HURRICANE, W.Va. (BP) - When God first called Bill Barker as a missionary to Appalachia in the spring of 2001, the veteran pastor of more than 30 years - and a native of the region - got down on his knees and prayed.
"Lord, what is the message I need to take?" Barker asked God.
The answer to his prayer came in Matthew 9:35-38, the passage where Jesus sees the multitudes and is moved with compassion. Jesus says in that passage, "The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest."
Barker has preached that passage 1,500 times, prayed it and seen it answered countless times over the years.
With Barker leading the Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM), Southern Baptist churches have sent more than 1 million short-term volunteers to the region. Another 300 people have moved there to serve fulltime.
Barker is retiring at the end of December after more than 16 years as a North American Mission Board missionary. He has also overseen the Mississippi River Ministry (MRM) since 2012. ARM and MRM are North American Mission Board ministries that mobilize Southern Baptists to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the two regions through evangelism, church planting and church strengthening.
As Barker looks back over his missionary service, he noted several developments that stand out. A Gospel tract written by ARM volunteers has been distributed to more than 1.6 million people. The tract led to a correspondence Bible class initiated by ARM, now led by local churches and completed by more than 5,000 people. Hundreds have come to faith in Christ through it, including several dozen men in prison.
Barker has also appreciated the opportunity to connect with and speak to thousands of Southern Baptists, traveling over 1 million miles during the course of his ministry. In a typical year, he has spoken at 125 churches and 10 to 20 Baptist associations and Woman's Missionary Union groups.
"God has enabled me to be out there and be among Southern Baptists and talk about His work," Barker said of the ministry that has led to 77,000 professions of faith. "It has been a marvel to see God use this old boy from the head of a hollow in West Virginia in a manner such as this."
In recent years, Barker has been greatly encouraged by growth in ARM's Christmas Backpack Ministry in partnership with eight state conventions. Developed from a shoebox ministry, it provides gifts, necessities and fun items to impoverished children throughout Appalachian and Mississippi River regions, expanding from 300 shoeboxes in 2012 to an expectation of 65,000 backpacks this year.
Miracles like that have been plentiful in Barker's experience.
"I wake up every morning wondering what miracle God is going to do today," he
said. "I've seen God do small miracles. I've seen Him do big miracles."
Barker started seeing miracles in his first year with ARM. In February 2002, Barker visited Larry and Bessie McPeek to learn more about their ministry helping young mothers keep their babies. In the three months before Barker arrived they'd helped 180 women. But they were broke.
"I have no money to give you," Barker told the couple before praying with them and leaving.
That night a call came to Barker's cellphone in a location where he typically did not have cell coverage and hasn't since. It was from a lady who had heard Barker speak at her church two weeks earlier in South Carolina.
"God has given me the ability to understand investments, and I received an inheritance," the lady told Barker. "I want to send you the tithe off of that to help people in Kentucky. God has told me people in Kentucky need help."
Barker thought the lady would send him $20 or so. Two days later he received a check from her for $10,000, which substantially helped fund the McPeeks' pro-life ministry.
The miracles have kept coming. Just a few years ago, Barker got a call from a lady in Jacksonville, Fla., who had four boxes of discontinued baby clothes she wanted to give. Each box had around 40 outfits. But there was a catch. Someone had to pay for the shipping (about $20 a box). Barker started calling ministries in Appalachia that he believed could use the clothing but none of them could pay for the shipping.
The next day he got another call from the lady in Jacksonville.
"Mr. Barker, I hate to tell you this, we don't have four boxes of baby clothes," the lady told him. "To tell you the truth I have 26 pallets of baby items. If you could tell me where they need to go, I've called in a favor and can get it hauled from Jacksonville, Fla., to anywhere in Kentucky or West Virginia, provided it's on the interstate."
Meanwhile, unknown to Barker, Keith Decker of Cedar Ridge Ministries in eastern Kentucky had noticed an overwhelming number of poorly clothed, malnourished babies in their area. Wanting to help, Decker and his wife decided to host a baby shower for the mothers. On the same Friday Barker had received the first call from the Jacksonville woman, Decker had posted a notice on Facebook about the shower, hoping to help 35 to 50 women thanks to a partner in South Carolina. Instead, 1,000 women signed up to be a part of the baby shower.
Just moments after Barker had learned about the 26 pallets of baby clothes, Decker called him in a panic over the situation. When the two realized the unique timing of the two calls, they knew God had come through again.
"It has been 16-and-a-half years of miracles like those," Barker said.
Barker expects to stay active in Appalachian ministry after his retirement from NAMB, but he doesn't yet know where that will be. NAMB's work in the region will continue through a new Send Relief ministry hub located in Kentucky.
"I am grateful to Southern Baptists for their support of Cooperative Program missions and of the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and their state missions offerings in those partnership states," Barker said. "Those are the offerings that have funded this work."
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.