Legacy Tree connects church to Baptist retirees

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP) -- It can be frustrating to purchase a Christmas gift for someone who has everything.

But have you tried purchasing a gift for someone who has less than enough to make ends meet and yet insists on the gift going to someone more worthy?

That's the problem supporters of Mission:Dignity frequently encounter when they want to honor a minister and his wife -- or widow -- each Christmas season. Members of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church were especially familiar with this type of humility, even when the recipient didn't have enough money to pay for their prescription drugs.

But Johnson Ferry and its members didn't take no for an answer and found a way to make the holidays merrier for many Southern Baptist retirees in Georgia by participating in Mission:Dignity, a ministry to retired ministers living on fixed incomes.

A few years ago, the Atlanta-area congregation launched a Granny Tree -- now being rebranded as the Legacy Tree.

The plan was simple. At the church's request, GuideStone Financial Resources sent the names of 135 Mission:Dignity recipients in Georgia who would be blessed by some extra holiday cheer, and their names were placed on the tree. Members chose a name -- sometimes more than one -- and met the specific need mentioned.

Whether the residence was across town or in a far-flung corner of the state, the gifts were then delivered before the holidays either by the church or members who would take the items personally.

"It's been a wonderful relationship for the past five years, even though I have yet to meet Gerald and Marilene Moon," said Barbara Jarratt, a Johnson Ferry member. "They have such a sweet spirit and raised four children on a very limited income.

"My husband and I are so blessed, and I want to be a blessing to someone else. What we enjoy about the Legacy Tree is that this can be a personal relationship, not just giving a one-time gift to a stranger."

Jarratt added that the Mission:Dignity outreach is important to her since she never knew her own grandparents. The Legacy Tree relationship helps fill that space in her heart in a small yet personal way.

"We are thinking of driving up to see the Moons in northeast Georgia to get to know them better. We want them to know that they are in our thoughts and prayers throughout the year, not just during the holidays."

Peggy Fulghum, senior adult minister at Johnson Ferry who oversees the Legacy Tree outreach, said she was concerned in the early years whether enough people would respond because initial participation was slow and worrying. But now that the congregation has caught the vision, the names are snatched up in two and a half weeks -- even before Thanksgiving.

Today, the Legacy Tree ministry is thriving thanks to Sunday School classes that participate, individual members who embrace the call and weekday Bible study groups that take several names. The annual launch, which begins in early November, is a popular way for many Johnson Ferry members to usher in the season of giving.

"Mission:Dignity is a needs-based ministry, and the Legacy Tree appeals to such a cross-section of our membership," Fulghum said. "Online adoption is also a popular way to select an individual or couple if someone cannot take a card right off the tree."

George and Carol Zupko first learned about the Legacy Tree eight years ago through their Life After 50 group at Johnson Ferry. They had never heard of Mission:Dignity, but they thought it sounded like a good idea to participate. The Zupkos randomly selected a name off the tree, which has since turned into a long-term relationship with a couple from northwest Georgia.

In fact, the Zupkos even stopped by for a visit while they were camping at Cloudland Canyon State Park.

"We had such a wonderful time getting to know each other, and our relationship grew from that," George Zupko said. "We visited them a couple of other times, but the gentleman, who was a retired youth minister, eventually passed away."

The Zupkos continue their relationship with his widow and send gift cards, now twice a year, to help meet her needs.

"The pastor usually asked for a pair of slacks and a sweater, and his wife just asked for some gas money," Carol Zupko said. "We eventually decided gift cards were the best way to give them some flexibility in their purchases."

George Zupko said he is grateful for Mission:Dignity bringing those on restricted incomes to his and Carol's attention so they can honor their faithfulness.

"It's a legacy that needs to be recognized and celebrated as an example for others," he said.

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