Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners who otherwise couldn’t provide Christmas gifts for their children do so through Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program. In 2012, some Arizona prisoners decided to give back—in the amount of $3,300.
La Palma Correctional Center, a prison privately operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, houses 3,100 men in several compounds. In 2011, says Chaplain James Brunk, one in six prisoners signed their children up for Angel Tree, so the men have come to know and value how the program enables them to connect with their families. When Compound 2 held a fundraising food sale—offering items like slices from Pizza Hut and hamburgers from MacDonald’s for sale to prisoners—a prisoner advisory council selected Angel Tree as the charity to receive the proceeds.
According to Chaplain Brunk, Angel Tree has been an important part of prisoner life at Palma since shortly after the facility opened in July 2008. There, designated elders and deacons of the prison church play an important role in advertising and administering the program.
“The second year that we had Angel Tree,” explains Chaplain Brunk, I turned around to [the prison church leaders] and said,’ Here is a wonderful opportunity for you to bless the inmates around you … You should be letting guys know this is here to be a blessing.’ The inmates themselves got really excited about it.”
The prison church at La Palma has the same goals for itself as many churches on the outside—to preach the Gospel and to care for the poor and outcast. But because of the many restrictions that come with incarceration, it can be hard for the inmate church at La Palma to fulfill its calling.
“[Angel Tree is] just about the only thing that we have that enables the inmate church to actually be able, as an extension of the Church at large, to give, just to give. It is one of the pure examples here of the grace of God that is just giving and not expecting anything in return. That makes a huge difference, because that’s what the church is all about,” says Chaplain Brunk.
In other words, by being able to offer Angel Tree to their fellow prisoners, the church has a rare opportunity to demonstrate God’s love for inmates and their families.
Chaplain Brunk believes that Compound 2’s generous donation to Angel Tree is a sign that the church is being heard across the prison. The proceeds from food sales usually go to local charities, he says. This time, however, at the suggestion of the prison deacons and elders, the nonreligious prisoner advisory council made the unusual decision to give the funds to a national, Christian ministry.
“Angel Tree is making an impact,” says Chaplain Brunk. “There are Muslims and Wiccans on that council. For them to have taken the advice of the deacons and the elders and gone for it speaks volumes about what you all are doing.”