Commentary and Analysis from a Biblical Perspective (if the mainstream media won't touch it, somebody has to!)
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Angel Tree Ministries
"And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." -- Jesus (Matt. 10:42)
Even though it still seems a long way off in mid-November, Christmas is fast approaching. The holiday season seems to bring both a whole new level of worries and needs to many, both in our nation and abroad; but we are also faced with unique opportunities to show compassion and the love of Christ.
Of course, the need to do all we can for others and, above all, to spread the Gospel is one we should keep foremost in our minds all year long. From time to time, I profile certain ministries here that fit the criteria for what a true Christian mission should be: both evangelical and humanitarian in nature. After having read the Bible thoroughly several times, I am convinced that God's will for us to serve (what some churches refer to as "social justice") is secondary only to His desire to keep sinners out of hell. Isaiah, James, Amos, 1 Corinthians, the Penteteuch and all of the Gospels drive home this fact. (That's a good chunk of Scripture right there)!
Christmastime presents an ideal opportunity to bring tangible aid to vulnerable people who may otherwise never ask for or receive it. As Angel Tree and many other related ministries have noted, this often softens a hardened heart and opens the door to an opportunity to talk about Jesus. Angel Tree is an offshoot ministry of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship that was started in 1978 by Mary Kay Beard, a former felon and convicted bank robber. Mary Kay had grown up in a Christian home, but had been abused by her alcoholic father and later started down the wrong path in life. She turned to Christ while in an Alabama state prison. After serving her sentence, in 1978 she was released and joined the staff of Prison Fellowship. She became Alabama's first woman state director for Prison Fellowship, and it was out of her Christmas prison experience that Angel Tree, a ministry that provides gifts for inmates' children, was born.
Mary Kay remembered how the women in prison would attend church-related events put on in the prison in order to receive trial-sized bottles of shampoo, soap and toothpaste - which they would then wrap and give to their children when they came to visit them. Recalling the children's joy at the care their incarcerated mothers showed, Mary Kay decided to collect names and addresses of the inmates' children, put them on two public Christmas trees, and allow members of the public to purchase gifts for them in the imprisoned parents' names. “Within six days we were out of names and I had to go back to the prison to get more. At the end of that first Angel Tree in 1982, 556 children had received up to four different gifts each,” she says in her testimony (the whole story is available here).
Just as in the beginning, inmates who register their children's names in the Angel Tree program typically participate in prison Bible studies and discipling afterward. The ministry, whose slogan is "It starts with a gift, it leads to lives transformed by Christ", has expanded to every state and has regional offices to help churches and individuals coordinate their giving programs. Volunteers purchase, wrap and personally deliver Christmas presents to the children whose parents are behind bars and visit with their families. Prison Fellowship even trains the volunteers on presenting a clear Gospel message.
However, Angel Tree does more than just coordinate delivery brightly-wrapped packages to children and sharing the Gospel in one visit. The ministry encourages participating churches to build ongoing relationships with the families they are serving, and offers camping and mentoring programs to reach out to these youngsters long after the holidays are over. Some of the ideas on Angel Tree's website include putting on a church-wide "Family Fun Day" to introduce the children and other family members to the congregation; helping them write letters and make visits to the incarcerated parent; and enrolling the Angel Tree kids in the church's VBS program.
Individuals can also send tax-deductible donations directly to the ministry if their church does not participate in an Angel Tree outreach. With the state the economy is in, donations to charities and missions are bound to be down this year. Still, we all should do what we can, and look at small ways we can help someone who has it worse off than we do. Ensuring that a child receives a gift on Christmas morning....and a lonely prisoner hears the Gospel (perhaps for the first time) is a worthy cause. A gift for one child averages out to only about $11.00. Angel Tree's website also has suggestions for getting your church involved, if there is collective interest in doing so, but missions committees tend to move slowly so it might take until next year.
Please keep these children and their families in your prayers. There is much pain and difficulty not only for the person incarcerated, but for their families as well. Their struggle is often an "invisible" one, and they deserve our compassion.
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.