Fruit basket ministry 'bridge to the community'
PETOSKEY, Mich. – Children's Missions Day, an annual missions emphasis promoted by Woman's Missionary Union, has the potential to generate missions projects that reach far beyond a single day.
Such projects can be as practical as assembling and distributing fruit baskets to show appreciation to military veterans, firefighters, law enforcement officers and others in a local community. At least that's the case for True North Community Church in Petoskey, Mich.
Children's Missions Day (CMD), held this year on Saturday, Feb. 15, is designed to prepare the next generation to reach people with the gospel of Jesus Christ – both today and in the future.
For Rick Bristol, a North American Mission Board (NAMB) church planter at True North Community Church, participating in a partner church's Children's Missions Day project led him to launch an ongoing community outreach program through his own congregation. A WMU leader at Orchard Church invited Bristol to speak at Orchard's CMD because he is a military veteran, and their project focused on honoring vets for their military service.
In addition to speaking at the event where the children assembled fruit baskets for veterans, Bristol was asked to find an appropriate location to distribute the baskets. He contacted his county's Veterans Affairs office and offered to deliver the gift baskets. He later recalled the reply was something like: "Absolutely, the vets need all the Jesus they can get!"
Based on the success of that experience, Bristol approached his True North congregation about continuing the fruit basket ministry on a weekly basis. "I said, 'Hey listen, church, this is something we did for the Orchard. ...
"'I think we could do it here. I think it's something we could do fairly often. I want to try it once a week. Can we make seven baskets a week?'" he recalled asking. The church was up for the challenge.
Jeff Urban, a service officer for Emmett County Veterans Affairs, said the recipients are grateful.
"We definitely respect and honor our veterans," Urban said, "but to actually have something given to our veterans like a fruit basket, it's not very common so they're delighted and surprised all at the same time. It definitely gives them a little warm fuzzy there when they get it."
Sharing fruit baskets is one of several ministry projects that Bristol and his wife Katie have launched over the past couple of years. Their primary ministry efforts are aimed at replanting True North Church after the previous congregation gradually had declined to only six active members.
As a former Navy chaplain who also worked with the Marines, Coast Guard and Army National Guard, Bristol has a heart for fellow veterans. Katie, who grew up in northern Michigan, realized from phone conversations with family and friends back home that there was an urgent need for a strong Christian witness in the region.
Spiritual surveys in northern Michigan that Bristol reviewed showed about 50 percent of residents in 2000 had no religious affiliation. That number had jumped to 75 percent by 2010. Another decade later, "the trend lines are not going in the right direction," he acknowledged.
"Pretty much when you keep hearing, 'I wish God would send somebody to them,' there's that point where you have to realize that's God telling you to go there," he said.
In response, he concluded his military career and they partnered with NAMB as church replanters. They changed the tiny congregation's name from Agape Baptist Church to True North Community Church and have been gradually engaging the community and nurturing new growth, including a thriving children's program coordinated by Katie.
"I am definitely called to work with children. It is a natural thing for me," she said. "Probably my God-given talent is to work with kids so that's how I can share the gospel."
Rick added, "I have a passion for what we've done but it's not an easy work. The replant nature is to be able to take the people that were willing to say, 'Hey, we want to try something new' and to honor what had happened before but at the same time refocus and rebirth."
As a result, the Bristols and their growing congregation continually are looking for new avenues of ministry and spiritual impact. Bristol said one of his first goals as a replanter was "looking at turning our building inside out" to help meet community needs.
That's where the church's fruit basket ministry comes in. Besides taking baskets to the VA office to "recognize the sacrifices of the former military members," the church quickly expanded the community appreciation initiative to include law enforcement officers and firefighters.
Contacting fire chief Al Welsheimer, Bristol explained that True North "just wanted to show our appreciation for your men and women that are willing to run into a burning building to save a life. Can we give you these baskets to show how much we love them and how much we're praying for them?"
Expressing appreciation for the church's initiative, Welsheimer said, "I think one of the important things is it really shows the kids at a young age the importance of sharing and giving back. It's not all about getting things; it's about giving back to your community. As we know, that's what Jesus did. He gave back, He gave everything."
Along with the firefighters enjoying the fruit baskets and the affirmation, Welsheimer said they often pay the church's gift forward by sharing any extra baskets with "people that aren't so fortunate or elderly people that don't get out to get fresh fruit on a regular basis."
Children in True North's congregation also color pictures and write thank you cards each week to include in the fruit baskets. Bristol said the initiative has become a "bridge to the community."
Involving children of all ages in the project provides them with a memorable hands-on missions experience, Katie said. "They learn that when they're helping others like that, they're spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ," she explained. "They have a certain happiness and joy when they do these cards.
"It's not only helping the person you're serving," she added, "but it really is fulfilling your love that God instills in you."
Besides honoring veterans and first responders, a church member asked Bristol about making baskets for young women at the local crisis pregnancy center. "I was like, 'Absolutely, we have no problem showing Jesus' love to whoever you want to.'"
Noting that the women frequently receive donations of diapers, bottles and pacifiers for their babies, the center staff told Rick that "a little basket of fruit for them is kind of a nice thing because it's showing an appreciation specifically for them."
Affirming the ministry's personal touch, Bristol concluded, "We're Jesus' church and He wants us to be known for His love."
Written by Trennis Henderson, WMU national correspondent.