CLARKSTON, Ga. (BP) — While growing up in Clarkston, Ga., Sam Abebe could count on getting his backpack full of school supplies every year from Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC) through its annual back-to-school event. Today, 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 family immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in search of opportunity and a new life. And those backpacks met a need for Abebe that allowed the church to build a relationship with him. It took several years — he even moved away from Clarkston for a time — but those gospel conversations had taken root and eventually changed his life.
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, a ministry of NAMB, gave away more than 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.
Backpacks in New Orleans
In New Orleans, 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 more than 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,” Bennett said. “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 she saw how “the Lord always provides” when dozens of churches, the Woman’s Missionary Union and other partners provided the supplies needed to fill the backpacks.
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,” Bennett said. “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,” Bennett said. 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. And 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 400 people attended, and 42 made professions of faith in 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.”
Virtually any church or ministry can use backbacks for ministry with just about any group they are trying to reach, noted David Melber, Send Relief’s president.
“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. For more information, go to sendrelief.org/backpacktools.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The first sentence of the 7th paragraph was edited Aug. 22 for accuracy.