I grew up in a small town in Nebraska in an average family. Every year at Christmas, we sponsored a child through the Angel Tree® program. I loved the tradition and felt something special when we would drop off the packages in time for a prisoner’s child to celebrate Christmas.
As I grew older, I wasn’t as dedicated or consistent about picking a special tag from an Angel Tree. Sometimes it was hard to find a nearby location running the program. However, once I became a mom, I truly felt the need to spread the love and generosity so that my son, Jackson, would witness how our family could help other families.
Early during the Advent season in 2013, I was excited to pick an Angel Tree tag from the tree at our church. I wanted to be one of the first families to pick a tag since the year before we were late and all the tags had been taken.
This year, Jackson was 3 – old enough to help me pick out the tag and presents, beginning a whole new tradition for the two of us. Also, this year I had a special reason of my own to help out a child.
Our family was in need of finding joy this Christmas. We were missing our baby boy, Nicholas, who was stillborn a few months earlier. Nicholas was survived by his twin sister, but even with the delightful and joyful noises of a new baby at Christmastime, we knew our own little angel couldn’t be with us.
It’s said that the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo never knew what he was going to sculpt when he started. When a piece of marble was delivered to him, he would examine it, and he would envision the form trapped inside it, waiting to be revealed with his hammer and chisel. With the eyes of artistic faith, he saw beauty and majesty where most of us would just see a hunk of rock.
God sees great beauty and potential in each of us. He sees His own image deep within us, put there at creation, even when we are in rebellion against Him. He restores us to what He made us to be, patiently and lovingly working in us until our true beauty is revealed.
He also calls us to be His co-creators – His agents in the work of restoration. As we interact with our spouses, our children, our colleagues, or even just the people standing next to us in line, we are not called to see them as they are. We are called to see them with His eyes, recognizing the beauty and value within, and gently, as co-heirs of God’s grace, helping them to be brought back to His original design.
This applies, too, as we work with men and women behind bars. The world sees them as “hunks of rock,” with nothing to offer and no potential. God sees them completely differently. He sees His image within them, and He saw it as worthwhile to sacrifice His Son for them.
Let’s take up the mantle of co-creators. Let’s put our hope in the unseen, extending to others the same sacrificial love we have received ourselves! As we do, God will reveal His masterpieces of grace.
At Prison Fellowship, we don’t want to do ministry to prisoners. We want to do ministry with prisoners. That one little word makes a big difference. Prisoners aren’t our projects – they are our partners. As you and I walk with them on the road to restoration, men and women behind bars become leaders of the Church behind the walls … sharing the Gospel and discipling those around them, serving their families, and preparing for a new life back in the community.
It’s a joy whenever we can make top-quality Christian leadership training available to those we serve – like we get to this week! While all the staff of Prison Fellowship Ministries participate in Willow Creek’s annual leadership summit, we’re also helping to broadcast it at three prison satellite sites! Check out these encouraging pictures from the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) unit in Texas, where men behind bars are sharing what they learned from Bill Hybels’ opening remarks.
I think Chuck Colson would have loved this.
Scottie Barnes knows what it is like to grow up without a father present in her life. Her dad was frequently absent, often imprisoned in various units throughout western North Carolina and the Southeast. By the time she was 13, her father was permanently incarcerated.
Scottie was able to reconcile with her father two years before his death in 1987. “It was a cold winter day in January when we left the grave of my father,” Scottie says. “I remember saying these words, ‘If God could ever use the story of his life, I’d share it wherever God wanted it told.’”
The result of this promise is Forgiven Ministry, which seeks to meet the spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of the children of inmates, the inmates themselves, ex-inmates, and their families.”
On August 16, during Forgiven Ministry’s “One Day With God” camp at the Avery Mitchell Correctional Institution in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, Scottie Barnes was awarded Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Star of Victory award. The annual award recognizes individuals who have overcome a parent’s incarceration to make a difference in the world.
“There’s nothing quite like seeing a group of children run across a prison yard to get a hug from their mom or dad, some for the very first time,” Barnes says in a story on the event appearing in the Asheville Citizen-Times. “At the end of the camp in Spruce Pine, the children had the opportunity to release a balloon into the air to signify they know their daddy loves them and is proud of them. That’s what this camp is all about.”
A version of the following story originally aired as a BreakPoint commentary on August 19.
A few months ago, at a conference on juvenile justice reform at Fordham University, Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske had made remarks that the key to criminal justice reform is, as Chuck Colson so often proclaimed, seeing offenders as made in the image of God.
Well after, a diminutive elderly African-American gentleman tapped Liske on the shoulder and said quietly, “You know, if you really believe that we should see offenders as being made in the image of God, you need to read the 13th Amendment.” And then he smiled and walked away.
As Liske recalled, “I knew the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, but I had no idea what this gentleman was talking about. So I whipped out my cell phone and Googled ‘13th Amendment’. And then I understood.” And he reported what he found in a recent terrific op-ed in USA Today. “Ratified at the end of the Civil War,” he wrote, “the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with one critical exception.”
