FROM THE STATES: Fla., Tenn., Ga. evangelism/missions news; 'They are women, widows, children, men. They are in despair'

Today's From the States features items from:

Florida Baptist Witness

Baptist and Reflector (Tennessee)

The Christian Index (Georgia)

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Fla. Baptists minister

to Syrian refugees

By Keila Diaz

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Florida Baptist Witness) -- The Syrian refugee crisis happening thousands of miles away from Florida might soon come closer to home as the federal government seeks to relocate 10,000 Syrian refugees, with a couple hundred coming to the Sunshine State in 2016.

There are 20 million refugees in the world, with almost 49,000 coming to Florida last year, according to data from World Relief and the Florida Department of Children and Families. About 100 of them were Syrian.

This data represents a special opportunity for Florida Baptists to reach a group of people they would otherwise not have the chance to interact with.

But how can Baptist churches across the state interact and share the Gospel with a group of people that for the most part have a significantly different worldview?

First of all, says Rick Wheeler, lead missional strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, get to know a Syrian refugee.

"If you've ever met a refugee, you're dealing with a person who's lost everything. And they come to our airports, and they have a white plastic bag, and everything they own is in there," he said.

Some of the discussion surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis has been that allowing Syrian refuges into the country poses a threat to national security.

A LifeWay Research telephone survey of 1,000 protestant senior pastors found that 44 percent agree that their church has a sense of fear about refugees coming to the United States.

Wheeler says that politicians and media sound bites make it seem like it's an either/or dilemma. Either help the refugee or risk national security. When in fact, he says, Americans can both help the refugee and protect national security.

As a sanctuary city designated by the state government, Jacksonville has seen its share of refugees, which is why, says Wheeler, most of the JBA churches are accustomed to interacting with them.

"The people that I deal with are not military people. They are women, widows, children, men. They are in despair," he said.

Safaa and Elham Hillawi fled their hometown in Iraq due to religious persecution.

Since arriving in Jacksonville eight years ago, the couple has been working to reach other refugees, most of whom are Muslim.

Like in Iraq, Elham says that the way they do church here is through house churches. She explains that after the war in Iraq it became dangerous for Christians to meet in groups larger than 20, and because their church was very large they had to break up into small groups that met throughout the city of Baghdad.

In Jacksonville, they use a similar approach to which refugees have responded well.

She says that the challenge in ministering to Muslim refugees is trust.

"Some of the families are afraid of the Muslim families because they feel they cannot trust them, even the ones that say they are Christians have to be vetted," she said.

Her advice to Southern Baptist churches that want to reach out to the Syrian refugees who might come to their communities -- many of whom might be Muslim -- is to become familiarized with the Quran.

She says that if Muslims feel that the person trying to reach out to them doesn't understand their religion or their culture, then they will not feel compelled to listen to what that Christian is sharing.

Sometimes churches might feel that giving a refugee family money or a car is a big help, but she says that instead churches should give refugee families "food, take them to the hospital if they need it, show them the love, tell them about Jesus. That is better than giving them something big."

Some churches might not have any Syrian refugees in their communities, but they still can reach out to Syrians who are stuck in other countries as they flee the violence in theirs.

David Trivette, missions minister at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, leads the church's efforts in helping Syrian refugees internationally.

Church at the Mall has partnered with Agora Church -- a church plant in Budapest, Hungary -- to help the Syrian refugees arriving almost daily by train.

David Hamar, pastor of Agora Church, and International Mission Board missionaries Trey and Denise Shaw and Monte and April Baker are leading the ground-floor efforts to meet Syrian families at the train stations, share the Gospel with them, supply their physical needs and keep them company as they sort out their next step.

"Led by WMU and other mission-minded folks within our church, a spaghetti luncheon took place to raise support and awareness of how we can pray for our ministry partners as they minister to the Syrian refugees," said Trivette in an email.

"We also sent a team from Church at the Mall during Thanksgiving to show encouragement to our ministry partners and Agora Church, [which] has opened [its] doors to many immigrants as they acclimate into the Hungarian culture."

