By Tobin Perry
HURRICANE, W.V.—When God first called Bill Barker as a missionary to Appalachia in the spring of 2001, the veteran pastor of more than 30 years got down on his knees and prayed.
“Lord, what is the message I need to take?” Barker asked God.
God gave him 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 and prayed it countless others in the past 16 and a half years, and God has spent that decade and a half answering those prayers.
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 to the region to serve full-time. He has also overseen the Mississippi River Ministry (MRM) since 2012.
Barker is retiring at the end of December. ARM and MRM are North American Mission Board ministries that seek to 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 time of missionary service, he noted three 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.
Barker has also appreciated the opportunity to connect with and speak to thousands of Southern Baptists every year. In a typical year, he spoke 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. “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 was greatly encouraged by growth in ARM’s Christmas Backpack Ministry. The ministry was developed in 2012 out of a shoebox ministry and provides Christmas necessities, gifts and fun items to impoverished children throughout Appalachian and Mississippi River regions. The ministry has grown from 300 shoeboxes to an expectation of 65,000 backpacks this year.
Miracles like that have been plentiful in the last 16 years.
“I wake up every morning wondering what miracle God is going to do today,” Barker said. “I've seen God do small miracles. I've seen Him do big miracles.”
Barker started seeing miracles in his first year in the role. In February of 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 through to Barker’s cell phone when he was in a location where he typically did not have cell coverage (and hasn’t since). It was a lady from South Carolina who had heard Barker speak at her church two weeks earlier.
""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’ ministry.
The miracles have kept coming, too. Just a few years ago, Barker got a call from a lady in Jacksonville, Fla., who had four boxes of discontinued baby clothes that she wanted to give him. 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.""
Unknown to Barker, Keith Decker of Cedar Ridge Ministries in Eastern Kentucky had noticed an overwhelming number of poorly clothed, dirty-diapered, malnourished babies in their community. Wanting to help, Decker and his wife decided to host a baby shower for these women. On the same Friday Barker had received the first call from the Jacksonville woman, Decker had posted a notice on Facebook about the shower. They hoped 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 worth of baby clothes, Decker called him in a panic over the situation. When the two realized the unique timing of the two calls, they just laughed. God had come through once again.
“It has been 16 and a half years of miracles like those,” Barker said.
Barker expects to stay active in ministry after his retirement from NAMB, but he doesn’t yet know where that will be. NAMB’s work in the Appalachian region will continue through a new Send Relief ministry hub located in Kentucky.
“I am grateful to Southern Baptist 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.