Dr. Margo Nance is one of the lucky ones.
She and her six siblings grew up in a safe, loving environment, with Christian parents to protect and instruct them.
“When we left church and came home, it was an addendum to church,” laughs Dr. Nance, remembering how Christ-centered activities permeated the four walls of her childhood abode.
Many children living in America today – 2.7 million of them, including one in nine African-American children – aren’t building such rosy memories, because they have an incarcerated parent. Living with a relative or in foster care, these children’s lives are frequently filled with instability, confusion, fear, and shame over the mistakes a parent has made. Too many have never crossed the threshold of a local church, and they go about their days with their deepest needs unmet. They are the forgotten victims of crime.
Dr. Nance is on a mission to reach out to these kids, thousands of whom live near her in Illinois’s Cook County.
Embracing the Forgotten “Angels”
Dr. Nance, who has a degree in Christian counseling, has attended Chicago Embassy Church for the last 20 years. For 17 years, she has led the church’s participation in Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship’s national outreach to deliver Christmas gifts and the Gospel to children in the name of their incarcerated parents.
“I really have a burden for souls,” she says, and Angel Tree offers her church an annual opportunity to meet local, hurting families at their point of need.
Every autumn, Dr. Nance and her Angel Tree team receive a list from Prison Fellowship with information for around 50 children whose incarcerated mother or father has filled out an application to have them served by Angel Tree. The church team calls each child’s caregiver to make sure they are willing to participate. Then, right after Thanksgiving, they write each child’s name, age, and desired Christmas gift on a tag shaped like an angel. The tags are placed on a Christmas tree in the narthex of the Embassy Church’s historic building.
Members of the church enthusiastically claim the tags; Dr. Nance says that the tags are usually gone within a week. The volunteers purchase and wrap a toy and an item of clothing for each child, and each gift is inscribed with a personal message of love – like “Daddy loves you” or “I pray we’ll see each other soon” – that the incarcerated parent wrote down on the application. Close to Christmas, the gifts are personally delivered to the children’s homes, presented with love on behalf of the parent.
“When [the volunteers] deliver the gifts,” says Dr. Nance, “they see how the faces light up. And the parents are just as grateful as the children for the gifts.”
The smallest children, who may not even fully understand the reasons for a beloved parent’s absence, tend to get especially excited.
“They’re like, ‘Wow, wow, wow! This is for me! This is for me!’” says Dr. Nance.
In some cases, because of the extreme financial hardship that may accompany a parent’s incarceration, Angel Tree gifts are the only presents a child will receive for Christmas. But Angel Tree is about far more than providing material things, as needed as they may be. It’s about providing an opportunity for incarcerated parents to be connected to their children at a time of year when separation can be especially difficult; it’s about connecting hurting families with a local congregation that cares about them in spite of their loved one’s crime, and it’s about connecting prisoners and their families to God, the Giver of the ultimate Christmas gift.
That’s why Dr. Nance says, “It doesn’t matter if the house is a mansion or a shack; we have to fulfill the calls that Jesus gave us.”
As Chicago Embassy Church has embraced Angel Tree as a part of their evangelistic outreach to the community, opportunities for extraordinary ministry have opened.
Last year, the church called a child’s caregiver to make sure she wanted to participate in the program. The caregiver explained that her family had lost its home in a fire, and her daughter had just given birth to a child. Touched by the family’s difficult circumstances, the church went above and beyond to provide much-needed items for the entire family. The caregiver was so blessed by the church’s concern for her family that she came to ask for prayer.
“When she came, we were just so overjoyed and full,” says Dr. Nance. “We prayed for her. It was one of the most anointed times.”
Prisoners’ families feel the unique strains of parental incarceration every day – not just at Christmas – and Prison Fellowship encourages Angel Tree churches to continue their ministry to children and caregivers throughout the year. Chicago Embassy Church wants to pursue these opportunities in the future.
“We want to fulfill the call of Christ in the summer, too,” says Dr. Nance. “We are looking at mentoring and other initiatives that will help us stay in touch with these families.”
Edited by Rebekah L. Stratton