about Jesus,” Walston said. “CIBC trains them to be missionaries when they go home.”
Preconceptions about refugees and immigrants also are challenged in Clarkston, Beavers said.
“When you get here you learn who the refugee really is — the struggle they have been through,” she said. “You discover they really just need someone to connect with. And you learn there are places here in the United States where you can actually reach the nations with the gospel.”
The experience in Clarkston helps team members view their own communities through different eyes, said Jase Vann, a member of Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Birmingham. Vann, co-founder of 5:9 Ministries (five-nine.org), is sharing the love of Christ among Muslims in Birmingham through an ongoing series of “lunch and learn” gatherings.
What’s happening in Clarkston shows what is possible when followers of Christ reach across cultural and religious boundaries.
“This connects us to the fact those nations are right here in the U.S.,” Vann said. “Yeah that was in Georgia but look at what’s around us here in Birmingham.”
For more information about WMU’s Christmas in August missions project, go to www.wmu.com/christmasinaugust.
Christmas backpacks will be collected Oct. 28–Nov. 2
What began when a Girls in Action leader was moved to provide Christmas gifts and school supplies to poor children in Appalachia has become a year-round effort by national and state Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) to help families and those who minister to them.
In 2018, Alabama Baptists packed 9,531 backpacks for the Christmas backpacks effort and this year’s goal is 9,500. Each backpack includes a copy of “The Christmas Story” along with school supplies, hygiene items and age- and gender-appropriate gifts.
Backpacks will be collected in Alabama the week of Oct. 28–Nov. 2 and will be distributed through compassion ministry sites and church plants in at least four states. Opportunities are available for missions teams and individuals to assist in backpack distribution and long-term ministry site partnerships.
One change in the program this year is that color-coded bands to label backpacks must be ordered in advance from Alabama WMU. Copies of “The Christmas Story” must also be ordered ahead of time. (TAB)
For more details and ordering information, visit AlabamaWMU.org.