For 40 years, Prison Fellowship® has been going into correctional facilities, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those behind bars, and offering the hope of true transformation. Through the use of Bible-based programming, and with the help of thousands of committed volunteers, lives are being changed, hope is being restored, and darkness is being replaced with the promise of a future.
As 2016 draws to a close, we look back on some of the stories that meant the most to you and to us. Thank you for serving with us as we “remember those in prison.”
The following article was originally posted April 18, 2016.
REMEMBERING AN ‘ANGEL’
by Steve Rempe
By the time she turned 27, Mary Kay Beard had established herself as one of the most notorious criminals in the country. Along with her husband, Mary Kay was wanted in four states for a string of bank robberies and was the target of a mafia "hit" for double-crossing the mob on a diamond heist. She appeared on the FBI’s "ten most wanted" list, and had earned the reputation as "the Bonnie Parker of Alabama." It seemed likely that Mary Kay's life would come to the same kind of violent end as that legendary bank robber.
But God had a different plan.
In 1972, Mary Kay was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a 21-year sentence in an Alabama prison. And it was in that prison that God would call her to a new life.
Flipping through a Bible one evening, Mary Kay read Ezekiel 36:26-27:
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," she prayed in her cell that night, "If you will do that for me … I will give the rest of my life back to you."
The result of that promise was Angel Tree®, a Prison Fellowship program designed to share God’s love by helping to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.
In 34 years, Angel Tree has served over ten million children, providing them with Christmas gifts from their incarcerated parents, as well as camping and mentoring opportunities. Families have been restored, and the Gospel has been proclaimed.
On April 17, Mary Kay Beard passed away. But the program she helped to found continues to have a profound impact on families across the country.
"We are saddened to learn of the death of Mary Kay Beard, who in 1982 founded Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, the only nationwide, year-round effort that reaches out exclusively to children who have a mom or dad behind bars," says Prison Fellowship board member Chris Colson. "While serving six years of a 22-year prison sentence in a state prison for burglary, grand larceny and robbery, Mary Kay watched women gather soap, shampoo and toothpaste received from charity groups and wrap them as Christmas gifts for their children. She vowed she would do something for children who have an incarcerated parent when she was released from prison, and Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program is among her greatest legacies.
"During the past 34 years, Prison Fellowship volunteers have delivered more than 10 million gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. For that we are grateful to God and to his faithful servant, Mary Kay Beard."
Prison Fellowship was honored to name Mary Kay our 2016 Restorer of Hope. This award—one of five categories in the Charles Colson Hope Awards introduced this year—recognizes someone who has come alongside families with incarcerated loved ones. Several people nominated Mary Kay, including members of the Colson family, as well as former prisoners whose families were served by Angel Tree. Mary Kay’s daughter, Brenda, joined Prison Fellowship staff at the Celebration of Hope dinner to receive the award on her mother’s behalf.
To learn more about Angel Tree, or to find out how you can help to continue the legacy begun by Mary Kay, visit our Angel Tree page.