Michelle Payette knows what it’s like to miss your children while you're in prison. Six years ago, she was an incarcerated mother. She was only able to see her son when her family brought him to her correctional facility for visits. At night in her cell, she would listen to the other mothers cry for their children.
For many incarcerated women, maintaining a bond with their families on the outside is extremely difficult. That's why Michelle felt compelled to take action. With her facility's Muslim chaplain and Catholic deacon, Michelle worked with her fellow prisoners to fill out Angel Tree® applications.
But before she could submit the applications, a correctional officer threw them away. Michelle found the applications ripped in half and in the garbage. "I've never been so mad in my life," she recalled. She was told that the officer responsible was angry that the prisoners were asking for free Christmas presents when he had to pay for presents for his family. To Michelle, the officer had missed the point: Angel Tree isn't about presents; it's about presence—relationships with family and with Jesus.
Upon her release, Michelle became an active member of her church community's Angel Tree chapter. Today she is the Angel Tree coordinator for eight counties in New York. Through her work with Angel Tree and Prison Fellowship®, Michelle has started her own ministry, Beacon of Light . Beacon of Light focuses on the prisoners and families of New York, ensuring that relationships forged through Angel Tree are sustained.
In the following interview, Michelle shares how Angel Tree has positively impacted her life and the lives of those in her state.
PRISON FELLOWSHIP: HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN AN ANGEL TREE COORDINATOR?
Michelle: I have been an Angel Tree coordinator for my church, Grace Chapel of Clifton Park, since I returned home from prison in 2012. I have been the State of New York Angel Tree coordinator for [the counties of] Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren, and Washington, since 2014.
HOW CAN YOU SEE GOD WORKING THROUGH ANGEL TREE?
I see God working daily through the Angel Tree program. And thanks to that program, through myself, my family, my personal ministry Beacon of Light, my church and church family, and through our community.
At Beacon of Light and Grace Chapel, we have fine-tuned utilizing the entire body of Christ and letting each individual focus on using whatever their specific gifts are. Our ultimate goal is building lasting relationships with our families. It literally does start with a gift … but it goes all year round. Forever, if you do it the way God wants us to—the way Jesus did. We are called to step out of our comfort zone and serve.
Each year we add a new program to our prison ministry which now includes Angel Tree Camping®, [plus a] birthday card club, pen pals, a prison pantry, and support and mentoring for both caregivers and children.
The birthday card club is a group who send cards to Angel Tree kids every month to wish them a happy birthday. The children also receive a small gift of either stickers or coloring sheets. Recently, one of our Angel Tree kids replied with a "Thank You" card she made. She wanted us to know that we made her birthday "joyful."
Our Write Now program is a pen pal program for the prisoners of the families served by Angel Tree. We actively seek four pen pals for each prisoner. The pen pal volunteers receive training on how to serve prisoners. They then write letters throughout the year on a schedule, and each letter contains a Christian message. Our hope is that by connecting with the prisoners, we will help encourage friendships and relationships that will benefit the prisoners upon their reentry.
Our prison pantry started when the wife of a former prisoner donated food and basic necessities to Beacon of Light in the hopes that we would be able to help other prisoners and their families. Our prison pantry is a small program right now, but we hope to expand it in the near future.
[These programs have] led to a lot of communication with other churches and organizations about their ministries as well. It is growing rapidly, and God is providing opportunities exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT ANGEL TREE?
My favorite thing about Angel Tree is being given the privilege of being an ambassador for Christ and being able to shine the light of Jesus into someone's home and life at a point where darkness [has] enveloped them. We bring good news, and good news is always joyous to bring!
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD LIKE TO SAY TO THOSE IN OTHER CHURCHES WHO ARE CONSIDERING ADOPTING THIS PROGRAM?
Many churches focus on a "Christmas" program. The true gift in Angel Tree is that it reconciles families to God by reconnecting a broken home. The church acts as a bridge, connecting the child to the parent that they lost. Much like how Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, paying the penalty for our sins and [bridging] the gap between us and God.
Jesus did not come to be served; He came to serve others. We are called to serve and are told that we will do even greater things than He by Jesus himself. John 14, Jesus says,
"[It] is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (NIV).
Angel Tree is a life-changing program. It provides an opportunity for those who may not otherwise have hope to find it through us and then to have faith in what they hope for and assurance of what they do not see (Hebrews 11:1). It's there … they just don't see it yet. We can be the catalyst to show them!
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