He’s been helping his mother with the Angel Tree ministry since he was a toddler, but he’s nine years old now and is beginning to understand what it’s all about. Wrapping gifts for another nine-year-old boy on behalf of a father who is in prison, he asks, “Mom, are all prisoners mean? Do they still love their kids?”
“Of course, they do. Prisoners are children of God, just like you and me. They just don’t have any way to purchase Christmas gifts for their children.”
“When will Jimmy’s dad get out of prison?”
“Not until 2066.”
“How old will Jimmy be?”
“He’ll be sixty years old.”
All across the country families wrap Christmas presents during December for the 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent. It’s a way in which we can make real the love of Jesus Christ to children who may not otherwise be able to celebrate Christmas.
The church where I pastor has participated in Angel Tree since 1996 when we served 75 children. This year we served 148 families, consisting of 363 children. Angel Tree was started by Prison Fellowship and is the only nationwide program that is directed toward the hundreds of thousands of children who suffer poverty and hardship because one of their parents is in prison.
The Salvation Army is the largest organization sponsoring Angel Tree, but many local churches across the country participate as well. Purchasing and delivering Christmas gifts to so many children is a huge venture in any church.
The kick-off is on the Sunday before Thanksgiving when individuals and families pick the names of children from the Angel Tree. The families, given to us by Prison Fellowship, live in our geographical area, although the parent may be incarcerated in any part of the country. Eligible prisoners for this program have to be a part of Prison Fellowship, which is a Christian ministry to incarcerated men and women. Prisoners are invited to send messages to their children that accompany the gifts.
After receiving names, church members have two weeks to purchase two gifts for each child, an article of clothing and a fun item, with a price limit of $30-$40. The gifts are wrapped by the families as if given by the incarcerated parents. If the children have siblings who are not biological children of the parent in prison, we include them as well, although it is not mandated by Angel Tree. That price limit is $10-$15. One family this year has eleven children. Only four are the biological children of the father in prison, but the other seven children received sibling gifts because it’s important to include everyone.
Paperwork filled out by the parent at home includes specific requests by the children and teenagers. Sometimes they ask for school uniforms, coats or sweaters. One child wrote, “My Christmas wish: ‘For Dad to come home.’” Another requested, “Books that I can read.” When children and teens ask for personal items like underwear or bras, it tugs at the heart. No one ever asks a stranger to buy intimate wear for them unless there is a critical need.
In early December church members return their wrapped gifts to the church. The flurry of activity is a sign to behold as hundreds of people deliver bags filled with brightly wrapped presents. In addition, three different missions groups in the church donate a total of $5,000, which is used to buy food for each family. The usual request is for breakfast and snack items since children are home over the Christmas vacation.
Each food bag contains approximately $35 worth of food as well as two additional items: a booklet from Prison Fellowship that describes God’s love for them and for the world and a card from the church that says, “Your friends at First United Methodist Church Birmingham are praying for you this holiday season. Have a blessed Christmas. You remain in our hearts and in our prayers. Jesus is the reason for the season.”
Our Angel Tree coordinators are present all week, along with dozens of volunteers who sort and categorize the gifts and assemble food bags for each of the 148 families. Meanwhile, a volunteer begins mapping routes so that the thirty-one drivers each deliver presents to four or five families on a Saturday morning. It’s a mammoth job. Families are asked to be home between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. If no one answers the door, another crew tries again on Sunday.
Angela has been the coordinator for the past eight years. “Why do you do this?” I ask. “Because Prison Fellowship is a great organization, and I love to help innocent children.” Angela remembers families who are served year after year and has fallen in love with the children, some of whom will not receive any other presents than the ones from the church. One year Angela delivered presents to Donovan. Donovan, a long-time recipient of Angel Tree gifts, is 18 now and has even come to the church to speak about what Angel Tree means to him.
Diane and her sixteen-year-old daughter are also present throughout the week. Diane started helping with Angel Tree when Skylar was just a toddler, and they haven’t missed a year since. Family vacations are even planned around Angel Tree. When I ask, “Why do you do this?” Diane says, “Angel Tree is a labor of love and puts all of life into perspective. By doing Angel Tree at the beginning of December, it sets the tone for the Christmas season. I am more realistic now about spending habits and don’t buy as much for Skylar.”
One prisoner thanked us by writing, “Angel Tree provides a special connection between my three sons and me at the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ and allows us to share in this celebration even though we are miles and miles apart. What Angel Tree does for incarcerated men and women embodies what Jesus did for all of us and the teachings he left for us. I am so grateful that through this program my sons and I can experience the gift of giving and receiving because my children understand what it means to give to others and to freely receive God’s love.”
The looks of wonder on the faces of the boys and girls who benefit from Angel Tree are etched in our hearts forever. We are signs of God’s love for children who feel abandoned and confused because of their parent’s incarceration. They hope that their parent in prison remembers them, and they need to know that through the love of Jesus, God can bring healing into their family.
Ultimately, we are delivering more than food and gifts. We are making real God’s love in the real world. Unfortunately, in Michigan alone, 16,000 children were waiting in eager anticipation but were not taken into the Angel Tree program last year. Every child deserves a chance, and every church can find some way to reach out to the children in their community at Christmas.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” says the Skin Horse in Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. “It’ a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?’
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Real is incarcerated men and women loving their children, even from prison. Real is children experiencing both the pain of separation as well as the love of others who care. Real is other children who learn that not everyone receives more Christmas presents than they know what to do with. Real is disciples of Jesus Christ who know that when you are real no one is ugly, passed over or forgotten. How can you become real so that other can experience a real Christmas?