Dr. Jeffrey Russell loves helping others.
Every Friday he drives into Tulsa, Oklahoma, to serve dinner and teach a class in Christian doctrine to the homeless and incarcerated.
Russell has been a chiropractor in nearby Sand Springs since 1995, and he sees his profession as another way to help people. After a chiropractor helped him heal from a high school wrestling injury, Russell decided he wanted to do the same for others.
This past winter, Russell connected with another group of people who needed his help: the 2.7 million children in America with an incarcerated parent. These children often feel confused and alone because of their parents’ mistakes. They are five times more likely to live in poverty than other children, and they’re also at high risk for emotional and behavioral problems, such as depression and drug use.
Last Christmas, Russell had the opportunity to share with some of these kids that their futures aren’t set in stone by their parents’ choices. They can thrive in life despite their situations because their Heavenly Father walks beside them.
An Invitation to Help
For Russell, the door to this ministry opened in November 2013 when he started talking with a patient—the husband of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Program Specialist Mary Hamelin.
Mary and her husband shared with Russell what the Angel Tree program is all about: It’s a national outreach by local church congregations who deliver the Gospel message and Christmas gifts to children in the name of their incarcerated parents.
Russell wanted to help. He presented the ministry to Pastor Steve Bookout at his church, Prattwood Assembly of God in Sand Springs. Russell explained the outreach would be an immediate blessing to the children and would also connect Prattwood Assembly with parents and grandparents for fellowship and a way to witness.
Bookout loved the idea of getting his congregation involved in Angel Tree. With Christmas just around the corner, time would be a challenge.
A Small Church Does Big Things
Mary Hamelin sent Russell a list of five children in his community whose incarcerated parents had signed them up to receive gifts through Angel Tree.
Russell presented the children’s needs to the Prattwood congregation one Sunday morning. He wasn’t sure what response to expect since the church only has 40 to 50 members, a majority of whom are older and living on a limited income.
About 30 people approached Russell after service wanting to help. Over the next weeks, church members continued asking Russell if they could buy gifts for even more children, and Hamelin continued to send him more names.
Along with the names, Hamelin also sent additional information from each incarcerated parent: ideas of gifts the child might like and a special message from the parent, such as, “I miss you! Merry Christmas! Love, Dad.” After wrapping each gift, church members copied the parent’s message onto an angel-shaped gift tag and attached it to the package.
Instead of delivering the gifts to each child’s home, Prattwood opted to invite the children and their caregivers to an Angel Tree Christmas party at the church. The party began with a church service where the families heard the Gospel.
Church members then hosted the families for a meal and fellowship. At the end of the party, the children each received a gift and a Bible on behalf of their incarcerated parents.
“The kids were really excited. Some of them said they were so surprised the gift was exactly what they were wanting,” says Russell. “The caregivers were happy we had done something for the kids.”
In total, Prattwood served about 50 sons and daughters of prisoners last Christmas—all the Angel Tree children in Sand Springs, and half the Angel Tree youngsters in a neighboring town.
“They’re having a heart to be a blessing to people,” Russell says of his fellow church members. “And they were just as blessed as the people who received the gifts.”
More Than a Gift
Sometimes Angel Tree gifts are the only Christmas presents a prisoner’s child receives due to financial hardship. But Angel Tree isn’t just about the gifts.
Angel Tree seeks to connect children with their incarcerated mothers and fathers, as well as their Heavenly Father. Christmas is an especially difficult time to be separated from family, but when a local church can fill that gap by showing children their parents’ love and the unconditional love of Christ, healing can begin.
“If you’re just trying to give someone a shirt or a meal,” Russell says, “that’s nice. But I believe being a witness is what really counts.”
Each Christmas, thousands of churches like Prattwood sign up to serve the children of prisoners in their communities and share the Good News through Angel Tree.
A Door to More Ministry
For families affected by incarceration, Christmas isn’t the only challenging time of year. There are daily struggles to face. Prison Fellowship encourages Angel Tree churches to continue ministering to these families year-round.
Russell is making sure the families hosted at the church’s Angel Tree party are supported emotionally and fed spiritually. Prattwood invites the Angel Tree families to church events throughout the year, and several of the Angel Tree families have begun attending Sunday services.
“If they need anything, they call us,” Russell says.
Prattwood is also providing sponsorships for some of the children through Angel Tree Camping—a way for the youngsters to attend Christian summer camp and learn more about Jesus.
“We looked at Angel Tree as a way to have year-round communication,” Russell says. “You’re showing them Christ through you.”
To learn more about how your church can get involved in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, visit www.angeltree.org.