Christians in the small southern Georgia town of Dawson are putting the spotlight back on Jesus this Christmas season, shifting the focus away from Santa who, for generations of Americans, has been the face of the holidays.
That shift was on full display at a Christmas party for nearly 1,000 children on Dec. 2. The jolly old elf wasn’t there, nor were his reindeer, nor elves, nor any other commercialized yuletide decorations.
Instead, the emphasis was on familiar Christmas carols and scriptures heralding the birth of Christ.
“The purpose is to make sure all these children hear the real story of Christmas,” said Gene Roberts, missions strategist in the Summerhill Baptist Association based in Albany.
Roberts served as liaison between local Baptist churches and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board to make sure every child who showed up for the Dawson event received a backpack filled with toys, treats and scriptures detailing the birth of the Savior.
Roberts, along with dozens of church leaders from Dawson, made sure the children understood that Christmas is a Christian holy day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The kids heard about the angels who announced Jesus’ birth, of shepherds who rushed to the Bethlehem stable where He was born, and of wise men who traveled from afar to worship Him.
“This is one of our most important outreaches,” said Berry Barfield, a member of First Baptist Church Dawson. “It allows us to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Dawson church leaders have proven that Jesus remains a bigger draw in their Bible Belt town than Santa. Excited children listened as Raines Baptist Church pastor Raymond Andrews told of the events surrounding the birth of Christ.
Behind Andrews, they could see enough gift-filled backpacks to ensure every child got one, not from Santa but from Christians who wanted to show them the love of Christ.
The undertaking took months of preparation, purchasing backpacks and the goodies that go into them.
Georgia Baptists from all over the state have been involved in the backpack ministry of Mission Georgia, an arm of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
Mission Georgia focuses on meeting the needs of many of the state’s most vulnerable residents, and backpacks have become important tools in doing that.
For the beginning of each school year, volunteers fill backpacks with classroom supplies and ship them off to schools. They also stuff backpacks with clothing and blankets for women and children rescued from human trafficking.
Many more backpacks are prepared for foster kids and for children of international refugees who have arrived in the U.S. with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Some are filled with age-appropriate books to help elementary school students improve their reading skills. That’s a fairly new outreach for Georgia Baptists motivated by studies that have shown children who fall behind their classmates in reading are more likely to drop out of school as they grow older, become dependent on government welfare programs, and to go to jail.
Beth Ann Williams, the Mission Board’s lead strategist overseeing Mission Georgia, said volunteers have stuffed more than 10,000 backpacks this year.
Andrews told the Dawson children that toys are wonderful but that the greatest Christmas gift of all time is Jesus, a gift to a world that desperately needs Him.
The toys, Andrews said, will wear out, but “you will always have Jesus.”