Alabama Baptists will send a record number of Christmas backpacks to kids this year through its partnership with the Mississippi River Ministry (MRM).
Alabama’s 2017 goal was 6,500 backpacks, and Pat Ingram, missions and ministry consultant for Women on Mission and women’s ministry for Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), confirmed the goal had been met at press time.
“We may even make 7,000,” Ingram said, noting that some associations are still delivering backpacks.
This is the third year Alabama WMU and the global missions team of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM) have partnered with MRM to share Christmas joy with children who otherwise might not have a very merry holiday.
“Many areas served by MRM are poverty-stricken areas,” Ingram said. “The communities are very rural and their lives are just difficult.”
Each backpack includes a Christmas story and a Bible study postcard along with a variety of gifts and necessities, including toys, clothing, school supplies and hygiene products. Canned foods and snacks are included too.
“A lot of these children are in such poverty that they are not getting meals when school is out,” Ingram said. “The food in the backpack is what they survive on until school goes back.”
The regional Christmas backpacks effort began six years ago as a shoebox ministry. The program has expanded from 300 shoeboxes in 2012 to an expected 65,000 backpacks this year.
Though Alabama primarily sends backpacks through MRM, thousands also are distributed through Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM). ARM and MRM are North American Mission Board (NAMB) ministries that mobilize Southern Baptists to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the two regions through evangelism, church planting and church strengthening.
Bill Barker has served more than 16 years as director of ARM and has overseen MRM since 2012. Though Barker is retiring at the end of December, the backpack ministry will continue, Ingram said.
“We will still partner with MRM just as we have been doing,” she said. “There shouldn’t really be any changes for our churches and our folks.”
Barker will be missed though, said Candace McIntosh, executive director of Alabama WMU.
“I’ve never known anyone who has such compassion and passion for ministering to the poor,” she said of Barker. “He has a heart for the people and an understanding of the challenges they face. He is really an advocate and champion for the underserved.”
She also noted his passion for missions and missions education. In his 16 years as ARM director, Barker has been a popular speaker at local churches, associational meetings and state conventions and conferences, including many events in Alabama.
“It has been an honor to work with him,” McIntosh said.
As he looks back over his missionary service, Barker noted several developments that stand out. A gospel tract written by ARM volunteers has been distributed to more than 1.6 million people. The tract led to a correspondence Bible class initiated by ARM, now led by local churches and completed by more than 5,000 people. Hundreds have come to faith in Christ through it, including several dozen men in prison.
“I wake up every morning wondering what miracle God is going to do today,” he said. “I’ve seen God do small miracles. I’ve seen Him do big miracles.”
Barker started seeing miracles in his first year with ARM. In February 2002, Barker visited Larry and Bessie McPeek to learn more about their ministry helping young mothers keep their babies. In the three months before Barker arrived they’d helped 180 women. But they were broke.
Years of miracles
“I have no money to give you,” Barker told the couple before praying with them and leaving.
That night a call came to Barker’s cell phone in a location where he typically did not have cell coverage and hasn’t since. It was from a lady who had heard Barker speak at her church two weeks earlier in South Carolina. She wanted to send money from an inheritance to help the people of Kentucky.
Barker thought the lady would send him $20 or so. Two days later he received a check from her for $10,000, which substantially helped fund the McPeeks’ pro-life ministry.
“It has been 16-and-a-half years of miracles,” Barker said.
“God has enabled me to be out there and be among Southern Baptists and talk about His work,” he said of the ministry that has led to 77,000 professions of faith. “It has been a marvel to see God use this old boy from the head of a hollow in West Virginia in a manner such as this.”
Barker expressed his appreciation for Southern Baptists and their support of Cooperative Program missions, noting their offerings have supported the work of ARM and MRM. NAMB’s work in the region will continue through a new Send Relief ministry hub located in Kentucky.
Barker will stay active in the backpacks ministry when he begins his new role as director of the Appalachian Mountain Ministries of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board in January 2018. (TAB, BP)