Baptist youth send millionth meal to Haiti

by Mike Creswell
  • Merrie Johnson and students pray over the one millionth meal to Haiti. Photo courtesy Mike Creswell.

  • Here, students package meals for Haiti. Photo courtesy Mike Creswell.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 74 days old

Baptist young people participating in the 2014 Baptist State Convention's summer youth program at Caswell met a major milestone regarding efforts to provide meals in Haiti.

During the closing hours of the camp, participants packaged the one millionth meal on July 30.

This was the fourth summer youth attending the summer camp sessions have packed the meals; they packed 300,000 meals this summer alone. The four-year total came to 1,000,225 meals.

A total of 6,573 young people - more than 1,000 youth and leaders most weeks - attended seven one-week sessions this year during the summer, part of the "Be Do Tell" ministry led by Convention staffer Dr. Merrie Johnson. Campers came from 264 churches.

The summer youth weeks have long been one of the Convention's most successful ministries offering youth blended Bible-based discipleship teaching, personal quiet times, innovative worship/celebration times and contemporary Christian music along with sports, beach activities and other recreation unique to the North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell on Oak Island.

This summer a total of 6,573 youth attended; 487 of those professed faith in Christ for the first time and 3,267 rededicated their lives to Christ. The camps are for rising seventh graders to high school seniors.

Young people cheered and balloons rained down during the closing Wednesday night worship session of the final week when Johnson told them they had packaged the millionth meal.

Further, she said, they had given enough money. "We needed $12,500 to reach the total needed for this week," she said. "You gave $14,217!"

Buying the food to fill 300,000 packets called for $75,000 to be raised over the summer through offerings received during the camps, plus several more thousand to ship it to Haiti and pay import fees and other costs, and the total amount raised over the summer came to $86,066.66.

"God did it through all of you!" Johnson declared to more cheering. Her voice broke in tears as she voiced a prayer of thanksgiving. "I just want to tell God thank you," she said.

The real grunt work that led to the millionth packet of food took place earlier Wednesday afternoon as teams of youth wearing hairnets stood at long tables, measured out food, poured it into plastic bags and sealed them. The meal bags were then put into boxes and taken outside for loading into waiting cargo containers for transport by truck and ship to Haiti.

Eight packing lines in two rooms of the chapel annex enabled many packets to be prepared quickly.

"Pretty cool to see how much impact it has had!" said Russell McBride, a Be Do Tell staff member, when asked how packing food for hungry Haitians made him feel. McBride, 23, just graduated from the University of Tennessee and is heading to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., this fall.

To keep the kids focused, periodically Change This World staffers threw out a free T-shirt to whoever could catch one. In each packing room large posters headed with "Millionth Meal Summer” were autographed by thousands of Baptist young people who have helped pack the meals.

Periodically youth leader Doug Bryant of Providence Baptist Church, Hickory, signaled his youth for quiet as they gathered round a box of food they just packed and prayed for those who would receive it.

Along with the printed word, "Hope," each box carried the handwritten words, "Jezi renmen ou," (Jesus loves you) and "priye pou ou," (praying for you).

Ken Jones said this is the 16th year he has brought young people to the summer program. "It's so humbling to realize that one bag feeds a family of four and how we grumble about our food when some people have nothing. To know that the one millionth meal is being packed, it's like, go, God! This is really big," said Jones, associate pastor of Trindale Baptist Church in Trinity, N.C.  

Jones said he brought 36 youth this year, adding that this year's program has been the best yet. "Merrie Johnson does an awesome job," he said.

As Change This World staffers counted off the boxes that afternoon, excitement grew among the packers. "Just 30 boxes to go," one announced. As the final packet and box were packed, Johnson gathered her summer staff around to pose for photos and then to have a prayer. She asked for God to let the Haitians know that, "...yes, You will provide for their physical needs, but also for their spiritual needs."

Johnson said it was four years ago that she began looking for a way to involve youth in some kind of ministry that would both meet physical needs and help the gospel be proclaimed. But finding such a ministry was not easy; she looked for six months.

Then at a missions conference she heard about a ministry called Change This World, headquartered in Altamonte Springs, Fla., near Orlando, which is based around packing food on location. She talked with the ministry's representatives, telling them, "The only way we'll do it is if God will be honored and the gospel would be presented as well."

Two weeks later, they called her to say an opportunity in Haiti had just been found: the House of Abraham, an orphanage in Jacmel, Haiti, a city about three hours through the mountains from Port-au-Prince, the capital, on the island's southern coast. The food will be distributed among some 300 orphanages and schools in and around Jacmel.

Change This World staffer Andrew Neal said the organization stresses they do not just distribute food, but want to use food as a way to bring hope and the gospel to people. He said they work with groups across the country to collect funds, buy food and get it shipped to Haiti, Honduras or Burundi, their three partner countries.

"Food changes everything. It changes opportunities," Neal said. "Parents who have never sent their kids to school will send them if food is provided," he said.

Each food packet contains rice, soy, dried vegetables and vitamins, said Cogan Blackmon, a Change This World summer intern from Anderson, Indiana.

"In Haiti they will add six to 10 cups of boiling water and make soup or stew. Because the food is scientifically fortified, it can quickly reverse the effects of malnutrition. In a couple of weeks eating this food, kids gain weight and they will perform better physically and mentally," he said.

Because of the food partnership, two of Johnson's summer staffers served as summer interns with Change This World: Christian Gardner and Murphy Johnson.

Murphy, 19, is Merrie Johnson's son who has worked with the summer program for years. He said he majored on tracking the numbers of packets and filling the shipping containers; Gardner worked more with organizing the young people.

Murphy said often the kids at Caswell at first were less than happy about taking an hour from their week to pack food parcels. But as they learned more about the program through video and talking to staffers like him, their attitudes changed.

"By the end it's cool to see them with a smile on their face and knowing they've done something bigger than themselves," he said. And the work has not gotten tiresome for him, he said.

That's partly because he was able to visit Jacmel, Haiti, and see the food packed at Caswell actually given to hungry kids. During one prayer time, he saw one of the Haitian kids lift his plate of food up to the sky as he gave thanks.

"I'd see kids eat four bites and say they were taking the rest to their mom because she hasn't eaten in a week. It's humbling to see how much Americans take for granted," he said.

Murphy has been attending Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, but in August was enrolling at Middle Tennessee State University to study business administration and marketing.

As the balloons drifted down during the final Friday evening worship service, Murphy's mother, Merrie, closed the final worship service with prayer, saying, "Lord, we pray for safety as we go, but make us loud-mouthed for You."

Packing a million food packets for hungry Haitians is one way thousands of Baptist young people have spoken up loudly for God.