In an email to Trivette, Monte Baker says that some of the ways they've been able to help the Syrian refugees is by taking church families to meet the refugees at the train stations and letting the kids play together. At another train station, mission teams were able to help prepare lunch for approximately 400 Syrians who arrived that day. He also was able to obtain permission from the Hungarian government to enter the refugee camps to share the Gospel. Baker also shared that the biggest need among the refugees arriving in Hungary is shoes.

"Overall, I find the refugees hospitable, kind, intelligent and looking for a better life, a life without fear and a chance to work and provide a future for their families," wrote Baker. "I have not encountered any hostility whatsoever, but instead people open to relationships."


This article appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness (gofbw.com), newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention. Keila Diaz is a reporter for the Florida Baptist Witness.

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Tenn. church's Upward

league reaches thousands

By Connie D. Bushey

GOODLETTSVILLE, Tenn. (Baptist and Reflector) When Ken Castleberry, pastor, Parkway Baptist Church, started Upward Basketball here 12 years ago, it drew 75 children.

Today, the church manages an Upward Basketball and Upward Cheerleading league involving three other churches which draws about 490 children or teens, 100 coaches, 35 referees, and another 400 adult volunteers. 

About 2,000 people will attend the league's upcoming Upward Awards Night which has to be held at a church not involved in the program that has a sanctuary which can accommodate the crowd.

Players and cheerleaders come mostly from the community rather than the four churches, said Matt Megginson, minister of family life at Parkway who coordinates the Upward league.

"We use basketball to start a conversation about the Gospel with our community," added Megginson. 

The conversation is wide-ranging, but always respectful, reported Megginson, as coaches, referees, and volunteers get to know students and family members who are Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The students who participate also represent many races. A majority of the players and cheerleaders are African-Americans who live in the neighborhoods of the churches.

Last year the three-month effort resulted in 17 students making professions of faith, the minister noted, adding that he expects at least that many to make the same life-changing commitment this year. A devotional is presented at each practice and at half-time of each game, which is played on Saturdays. 

Toward the end of the season the plan of salvation is presented during practice by the coaches and during the half-time of a game by a person who shares a devotional. Finally, the plan of salvation and a decision time is a part of Awards Night, explained Megginson. Follow-up on people making decisions is provided.

"Upward is loving on the community and sharing Jesus," he noted. "We're trying to meet these families and make a difference in their lives. … God has blessed this."

Upward leaders at Parkway use plans developed by Upward Sports, a Christian youth sports provider which is being used by 2,000 churches in 47 states involving one-half million players. 

To keep up with the growing program, Megginson admitted he has received a lot of "noes" as he has contacted churches seeking more gym space and volunteers who might serve as coaches, referees, and in other roles. But he also has heard a lot of "yeses," he added.

In fact, one church which participated at one time didn't have a gym but "they had volunteers." 

Another church, Dalewood Baptist Church, Nashville, had a gym but no members in the aging, small congregation who could be volunteers. Yet, as members committed to do what they could do, Upward leaders "decided we could work together and make that happen," reported Megginson. 

Dalewood Baptist is one of the four churches hosting the league and church members are thrilled to see so many people, hundreds each week, using their facility, he added.

Churches which participate are evangelistic though not all Baptist.

Obstacles have arisen, Megginson recalled. For years he had been allowed to distribute flyers about Upward in an area public school. Then a new principal rejected the flyers but referred Megginson to the Metro Nashville school board, where the distribution of Upward flyers was not only approved, but Megginson was asked what schools he would like to target. Last year he and others distributed 11,000 flyers for the Parkway Upward league in 30 schools.

"God really opened that door," he observed.

A new feature the last couple of years has been the addition of basketball tournaments for older boys and girls. Megginson is assisted in conducting Upward by a 10-person committee of members of Parkway.

Megginson said Upward and its expansion is a strategy of Parkway Baptist which is endorsed by its staff. For instance, Castleberry is still a coach after 12 years and all of the rest of the staff are involved in some way.

Over the years of involvement with Upward, Parkway "realized the opportunity that lay before us. At first we were willing to let the community come in (our gym) and that became us wanting them to come in," said Megginson. 


This article appeared in the Baptist and Reflector (http://tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Connie Davis Bushey is news editor of the Baptist and Reflector.

