By Brandon Elrod
Growing up in Clarkston, Ga., every year, Sam Abebe got his backpack full of school supplies from Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC) through the church’s annual back-to-school event. Today, several years later, Abebe serves as CIBC’s student pastor.
“Those seeds planted my foundational worldview of who I believed God to be,” Abebe said. “When I was 18, because of that foundation, I knew that Jesus died on the cross for me.”
Abebe’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in search of the opportunity that the nation had to offer, and those backpacks met a need that allowed the church to build a relationship with his family. It took several years—Abebe even moved away from Clarkston for a time—but those gospel conversations had taken root and eventually changed his life.
On August 4, 2018, Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC) distributed 2,000 backpacks to families in need during its annual back-to-school bash. The North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send Relief ministry cooperated with churches to help double CIBC’s number of backpacks distributed. Clarkston, Ga. is one of the most diverse cities in the United States and helps resettle refugees from around the world. NAMB Photo by Greta High
CIBC focuses its ministry on meeting physical needs and helping people find spiritual life through the power of the gospel. Trent DeLoach, pastor of CIBC and a Send Relief missionary with the North American Mission Board (NAMB), leads the church to open pathways of serving the community.
On August 3, CIBC once again held its annual back-to-school bash and with the help of Send Relief, NAMB’s mercy ministry arm, gave away over 1,000 backpacks primarily to the international and refugee families in Clarkston.
“If the only thing we ever did was give our free stuff, that would be a horrible ministry model,” DeLoach said. “The way we justify these large-scale distributions is because there’s intentionality when it comes to year-round ministry and follow-up with the families. You have to have that piece.”
Mission teams from churches across the region helped pack 3,750 backpacks. Backpacks not distributed during the CIBC event were given to schools and to other ministry partners in Clarkston to serve families in need.
In order to distribute more than 2,000 backpacks filled with school supplies to families in Clarkston, Ga., dozens of volunteers and several churches had to come together. The North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send Relief ministry came together with Clarkston International Bible Church to cooperate with other churches and ministry partners to serve the city of Clarkston. NAMB Photo by Greta High
Backpacks in New Orleans
In New Orleans, another Send Relief missionary, Kay Bennett, also utilizes backpacks as a ministry tool to meet physical and spiritual needs. Bennett has managed the Baptist Friendship House for over 20 years, where she serves and loves the needy and vulnerable in the city.
Bennett also hosts a back-to-school party for underprivileged families where she gives away backpacks filled with school supplies to children.
“I was in the Send Relief meeting, sharing about the back to school party that we have every year,” said Bennett. “We usually do about 600 backpacks, and one of our leaders asked, ‘Well, can you do 5,000?’ and I just said, ‘Yes.’”
With only a month to prepare, Bennett was a little wary about making such a huge leap, but “the Lord always provides” she said after dozens of churches, Woman’s Missionary Union and other partners provided the supplies needed to fill the backpacks.
On July 14, 2018, the Baptist Friendship House hosted its annual back-to-school bash for the community of New Orleans, serving food, providing games and giving away backpacks filled with school supplies to families in need. Typically, the Baptist Friendship House gives away around 600 backpacks, but Send Relief, a ministry of the North American Mission Board, partnered to help the BFH pack 5,000 backpacks. Photo submitted by Kayleigh White
While the back-to-school party for local families was a major avenue for distribution, Bennett also uses backpacks to minister to survivors of human trafficking.
“Those backpacks actually build trust because the survivors see that you’ve given them something,” said Bennett. “You’ve brought them something, and that says, ‘I care about you.’ And so that begins to build a relationship.”
That relationship, then, allows Bennett the opportunity to connect those who have been trafficked with a way out, whether that’s through staying at the Baptist Friendship House or returning them home to family.
“Human trafficking takes place everywhere,” said Bennett. The backpack ministry “is something that every church throughout the world could do because it meets a need, builds a relationship and changes a life,” she said. “I would encourage every church to get backpacks.”
The backpack may be the first step that enables a human trafficking survivor to build a life of his or her own, but it can also be the first glimpse of hope that allows Bennett to point to the life-changing power of the gospel.
Backpacks and the local church
While Send Relief sends backpacks to its Ministry Centers, the ministry also wants to empower local churches to start similar ministries in their own communities.
First Baptist Church Greeneville, Tenn. has served its community through a backpack ministry for several years, partnering with NAMB and Send Relief for the last three years.
In previous years, the church visited apartment complexes and served food as they handed out backpacks. This past year, they partnered with local service organizations and hosted an event at the church on July 27. Between three and four hundred people attended, and 42 came to know Christ.
“NAMB is a resource that I know I can go to,” said David Green, pastor of FBC Greeneville. “I call and ask, ‘You got 300 backpacks?’ and they say, ‘We will ship them tomorrow.’ The availability has been fantastic, and they’re easy to work with. For the past three years, they’ve been a real blessing.”
Send Relief president David Melber says virtually any church or ministry can use backbacks for ministry for just about any group they are trying to reach.
“This is an easy, hands-on ministry any church can do,” Melber said. “Every community has groups of people in need. Backpacks filled with items that can help meet those needs will help a church serve and build bridges for the gospel at the same time.”
Send Relief has tools available on its website to help any church kickstart a backpack ministry for weekend food programs, back-to-school events, refugees, children in foster care or for human trafficking restoration. Simply click this link or visit www.sendrelief.org/backpacktools for more information.
Brandon Elrod is a writer for the North American Mission Board.