For the last 20 years, the Willow Creek Association has presented the Global Leadership Summit, a two-day event that brings together leaders from both the business and church spheres. This year the event was broadcast via satellite to over 300 venues around the world – including three locations not often considered for their leadership potential.
For the first time, the Global Leadership Summit was broadcast to inmates in three prisons in the United States – Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana; The Carol S. Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas; and Folsom State Prison in Folsom, California. Prison Fellowship and the Willow Creek Association worked together to provide the inmates in these facilities with the live broadcast.
At first blush, it might seem an odd decision to broadcast a leadership seminar to an audience that is by its very nature not likely to have much an impact on society. Many of those listening from prison are still months or years away from release. Some, including most of those watching from Angola, are never going to see the world outside the prison walls again.
So, why broadcast lectures on leadership to prisoners? For starters, 97 percent of the current prison population will, at some point, return to the larger society. Many of these men and women will return to a world vastly different from the one they left at the beginning of their sentences. There will be pressure to return to their old lifestyles, old acquaintances, and old habits. By providing a vision for future success, their inclinations to return their past lives can be diminished, replaced by a vision for what they can do and the changes they can make.
Jesse Carey, a contributing editor for Relevant magazine, shared in an article last week that 82 people were shot in Chicago over this past Fourth of July weekend. He also sites a report from the CDC stating that 88 deaths by gun occur each day in America.
Carey writes, “When a country with the resources, wealth, power and influence of the United States becomes increasingly notorious for its gun violence, something is badly broken. If the Church is called to be the Body of Christ, then it’s our job to recognize what’s broken and seek restoration.”
Carey encourages Christians to step outside our individual opinions on gun laws and gun rights to take a look at how we can reach out to people who have been involved in gun violence and incite positive change for their futures.
“The one thing that we can unite on as Christians—no matter what your opinion on policy is—is that gun violence in America is an indication of deep spiritual and moral issues that the Church must seek to fix,” he says.
There are many ways that we can come alongside those whose pasts have been tied up in violence. We can visit and encourage men and women in prison; we can support families as they work to overcome the generational cycle of incarceration; and we can volunteer in our communities to help fight the influence of drugs and gangs.
But in all our efforts, we must point back to the One with the ultimate power to transform hearts and minds. God has called us to invest in His Kingdom by praying for and ministering to the hurting, so that He can work through us to bring healing and change. We are vessels to carry the powerful truth that God can redeem any life. And this truth brings great hope for the future.
If you are looking for a way to help restore lives broken by crime, violence, and incarceration, please visit www.prisonfellowship.org to see how you can get involved today.
The following story originally aired as a BreakPoint commentary on August 7.
In 1980, the New York Mets selected an 18-year-old baseball phenom, Darryl Strawberry, with the first pick in the Major League draft.
Being a Mets fan in the 1970’s was tough—just ask my BreakPoint colleagues Eric Metaxas and Roberto Rivera. So it’s not an exaggeration to say that many saw the outfielder from Crenshaw High School in LA as a potential savior for the moribund franchise. And he delivered.
Strawberry played in eight consecutive All-Star games, seven of them while playing for the Mets. And in 1986, he helped the Mets win the World Series, hitting a moonshot in the seventh and deciding game that put the game out of reach.
But while Strawberry delivered on the field, his life off the field amply demonstrated that the so-called “savior” was desperately in need of, well, a real Savior. And, God be praised, he found Him.
No one has to tell Michelle what prison can do to a family; she’s lived it. Her mom went to prison when Michelle was 15 years old.
But Michelle also knows that broken families and shattered dreams can be restored – like hers were through Angel Tree.
Lonely Christmas, Shattered Dreams
She’d already spent one lonely Christmas without her mother, and another was just around the corner.
Presents were out of the question, and Michelle was worried. She was the oldest. Her brother and sisters were counting on her. With both mom and dad out of the picture, she’d become the parent in the family.
It was a heavy burden for a teenager to bear.
Sometimes she’d lie awake at night and think about what might have been. Michelle had dreamed of going to college. Now, in her own words, she was “a seventh grade dropout.”
But God had not forgotten Michelle or her brothers and sisters, and neither had their mother. She was far away in prison, but her children were never far from her thoughts.
Eight-year-old Caysha* is my light-haired camper with beautifully expressive eyes. They light up when she smiles, but most of the time, they are clouded by her frown. The counselor coach and I sit next to her and ask her what’s really going on.
Caysha lowers her eyes. “My dad’s in jail.”
I try to choke down my tears, but I feel them brimming to the surface as I instinctively touch her hand. I know that all of our campers have a parent in prison, but Caysha is by far one of the most depressed campers I’ve ever had, and it hurts to know the reason.
The Tough Questions
That night, Caysha and I sit out on the porch and she tells me bits and pieces about her life. As she realizes that it’s a safe place to talk about her feelings, she becomes a little more open. Finally, she asks the big question.
“If God loves me and He’s really in control of everything, then why did my daddy go to prison?”