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Ga. revival in a

watermelon shed

By Gerald Harris

POULAN, Ga. (The Christian Index) -- If you have a passion to see God do something, get a vision from above, add some really committed pastors, plus a responsive laity, then sprinkle it with moral purity, spiritual honesty, genuine faith, and fervent prayer you can have a revival break out almost anywhere -- even under a watermelon shed in the Sumner community near the town of Poulan in Worth County.

Interestingly, the greeting on the sign entering Poulan states, "Welcome to Poulan the Home of Possum Poke". Possum Poke, located on Possum Lane, is a historically registered property and once the home of the late Michigan Governor Chase S. Osborne.

Although Worth County is one of Georgia's larger counties in terms of square miles, its population is less than it was in 1930, numbering only 21,679.

The peanut is Georgia's official state crop, producing close to half of the peanuts grown annually in the United States. Worth County is the Peanut Capital of the world, but the county is also known for producing some mighty fine watermelons.

However, in recent years, Worth County has become known for its spring community revival meeting. Hundreds of people gather each spring under a watermelon shed, sing songs of praise, listen to Gospel preaching, and many find their way to the altar to find peace with God and renew their commitment to Him. The Baptists seem to have taken the lead, but churches of other denominations have gotten involved, racial barriers have been bridged, and God has richly blessed the effort.

The Worth County Crusade meetings have taken place every other year since 2010, this year being the fourth time the Sunday-night-through-Wednesday-night crusade has been held. Hours of prayer and planning precede these old-fashioned revival meetings and some say that they have literally changed the spiritual tone and temperature of the county.

The theme of this year's meeting was "Stand". Jason Jones, pastor of Isabella Baptist Church in Sylvester and one of the coordinators for the crusade, noted, "We see the erosion of our communities and we believe it is time, really past time, for God's people to stand for righteousness and His purposes."

Kemp Willis of Unity Baptist Church commented, "Who would have thought that God would use a watermelon shed purposed to hold and ship produce to proclaim the Gospel? Melons are good and nutritious, but the Word of God as spiritual food feeds to soul. We have had a tremendous time in the Lord."

Jonathan Halstead, a deacon at Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, stated, "The thing that has stood out to me the most is the cooperation of the various churches. All these people have come out to be the church."

No flash in the pan

Mallory associational missionary Hans Wunch testified, "Seeing hundreds of people from dozens of churches come together to worship the Lord has encouraged my soul. Hearing God's Word proclaimed boldly and with reckless abandon has thrilled me to no end.

"But seeing groups of people being prayed over and encouraged renewed me more than anything else. These Worth County services are not 'flash in the pan' meetings, but times of worship with eternity in sight."

"It has been a refreshing time this week to be able to worship and hear God's Word with so many under one roof," said Vicky McDonald of Liberty Hill Baptist Church. "Things have begun to happen that can only be explained with words like 'God has been in this place'."

Jim Eure, deacon and Sunday School teacher at Pine Forest Baptist Church, exclaimed, "The fellowship among the many churches was truly something to see. Many people made a commitment to stand up for the Lord. My prayer is that this time of revival/renewal will make a difference and be ongoing."

Jimmy and Lynette Cross, both leaders in Pine Hill Baptist Church, spoke of the soul-stirring music led by Brian Broome, worship leader at Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, and the powerful preaching of Bert Harper of America Family Radio, Fred Evers, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, and Emir Caner, president of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland. They both stated, "God is here."

Dianne Willis Pitts, choir member of Northside Baptist Church in Sylvester, remarked, "This revival has been an inspiration and has motivated me to share Jesus. It has been a wonderful time of praise and worship with other Worth County Christians."

Those who think the day of revivals is over should ask the people in Worth County. They have just concluded their scheduled meetings, but the impact of the revival will be experienced for weeks and months to come.


This article appeared in The Christian Index (christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: From the States, published each Tuesday by Baptist Press, relays news and feature stories from state Baptist papers and other publications on initiatives by Baptist churches, associations and state conventions in evangelism, church planting and Great Commission outreach, including partnership missions. Reports about churches, associations and state conventions responding to the International Mission Board's call to embrace the world's unengaged, unreached people groups also are included in From the States, along with reports about church, associational and state convention initiatives in conjunction with the North American Mission Board's call to Southern Baptist churches to broaden their efforts in starting new churches and satellite campuses. The items appear in Baptist Press as originally published.

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