Small California Church Leads Community to Pack Thousands of Shoebox Gifts

November 15, 2017 • United States
Pastor Bill and Robin Rist pause to show their support of Operation Christmas Child in front of their rural California home.
Pastor Bill and Robin Rist pause to show their support of Operation Christmas Child in front of their rural California home.

A rural congregation of 10 rallies ranchers to get involved with Operation Christmas Child.

Nestled in the Gabilan Range just 15 miles east of King City, California, is the community of Lonoak. Once a bustling stagecoach stop in the 1800s, now all that remains of that time are two houses and the vast amounts of surrounding ranch land.

Members of Brushed Up Ministries pause to pray after setting up for the packing party on Saturday afternoon.

Members of Brushed Up Ministries pause to pray after setting up for the packing party on Saturday afternoon.

Just down the road in a more than 100-year-old school building called Tully Hall, Brushed Up Ministries—a 10-member congregation made up primarily of ranchers—hosted 80 people on November 12 for their annual Operation Christmas Child packing party.

After a brief Gospel message by Pastor Bill Rist, members of the community started filling shoeboxes with toys, school supplies, and hygiene items as they also prayed for the boys and girls who will receive them.

After only about six and a half hours of packing, the community had loaded 2,175 shoebox gifts onto a livestock trailer to be transported to a nearby drop-off location.

The group celebrates packing 2,175 boxes in 6.5 hours.

The group celebrates packing 2,175 boxes in 6.5 hours.

Included with those boxes was the suggested donation for shipping and other ministry costs. Despite the small size of the congregation and the challenging volume of shoebox gifts they collect, every year God provides the army of people necessary for this part of the project.

Brushed Up is a church plant of First Baptist Church in King City that’s focused on reaching the ranching community in the Gabilan Range. Led by Pastor Bill and his wife Robin who also tend roughly 200 cattle on 6,000 acres of leased land in the area, the church is named after a cattleman’s term for when an animal feels threatened and runs into brush for safety. It is called being “brushed up.”

“I want to find the cowboys and the country people who are finding their comfort and safety in the wrong places and bring them to the brush pile of the Lord where they can find true comfort, true protection, and true safety,” Bill said.

“Most ranchers ‘brush up’ in their work—we’re workaholics. I want to help them find their identity in Christ.”

Looking Ahead to This Day All Year

Members of the church collect items year-round for their annual packing party and store them at the Rists’. They earn money for the project by taking on side jobs and sorting through recycling at a local dude ranch.

Tully Hall swells with people for the annual Brushed Up packing party.

Tully Hall swells with people for the annual Brushed Up packing party.

Members of the community also approach them with donations for the project while three of the women knit hats throughout the year to include in the boxes.

Through prayer and determination, the church has packed more than 1,000 shoeboxes each of the past five years. Shari Schmidt said, “There’s only 30 ranches in this valley. It’s pretty amazing what we can do.”

Friends of the community came from as far as an hour and a half away to join in Sunday’s annual festivities.

“I want the cowboys and the country people to find true comfort, true protection, and true safety in the Lord.”

Ellie Skromme, 17, exuded a contagious smile as she attached boy/girl labels to the boxes people had packed—a role she’s had at Brushed Up packing parties the last few years.

Ellie Skromme enjoys labeling shoebox gifts after they are packed.

Ellie Skromme enjoys labeling shoebox gifts after they are packed.

After a September car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, she was grateful that she could still do her usual Operation Christmas Child role from her wheelchair.

Ellie prays “that each child who opens their box would find the joy of the Lord.”

Bill’s mother, Alberta Rist, 90, packed 80 boxes on her own at home, and spoke of her desires for the children who will receive her gifts: “I hope they learn about God, become Christians, and spread the Word.”

Another church member, Vickie Sabin, said, “We’re kind of little, but we’re kind of mighty. We try to do our part. I think the best part is that we’ve involved the community.”

“I don’t come on Sundays,” said Lynn Dodge, a local cattle rancher, “but I really enjoy doing this—it makes you feel good about what you’ve done for the day.”

“I hope they learn about God, become Christians, and spread the Word.”

Getting Started

After being ordained at the age of 50, Bill thought God would call him to a church in Los Angeles or some other place just as foreign to the ranching lifestyle his family has enjoyed for seven generations.

Pastor Bill feeds some of his 200 head of cattle.

Pastor Bill feeds some of his 200 head of cattle.

“I took my [all-terrain vehicle]—I don’t ride my horse anymore—and rode all over the ranch saying goodbye to it and telling God I was ready to go,” Bill said. “There were a lot of tears.”

“We’re kind of little, but we’re kind of mighty. I think the best part is that we’ve involved the community.”

“God was waiting for me to turn everything over to Him,” Bill said, before the Lord made it clear that He wanted him to plant a church among ranchers in his own community.

On Mother’s Day 2006, Brushed Up Ministries began meeting with a handful of families in backyards and corrals. As they moved toward fall that first year, Bill and Robin led the fledgling group to pack 126 shoebox gifts for the Samaritan’s Purse project. Every year since, they have increased their shoebox total.

“In theory, we should not be able to do this,” Robin said. “We don’t have the money or the people. It’s all the community.”

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