I met Sonya* in a Kentucky jail. Our missions team was there passing out Christmas backpacks and sharing the gospel alongside our ministry partner, HR Ministries of Princeton, Kentucky.
Sonya had come to the jail with her 4 small boys to visit her husband. She told me about his incarceration and how, with no one to help with child care, she had lost her job. Sonya was worried about feeding her children, and as we prayed together, my heart filled with compassion for this young family.
Persistent Poverty Shapes Existence
Sonya is one of the many affected by poverty, joblessness, and food insecurity in America’s Mississippi River Delta and Appalachian regions.
Poverty rates average 19.7% in the combined Appalachian areas of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. One in 4 Kentucky children go to bed without knowing where his or her next meal will come from.
Dewey and Kathie Aiken witness the effects of poverty firsthand as North American Mission Board missionaries traveling throughout the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Churches and ministries there identify poverty and food insecurity as the primary needs. Kathie said much of this is because of joblessness, drug use, and isolation.
In the Mississippi River Delta, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi rank among the top 5 states for overall poverty. Mississippi, for example, has the highest child poverty rate in the US, with 27.9% of children in families living below the poverty line in 2019.
According to Pat Ingram, Alabama WMU missions and ministry consultant, 40 years of joblessness and low wages have resulted in persistent poverty, shaping the daily existence of the region’s people.
Follow Christ’s Example
The Bible directs how believers should respond to children in poverty.
Like Jesus, we are to love them. He showed compassion for them when He “took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (Mark 10:16 ESV).
We are likewise called to confront poverty and impact lostness. The natural response to our salvation is a desire to spread the gospel message and serve others. First John instructs believers to love “in deed and in truth” (3:16–18 ESV). In practical terms, we are to both tell and show God’s love to those around us.
“If we follow Christ’s example, our hearts long to serve all people, regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Stacey Burton, Kentucky missionary with Lake Cumberland Baptist Association’s PM59 Ministries. “In Matthew 25, Christ says that when we feed those who are hungry, clothe those who are naked, and give shelter to those who need rest, we are doing these things to Him. When we meet the physical and emotional needs of a family, we begin to build the relationship needed to be able to lead them to Christ and then disciple them.”
Meet Physical Needs First
Missionaries must often meet physical needs like hunger before they can address the spiritual need for Christ. Stacey looks for ways to bring families to church, especially at Christmas when they are more likely to request help.
Gift-filled Christmas backpacks serve as outreach tools, connecting ministries with families and giving missionaries a foot in the door to share the gospel.
Marshall and Janell Ingle, network coordinators with Mississippi River Ministry, have seen the impact Christmas backpacks make on families in need.
“At least once a year, these children see that people love them and, most of all, that God loves them,” Janell said.
Marshall said people “are being touched, and it’s not just the child but the whole family that is being touched. For a lot of these families, this may be the only time they hear the gospel.”
Pray, Plan, And Provide
Meeting Sonya in that jail opened my eyes to those whom Christ died to set free (Isa. 61:1–3). Your group can help reach families for Christ by doing a Christmas backpacks project as an annual mission or a long-term partnership. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Pray and seek God’s direction in determining how many backpacks to fill and where to send them.
- Visit christmasbackpacks.org to find a partner state, and contact your partner state’s representative to register goals and discuss partnerships with churches or ministries. Follow the guidelines for your area. Teresa Parrett, missions mobilization coordinator with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, suggests partnering with a specific ministry to fill all or a portion of its backpack requests and to help with outreach events.
- Involve every age group in your church from children to senior adults. Look for creative ways to personalize the project for your group by making handcrafted gifts or holding donation drives.
- Plan early and order age/gender identification bands from your state coordinator. Purchase backpacks locally on sale or in bulk online. Ask individuals and families to fill bags from a list of recommended items. Or collect supplies all year and host a packing party in October.
- Prepare backpacks with the children in mind, and pray for them. Remember these bags may be their only Christmas gift. Send new, clean, and safely packed items. “This is not a time to clean out your child’s toy box,” Stacey cautioned. “Hygiene items and food are helpful, but always keep in mind this is a child’s Christmas gift. You want the child to be excited when they see the contents.” Make sure backpacks are filled with the requested items and filled completely. Include a Bible, Bible story book, or some type of Scripture on the child’s level in each backpack. Plan to examine every donated bag to ensure it is packed appropriately.
- If you are working with a partner, then contact that church or ministry directly. Make sure the partnership works for you and for it. Fill backpacks based on area needs. Partnering helps you to know about the age and gender of children so you can personalize the backpacks. Some ministries can give you sizes or special item requests.
- Coordinate your backpack delivery. Partners may request assistance with their events. Enlist volunteers and plan a mission trip. Decide whether you could also meet needs for items like food boxes, blankets, or Bibles. Pray for your ministry partner, and seek ways to develop a long-term partnership.
Pray For Children And Families
Your intentional prayers are vital for families impacted by poverty. Pray for those experiencing job losses due to COVID-19. Remember families dealing with the repercussions of divorce, broken relationships, or addiction. Get involved with a compassion ministry, and ask God to reveal needs in your community. Build personal relationships, and pray for specific needs.
“God knows our name, He knows our situation, and He knows our need,” said Dan Dockery, associational missionary for Carrollton Baptist Association in Carrollton, Georgia. “We can pray knowing that God knows the situation of that child. He knows their name. He created that child. He uses us, with the backpacks or in other ways, to help meet some of their needs. We must recognize the need and also recognize that God has blessed us in a way that we can meet that need.”
Pray also for missionaries serving the people of Appalachia and the Mississippi River Delta—not just at Christmas but also throughout the year.
Pray God would open the hearts of those coming for backpacks so they would hear the gospel and see the love of God at work.
To learn more about Christmas backpacks, visit christmasbackpacks.org.
Lanell Downs Smith is a freelance writer living in Lapine, Alabama. She is a regular correspondent for The Alabama Baptist newspaper and has served as WMU Christmas backpack coordinator in her association.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Missions Mosaic. To subscribe to this monthly women’s missions lifestyle magazine, visit wmustore.com.