The men surrounded our table like bees to honeycomb. It was nearly Father's Day, and our little team of volunteers had agreed with Chaplain Andy Zack of Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center that it would be a nice present to have an Angel Tree® table set up at the yard event, giving dads an opportunity to sign their children up to receive gifts at Christmas in their names.
The sun beat down upon the group of 300 prisoners as they gathered in the yard to hear Dennis and the Heat, a Colorado rap band, and George Medley, a former prisoner, share their stories of God's hope and redemption.
REMEMBERING THEIR CHILDREN
We hadn't anticipated such a large turnout. It hardly seemed like the weather for thinking about Christmas, but when the men heard that we were giving them an opportunity to sign their children up for Angel Tree, a steady stream made their way over to our little table to fill out Angel Tree applications. Our volunteers, Jill and Robin, worked diligently helping the men complete the forms.
Questions like, “What if my kids are divided between two homes?” and “My baby is only two—will they really choose a present she can enjoy?” were common fare all day long as we helped men, some of whom couldn't read, complete the forms. And it was heartbreaking when we had to tell others that they couldn't sign their children up because of restraining orders for no contact with their children.
I'll never forget Eddie, a 30-something dad, who diligently worked on his form while I looked on. He smiled and said, “My children have been served by Angel Tree for the last nine years, and I can't tell you how much it means to me, ma'am!”
I smiled as he scribbled down the four names and ages. He took great care studying the gift guide to determine what his little ones might want this year.
While he took his time, I studied the various tattoos on his arms. The ink told a story. Where had this man been? What crime separated him for so long from children he obviously loved? And would his children know how much he loved them, obviously caring enough to wrestle over the right words to say as he thought through the message he would write to them? That message that would be attached to the gifts that would come their way at Christmas time, presented by a church sponsoring Angel Tree.
One word at a time, he meticulously scribbled the heartfelt message to his kids. It wasn't until he walked away that I could read what he'd written:
My babies, don't ever forget how much I love you and carry you in my heart every day.
MEN OF GOD
As he walked away, I realized the men in the yard were shouting. Repeating back to George, our speaker, the same message he had dared them to affirm of themselves, the men proclaimed: “I am a man of God! I am a man of God!”
It struck me right then that Eddie had just stepped into that role, if even for a few moments, as he took the time to tell his kids how much he loved them. In that moment, I got a real sense that Father's Day had suddenly become Christmas—even in June!
ABOUT MARY ELLEN ARMBRUSTER
Mary Ellen Armbruster is the Colorado field director for Prison Fellowship.