For over 30 years, Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program has been providing children Christmas gifts on behalf of their mothers and fathers in prison, as well as a simple message about God’s love and forgiveness. Through Angel Tree, families have been restored, kids have been encouraged, and the Gospel has been proclaimed.
But have you ever wondered how Angel Tree came to be? The unlikely story starts with a bank robber on the FBI’s most wanted list.
By the time of her arrest in 1972, Mary Kay Beard had built up quite the résumé—one that resulted in 35 indictments and 11 federal charges being levied against her. She was sentenced to a 21-year prison sentence, which was later reduced to six.
It was during that first year in prison that God reached down and brought forth a change in Mary Kay that would redirect her life. Flipping through a Bible one evening, she came across a passage in the book of Ezekiel:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”*
“OK, God,” Mary Kay prayed in her cell that night, “If you will do that for me … I will give the rest of my life back to you.”
It was also during that first year that God revealed to Mary Kay what would become her calling. In the days leading up to Christmas, she would watch the other moms behind bars package the little they had—soap, shampoo, and other toiletries—and give it to their children as gifts. Despite the simplicity of the gifts, she saw how joyously the kids received them, not because of their intrinsic value, but because they had come from their mother.
Upon her release from prison, Mary Kay joined Prison Fellowship’s staff. When tasked to come up with some kind of Christmas program, she remembered those incarcerated mothers, and the seeds of Angel Tree were sown.
Now three decades later, Angel Tree has served over six million children, and has brought the Good News of God’s love to families across the country. And you can be a part of continuing God’s work begun by Mary Kay.
If you have not already done so, please visit www.angeltree.org to find out how you can be a part of this vital ministry to prisoners and their families this Christmas. There are still many locations across the country where the number of children signed up for Angel Tree exceeds the number of people and churches committed to serving them. Join us in making sure that all of these kids know that they are loved—both by their moms and dads behind bars, as well as by their Heavenly Father.
In the most recent broadcast of the BreakPoint This Week radio program, John Stonestreet interviews both Mary Kay Beard and Prison Fellowship President and CEO Jim Liske. To find out more about the origins of the Angel Tree program, as well as how the program is having an impact in the lives of prisoners and their families today, listen to the program below.