"When you can't control things, you've got to learn to pray."
What is life like for prisoners' children, caregivers, and families during the COVID-19 pandemic? Having a loved one in prison at any point brings many emotional, mental, and financial burdens to a family. Now uncertain job situations, increasing health concerns, and canceled visits to incarcerated loved ones compound the daily challenges that many families already face.
Yet, this pandemic is no surprise to God. And together, Angel Tree® staff, volunteers, and partner churches are discovering new ways to continue the mission to serve prisoners and their families. In just a few weeks, Angel Tree has mailed more than 2,300 care packages to families we serve. Packages contain a Gospel presentation, a grocery store gift card, a Bible, a sports ball, and a note of encouragement.
Angel Tree Field Director Michelle Payette loves the teamwide effort—a process that expands her faith every day.
SOCIAL DISTANCE DOESN'T EXIST BEHIND BARS
Michelle knows what it’s like to feel desperate for hope. A formerly incarcerated mom herself, she still gets emotional serving Angel Tree families, remembering what her own children went through. Her son, especially, was young when Michelle went to prison. Staying in touch and maintaining a bond was a struggle.
"I can never change that," Michelle admits, "but I can help other people"
In the world of COVID-19, concerns of prisoners’ families are heavy and imminent. It can be difficult or even impossible to practice effective social distance behind bars, especially in the general population. The threat of illness is high for people living and working within the prison system. Many prisoners get caught up in the collective anxiety, and their families feel the unease. It doesn't help that communication between loved ones is often limited. One prisoner's mother told Michelle, "If I go two or three days without hearing from my son, I get into this big panic mode."
Another woman asked Michelle to pray for her incarcerated husband, who has asthma and could be at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus.
"OK, are you ready?" Michelle said.
The other lady said, "For what?"
"Yeah, let's pray right now."
"Oh my gosh," the lady told Michelle, "everybody always says they're going to pray for you, but they never really do."
PEACE OVER PANIC
While navigating the pandemic is a challenge, Michelle says that most families' prayer requests also stretch beyond the coronavirus. Caregivers have shared various ongoing struggles over the phone.
- Can you pray that I don't have my hours cut at my job, so I can pay my bills?
- Would you ask God to take care of my parents, since I can't visit them right now?
- Will you pray for my peace of mind in these uncertain times?
Sometimes, even when they choose not to share their name, they don't hold back from sharing their personal burdens. In most conversations, Michelle has noticed a common thread: fear of the unknown.
But, as she puts it, "When you can't control things, you got to learn to pray." There are so many people who need that hope. And Michelle has done the math. If she called every Angel Tree caregiver on her contact list, allowed 15 minutes for each call, and spent two hours a day making the calls, it would take her 44 weeks to get through the list! Instead of becoming overwhelmed, she prays that the right people will answer at the right times.
GOD LOVES YOU AND I LOVE YOU
And sometimes, a voicemail has to be enough.
One Angel Tree grandfather told Michelle that his daughter Catherine is finally home from prison. He said Catherine has been trying to find restaurant jobs, but since many places aren't hiring right now, she is struggling. And she has children to feed and care for.
Catherine didn't answer when Michelle tried to call, but Michelle left this simple message:
"I just want to let you know I'm a formerly incarcerated mom, too. … I'm going to be praying for you and for your kids, because I know how hard it is. This is a hard time. And even just this in itself, the COVID crisis, is hard. So, I hope I hear back from you. But if not, just know that God loves you, I love you, and you're being prayed for."
'STOP AND REALLY PRAY'
It was just a few months ago that Michelle was wishing for more time in her day. "Lord, I just need more time in my day." She prayed that God would guide her to minister effectively with the time and energy she had.
Then the pandemic hit. These days, being home more is an answer to that prayer. She feels that she has even more quiet time to spend checking on Angel Tree families, praying for their struggles, and asking how she can support them.
"We got the very thing we were wishing for. You just got to find the blessing in it. There's a blessing in everything … This [pandemic] isn't catching [God] by surprise. He's the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and He knows everything that's going to happen. And He wants good for us. He wishes no evil for us. So, we just have to have faith and hope that He has it in control. When you can't control things, you got to learn to pray."
Like the entire Angel Tree team, Michelle is committed to the wellbeing of prisoners' families in this time. And even when the crisis finally abates, she hopes that Christ followers' commitment to prayer won’t slow down.
"We need to stop and really pray with each person when they ask for it," says Michelle. "And even when this COVID crisis is over, when you're in the grocery store and somebody needs prayer, stop and pray right then and there."
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