Honored for their faithful years of service in ministry at the Florida District Conference in 2022, Pastors Judi and Arthur Baxter officially retired. While they no longer pastor a local church, their passion to impact God’s kingdom has not diminished.
“We may no longer be appointed pastors, but we are still disciples who need to be making disciples,” said “Pastor Judi,” as she is affectionately called by participants of Gather Together, the most recent ministry the Baxters have launched.
Gather Together was birthed because of Pastor Judi’s desire “to be doing something for the Lord.” One day while using the Nextdoor app, she saw a post about a familiar idea she had come across: creating waterproof sleeping mats from plastic grocery bags for those currently homeless.
That post received immediate interest from neighbors and prompted a woman to connect with Pastor Judi about promoting the idea. From the resulting publicity, another community woman offered a conference room as a free meeting space for those interested in helping with the project.
In September 2022, nine people showed up to their first meeting. At the next meeting, the conference room was too small to accommodate the 23 people who arrived. Pastor Judi smiled and chuckled as she said, “I’ve never claimed to be a church planter, but I am good at leading small groups and gathering people … it is ‘my thing’.”
The name of the ministry, Gather Together, comes from Acts 2:46-47. The writer of Acts describes activities of believers in the early church, “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” Pastor Judi said she was reading the passage and thought, “Yes! Gather Together! That’s it, the name of the ministry.”
Since September, Gather Together has created 32 sleeping mats. The mats are distributed through various avenues, with the Kearny Center being one of the main conduits. Kearny Center is a local shelter with programs helping those currently homeless and wishing to return to society to do so by learning life skills. Through the Kearny Center’s outreach program, Gather Together has also trained women to crochet the mats for their friends on the streets.
It takes 500-700 plastic grocery bags to make one 3×6 foot sleeping mat. Production is done in assembly-line style with everyone choosing their favorite task to jump in — cutting strips, tying loops, rolling balls of “plarn” or crocheting. Each mat can easily be rolled up like a sleeping bag and carried over the shoulder.
Gather Together participants enjoy the fellowship as well as meeting a practical need. One woman who started participating in May 2023 said, “Thank-you! You have given me purpose.”
The Baxters also lead a weekly Zoom Bible study on Wednesdays. On Sunday mornings, Pastor Judi has also added a 30-minute message via Facebook live.
Reminiscing about how God uses all things for his glory and our good, the Baxters shared how they came to faith. Years ago, their then five-year-old son was invited to a Vacation Bible School. He came home with a tract on the Gospel of John and said, “Mommy, I have Jesus in my heart.” Judi had been raised in church and knew she needed to go and take her son to church regularly. After she and her son started attending a Wesleyan church, he would ask for prayer for his “daddy to come to church” each week during church service. Finally, Arthur surprised them one week by buying new boots and asking if they were good enough to wear to church. The Baxters’ faith grew from that time forward. Both joined the church in 2002 and were ordained in 2011.
Pastor Judi provides advice for others searching to find a balance of rest and serving in retirement years. “Don’t be afraid to form a small group, even if it’s just a Bible study in your home. It’s a way to stay fresh, to stay in the Word yourself, but also a place where people can find hope and truth in an easy-going environment.”
Pastor Arthur added, “It gives people the opportunity to get together, learn and be fed spiritually … everyone has a testimony to give but not everyone wants to share it because they feel it is too minuscule.”
Pastor Judi reflected aloud prayerfully, “Thank you, Lord, for the blessings that we don’t recognize … I am constantly reminded of the story of Joseph, that everything has a purpose. Everything I’m doing now is preparing me for what’s ahead.”
If you have questions about Gather Together ministry, contact Pastor Judi Baxter at email@example.com.
Rev. Sarah Cochran is a Wesleyan pastor serving in Interchurch Service for Destiny Rescue, an agency rescuing kids from sex trafficking worldwide, and a graduate of Wesley Seminary, Marion, Indiana.