WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–What was once the dream of a few members of Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., has now become a full-scale Christmas “miracle” for many students of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and their families.
That miracle is Bay Leaf’s annual Christmas Toy Chest ministry, which this year provided toys for 372 children of seminary families at a greatly reduced cost, gifts that many families otherwise would not be able to afford.
“It’s been a tremendous blessing,” said master of divinity student Scott Cannon. “Without it, our Christmas would probably be a lot dimmer. I work for a church right now, but the salary is minimal and we do well to pay the bills so any extra [money], like at Christmas time, is always tough. This is a great ministry and a big blessing to us.”
The ministry is made possible by the generous giving of Bay Leaf members to an annual fundraising drive, to which members contribute above and beyond their regular tithes. This year, Bay Leaf members gave about $20,000 to purchase gifts for the Toy Chest.
After the money is collected, Bay Leaf volunteers Barbara Hardee, Kay Prince, Ruth Rowe and others work tirelessly to select and purchase toys from various retailers in the Raleigh-Durham area. Finally, the ministry forwards all of its proceeds – this year about $7,000 – to support missionaries via the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
As one can imagine, Bay Leaf’s Toy Chest is a huge hit with many seminary families. Each year when the event is held, hundreds of seminary students wait in line, sometimes all night, so that they can be one of the first to select the toys that are provided as part of the ministry’s year-long effort.
At the Toy Chest, toys are priced at about one-tenth of their actual cost, making a $50 toy cost only about $5, for example. No toy costs more than $7, and families are limited to purchasing three toys per child. In addition, names are drawn for more expensive items like bicycles, an electronic piano or handmade doll furniture, which then sell to the winning student for $10 each.
Bay Leaf associate pastor Will Gatling said that in a day and age when most gifts come with strings attached, Bay Leaf’s generosity toward seminary students is done simply to express the church’s love for them.
“We’re committed to the seminary and to being a partner with those preparing to go into ministry,” Gatling said. “Seminary time is typically a tough time financially. Students come with a sense of devotion and sacrifice, and we thought this was a good way to provide their children with a Christmas like they’re used to. We’re not looking for any payback. We’re assisting them, and we’re just being a vehicle God can use.”
Kelly Routh, who is pursuing a certificate in women’s studies, and her husband, Ron, an M.Div. student, are among the many whose lives have been touched by the church’s ministry. Last year was the couple’s first experience with the Toy Chest ministry, and after seeing the rows of toys inside, they left overwhelmed by the church’s generosity. Routh now says that she would like to implement a program like this one at the church her husband will serve one day.
“This is such a tremendous blessing,” she said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. Last year was our first time, and when we walked in, we just started crying. It’s like a miracle. It’s a ministry to us and provides for our children in ways we wouldn’t be able to.”
Cannon also noted how Bay Leaf’s volunteers go out of their way to let students know how much they care about them.
“They get to know you and want to know where you’re from and what your ministry plans are,” he said, “and they tell you that they appreciate us and they’re praying for us.”
For many students who leave family, friends and jobs back home to follow the Lord’s call to Southeastern, seeing a church that loves and cares for them can make a profound and lasting impact.
“Some churches don’t welcome seminary students,” said Deborah Manby, whose husband, Ted, is a master of theology student, “because they know they’re just here for a while and then they’re going to leave, and so it’s hard for them to open up their hearts. So it’s really neat that this church sees the seminary students and what life is like for them and how hard it is. It really makes you appreciate them.”
If that’s the message seminary students are getting from Bay Leaf, Toy Chest volunteer Ron Hardee said they are getting the right one. Hardee and his wife have been faithfully serving in it for the past decade.
“We love the seminary,” Hardee said. “This is our 12th year of doing this, and it’s more of a blessing than we can describe. Too often we don’t get a chance to tell students how much they mean to us, but we’re glad [for them]. They are our last hope. If this generation doesn’t do it, we’re lost. But we’re going to make it.”
Southeastern students are not the only ones touched by Bay Leaf’s generosity. Seminary officials, too, have been gratified by the church’s kindness to its students.
The Toy Chest ministry of Bay Leaf cannot be described with mere human language,” Southeastern President Daniel Akin said. “The love shown to the students of Southeastern and their families is truly a gift from heaven. We love this church and thank God for how they love us.”
Bay Leaf’s support of the seminary does not stop with its Toy Chest ministry, said Allan Moseley, Southeastern’s vice president for student services. In addition, the church sponsors a large clothes closet ministry for students, gives generously to the seminary’s endowment fund and supports other projects and missions endeavors.
“A seminary could have no better friend than Bay Leaf Baptist Church,” Moseley said. “For years the Bay Leaf folks have blessed Southeastern Seminary in innumerable ways -– from major financial support to helping numerous individual students. The Bay Leaf Toy Chest is a microcosm of the people of Bay Leaf. It exemplifies their generosity toward students and missions while demonstrating the excellence that marks all their service for Jesus.”