December 15, 2001
BE AN ANGEL TO AN ANGEL
Who are the most forgotten victims of crime?
The two million children of America's
prisoners. ''These children are not responsible for what their parents
did. But they have to suffer economically and emotionally,'' said Mary
Kay Beard, an ex-inmate who created the Angel Tree program of Prison
Fellowship in 1980.
She went to the prison near Birmingham, Ala.
where she served time for armed robbery and collected the names of 200
children.Volunteers called their caregivers, asking what they wanted or
needed for Christmas. A paper angel was hung on trees in two malls with
the name of each child, its age and desired gifts. Ms. Beard invited the
public on radio ''to buy Christmas for an angel.''
People bought items of clothing, usually a
winter coat or shoes, plus dolls or even a bicycle. They brought gifts
to volunteers who wrapped them. Soon all of the angels had gifts, and
more wanted to help. Ms.Beard went to a men's prison for more names,
ultimately 556 in all.
Each was given as a gift ''From your Dad'' or
One grandmother said, ''I have four of the
most ungrateful grandchildren, who never even write a thank you note.''
She grabbed four angels off the tree, returned in three hours with a man
carrying armloads of presents, and sat down to wrap them saying, ''I've
never had so much fun.'' She sent her grandchildren a note saying what
she bought with their money for kids in real need!
Mary Kay Beard was the first female Prison
Fellowship Director. When she told a dozen male colleagues about it,
suggesting that they too have Angel Trees, they dismissed it, saying
''You are in the Bible Belt. People would not respond in our area.'' She
replied, ''Christmas is the same all over the country. It is about
children, family and gifts. When kids receive a gift from their parent
who is away, they know they are loved and remembered.''
They finally agreed to test Angel Tree in a
dozen diverse states Christmas, 1981, and enjoyed the same success. Last
year a stunning 592,000 angels got a gift!
Does it make any lasting difference? Consider
what happened in Chicago to Antonio Ratliff. His dad, Stanley, was in
prison on drug charges and his mother Antoinette, was working. Antonio's
grandmother got a call to ask what the kindergartner wanted for
Christmas, two gifts given in the name of his dad by local church
''I was shocked,'' recalls Antoinette. ''I did
not know anything about Angel Tree. It was too good to be true.''
Antonio, who is now 18, recalls, ''I had a couple of gifts under the
tree, which my mother said were from my daddy. One was a fire truck. I
was happy my father remembered me.''
Today Stanley is the music director of
Lawndale Community Church. His first year out of prison, he persuaded
church members to care for 100 angels. Last year, the church gave gifts
to 815 kids, 250 of whom were cared for by volunteers from suburban
Christ Church of Oak Brook, where Nan Barnhart is a member, the woman
who bought Antonio his fire truck.
Today the Ratliffs organize a Christmas play
and singing for hundreds of children who come to get gifts from family
members behind bars.
My son, Adam, has been a volunteer who has bought and taken gifts
to the homes of Angel tree children for a dozen years. In one family he
visited, a 17-year-old daughter had a baby of her own out-of-wedlock, a
15-year-old was pregnant, a three-year-old was autistic and there was an
''The clear negative impact of having a father
in jail had led the two oldest daughters to make bad choices and to
rationalize them,'' he recalled. ''The mother was overwhelmed, trying to
raise four kids and hold down a job. When we walked up, the kids eyes
lit up. The gifts from their prison father, who had not forgotten them,
might help them to recognize the need to make better choices.''
Adam left nothing to chance. After the gifts
were unwrapped, Adam shared the Gospel plan about Jesus and his gift to
all sinners ''so they could see this was not a charitable handout but
had spiritually significant, eternal value beyond the Christmas gifts.''
The 8-year-old boy, responded to the Gospel, saying he was sorry for his
sins and accepted Jesus. Adam then asked for prayer requests, a concept
that was new to them.
James writes,: ''Religion that God our father
accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows
in their distress.''
Even now you can be an angel to an angel. Call
Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.