Mark Brumbelow peered over at his wife, Cherry, riding in the passenger seat, and uttered a simple promise. Grace Baptist Church, located in the unincorporated community of Wild Peach, a place easily missed if one blinks while driving through coastal Brazoria County, 60 miles southwest of Houston, had a history of unlikely blessings. What Cherry had burning in her heart could have been called unlikely. For a 23-member church, it was certainly ambitious. Really, it was just plain audacious.
“I’ll pray about it,” he told her.
Mark, pastor of Grace Baptist since 2007 and a deacon there before God wrestled him into pastoral ministry like two of his brothers and his father before him, certainly knew God’s faithfulness to his flock. He had lived through it. But he could also count.
That week in December 2013, Mark and Cherry and their youngest son, Jeremiah, had spent three days in Dallas at a new processing center for Operation Christmas Child, the annual Samaritan’s Purse ministry that Grace Baptist had participated in for 10 consecutive years.
Cherry says she had long considered the “shoebox” gifts that churches around the world pack and OCC delivers to be a first-rate global outreach to needy children. But she left Dallas that week with a heightened sense of mission: Operation Christmas Child, above all else, is a global evangelism endeavor—an instrument God uses by way of crayons, toothbrushes and toys—to lead thousands of children and their families to saving faith in Jesus Christ each year.
On the long drive back to Wild Peach, Cherry spilled what was welling up in her heart.
“I believe God wants us to pack 500 shoeboxes this year.”
Mark admits he was moved by the visit to the Operation Christmas Child processing center, but those 23 church members had stretched a little that year to pack those 43 shoeboxes, then pay the suggested donation per shoebox to cover shipping.
“I was proud of those 43 shoeboxes, and I’m still proud of those 43 because each one represents a soul that Jesus died for,” Mark says. “But I told Cherry, ‘You know, I believe we could pack 500 shoeboxes, but I believe it would come at the expense of our other missions causes. I believe it would hurt our Lottie Moon Offering. I believe it would hurt our Cooperative Program giving, what we give to our local pregnancy center—all these other ministries.’”
Yet Mark had promised to pray about it.
Not long after that, he was preaching from 2 Kings 4 on the story of the widow whose sons were being threatened with enslavement because she couldn’t pay her late husband’s debts. In the passage, the prophet Elisha, having been told the woman’s only asset was a small jar of olive oil, tells her to visit all of the neighbors and to gather empty jars.
After gathering her many jars, the woman begins pouring oil into them, and the oil lasts until the last jar is filled. Elisha then instructs her to sell the oil and live off the proceeds.
“It was that widow’s responsibility to gather empty containers,” Mark says, “but it was God’s responsibility to fill them. God spoke to us just as clear as could be that night. I sensed the Lord asking, ‘Can you get 500 empty shoeboxes?’
“‘God, we can and we will.’ And he said, ‘You get ’em and you just watch what I do.’
“I announced to our people that we felt like God was definitely leading us to pack 500 shoeboxes the following year. They looked at me like I’d lost my mind—like a calf staring at a new gate. … But they love their preacher and they want to follow, and I praise God for that. They said, ‘Well, we don’t know about that, but we’ll try.’”
That year, 2014, was transformational at Grace Baptist Church.
Little answers to prayer began to mount exponential results. Church members took the challenge heartily. And some members in the church discovered the economic value of couponing.
“There were times the store was paying us to carry out toothbrushes or combs,” Cherry recalls.
The final tally was 532 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes that year—and God provided the funds to cover the shipping costs.
Mark’s greatest fear had been that the church’s shoebox giving would come at the expense of other missions. Not only did that not happen, but giving to every ministry outside the church—including the Gulf Coast Baptist Association; the Cooperative Program missions through the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention; the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for global missions; giving to a local pregnancy center; and the port ministry in Freeport—all increased.
The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, one of several the church takes up for special mission emphases in addition to budgeted giving, doubled in 2014. Total missions giving has steadily increased every year since. And it’s been common in recent years for around 20 percent of Grace’s members to spend a week working with Volunteer Christian Builders, a group that helped raised Grace’s building back in 2003.
“The change in our people from 2013 to the end of 2014, I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it,” Mark says. “We saw God move in ways that literally changed our lives. … It showed us, go to God when you have something big; don’t be afraid to step up in faith when it doesn’t make sense.”
The goal for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering that year, usually a specific amount, was instead a concept: Obedience. The word was written in marker ink on the line where the goal is listed on the promotional posters that line the walls of many Southern Baptist church hallways. The people gave sacrificially from what they had, and God provided the increase, Mark says.
“God whittled me down to size that year,” he recalls. “He showed us that he was big enough to bless this ministry—and this one and this one and this one.”
The church has also grown numerically, more than doubling to 52 members. All the while, Mark has pastored the flock while also keeping a small taxidermy business afloat.
The boldness to keep boosting its Operation Christmas Child giving has grown too, in proportions the members of Grace Baptist would never have imagined.
In 2015, the church set a goal of 2,000 shoeboxes. They packed 2,172, shipping included. Storage became a challenge that year, and someone donated a 40-foot storage container, which the church insulated and air conditioned to keep things like crayons from melting during the Texas summers.
In 2016, they surpassed their goal of 5,000 shoeboxes. In 2018, one year after Hurricane Harvey destroyed or damaged the homes of seven church members, Grace Baptist was able to pack and ship more than 10,000 shoeboxes. This year, they are aiming for 12,500. The shipping will be $108,000, Cherry says, but God has always provided—from the sacrifices of church members to people outside the church who have heard what they are doing and have wanted to help.
“What we’ve learned when you’re dealing with impossible numbers is that numbers really don’t matter because without God you can’t do it, and with God you can’t fail,” Mark says. “So the only number that matters is the number God gives you.”
Mark says he is personally motivated by a belief that Jesus is coming back soon. He says he seeks no glory for Grace Baptist but only for the Lord who has allowed them to “be in on it.”
“We don’t know how long we’ve got. We don’t know how many more days we have to serve him, so let’s make it count and live our lives in such a way that when he comes back, he’ll find us real busy doing the right stuff.
“Whether it’s packing shoeboxes or whether it’s the Cooperative Program or it’s Lottie Moon, lay logic aside and just pray and ask the Lord what he wants you to do. If you hear something that scares you half to death, then make sure it’s him telling you. But when you are sure, then be fearless.”