Seeing Jesus at an Angel Tree Sign-Up, Worship Service
The prison yard was immaculate. Dahlias and other summer blooms lined the crisscrossing sidewalk all the way to the chapel at Pendleton Correctional Facility. My two companions, friends from New City Church in Indianapolis, were first-time Prison Fellowship® volunteers. Only one had visited a correctional facility before.
It was 7 on a Saturday morning, and we didn't know how many men would be waiting for us. Today, prisoners were to sign up their children for Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that serves incarcerated parents by providing a pathway for restoring and strengthening their relationships with their children and families. The Angel Tree sign-up process happens in the summer to make sure that hundreds of thousands of children will receive gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parents before Christmas morning.
BEHIND THE PRISON WALLS
The chaplain showed us to a nondescript room set off from the gym that served as the sanctuary for all religious services offered at the prison. We laid out brochures about how to be a good father while in prison, and pulled out our pens and application forms.
Men in khaki coveralls filed past us. They were on their way to a morning church service run and started by a group of prisoners decades ago. A white-haired man explained to one of my friends that God gave him a vision for the gathering sometime after he was admitted in 1977. It started with just a few guys and today has grown to at least 75 members.
Because Pendleton is a maximum security prison, many prisoners are long-timers. Most of the men were too old to have children under 18. But the few who did stop by to sign up for Angel Tree had stories to share.
ONE MORE CHRISTMAS
Birt Ford had served 12 years already. For most of that time, he had been sending gifts to his children through Angel Tree. When he started, his oldest daughter was 17. Now, she and her two younger sisters are too old to receive gifts, but his son still fits the age requirement. Birt is excited for at least one more year to make a special connection at Christmas.
"It's been really great for them," Birt tells me. "My ex-wife actually writes my sister if it's getting close to Christmas and she hasn't heard anything from Angel Tree."
Over the years, Birt's children have received jewelry, sports equipment, and art supplies.
"[The gifts] allow them to feel like I still care, even though I'm not there during Christmas. It makes them feel like I'm still here—'I'm still getting presents from Dad.'"
After Birt, another man, fading golden beard and hair, approached me timidly and explained that he doesn't have much contact with his teenage daughter but would like to be more engaged in her life. I offered to help him fill out the form, and he gladly accepted. He didn't have his daughter's address, so we weren't able to complete the form. But he took it with him, hoping he can track her contact information down before the sign-up deadline.
'WHEN GOD LOOKS AT YOU, ALL HE SEES IS JESUS'
When the sign-ups were over, my two friends and I entered the worship service and enjoyed a sermon by a man in his late 30s who has been locked up for 20 years—the majority of his life.
Looking out at the sea of faces before him, many aging, some sitting forward eagerly, others dozing off, he exhorted: "It doesn't matter what you've done in the past. If you are in Christ, you are washed clean from your past. When God looks at you, all he sees is Jesus. He doesn't see a murderer, a thief, a drunkard. He sees Jesus."
"I had a vision come to mind of what it will be like when we get to heaven and see all those men praising and worshipping their Savior! What a glorious day that will be!"
The service wrapped up and we shook hands with a few of the men as we prepared to exit the chapel and onto the yard, the air crisp with a hint of early fall.
Later, my other friend Kathy McAllen shared with me, "What stands out to me is that in Christ we have a common bond. These men are our brothers, and there is a familiarity and comfort with them because of this."