It all started with a blind date between a safecracker and a young nursing school graduate.
Born in Alabama to a churchgoing mother and a father who battled alcoholism, Mary Kay Beard was petite, bright, and red-haired. She would later say she grew up always knowing “how to get to heaven,” but it was anger and resentment that drove her steps in her early life. She finished high school at 15 and went on to nursing school. After one brief, unsuccessful marriage, she went on a fateful blind date with Paul, a man who convinced her to wed him within days. Too late, she found out that, in addition to being a music promoter and gambler, he was a career criminal.
Mary Kay became her new husband’s student and partner in crime, and before long she had earned a reputation as “the Bonnie Parker of Alabama.” By the time federal authorities apprehended her at 27 years old, four states had issued warrants for Mary Kay’s arrest, and she had appeared on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List.” Even the mafia had put out a contract on her life for double-crossing them during a diamond heist.
Her arrest in 1972 would change the course of her life yet again.
AN IDEA BORN IN PRISON
As she sat behind bars, serving a state sentence for burglary, grand larceny, and armed robbery, Mary Kay’s mind turned toward the lessons she had learned growing up. Flipping through a Bible she received from the Gideons one evening, she 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.”
After her release from Julia Tutwiler Prison, Mary Kay joined the staff of Prison Fellowship®—just recently founded by Chuck Colson after his own release from a federal prison camp near Birmingham—as an area director. One of her first assignments was to come up with a Christmas program. She thought of her own holidays behind bars.
“Many groups came to prison during the Christmas holidays; they brought gifts and sang Christmas carols and gave us a little tract or whatever,” Mary Kay remembered during an interview with Crosswalk. “The women who never went to a chapel program always went to those programs, primarily to get whatever was being given away. Initially I was rather cynical about that, but then I noticed that the women would take those gifts and they would give them to their own children. The gifts were just little bits of toiletry items: a bar of soap, a tube of toothpaste. And they would take those and wrap them up for their kids. I realized that a mother's heart doesn't really change toward her children, even when she has broken the law in many other ways. It's still the heart of a mother to give to her children and sacrifice her own needs.”
From those memories came the germ of an idea that would change Christmas for generations of prisoners’ families.
THE FIRST ANGEL TREE
As Christmas 1982 approached, Mary Kay began to speak to incarcerated moms and dads in the facilities she served. She asked them for the names and addresses of their children and said she would do her best to deliver Christmas gifts on their behalf. She wrote the children’s names on angel-shaped tags and hung them on evergreen trees displayed at two shopping malls. Volunteers took the tags and purchased gifts for the children. Mary Kay hoped they might reach as many as 300 children that first Angel Tree® Christmas.
Instead, 556 boys and girls were served. The program exploded in popularity among prisoners and churches in the years to come. Soon, Prison Fellowship offered Angel Tree to parents in every state, serving hundreds of thousands of children each year. Millions of gifts have been delivered in the names of incarcerated parents.
“Yet, it's important that we remember that it's not just about the toys,” Mary Kay later reflected. “We're actually demonstrating the real Gospel message. God so loved the world that when He saw our need, He sent us the first Christmas gift, which is Jesus, the Savior of the world. Through these tangible gifts, we want to communicate a message that their Creator loves them and wants to give them eternal life. And that's not just for the children, but for their families as well.”
MORE NEW BEGINNINGS AT TUTWILER
As Prison Fellowship Angel Tree turns 40, thousands of churches now participate each holiday season. Trees decked with paper angels appear in church lobbies from coast to coast, bearing the names, ages, and Christmas wishes of children with a parent behind bars. These gifts are presented with a personal message of love from Dad or Mom, often helping to rekindle a relationship strained by the pain of separation.
But Angel Tree doesn’t stop at Christmas. Families receive children’s Bibles and opportunities to attend an Angel Tree summer camp or sports camp. Many churches enfold Angel Tree families into the year-round life of their church and welcome home returning citizens.
Mary Kay, who in 1984 married Don Beard, eventually moved on from Prison Fellowship to other ministry opportunities, but Angel Tree remained her enduring legacy. In 2011, when she traveled with Chuck Colson to visit prisoners in Alabama, she was introduced as the founder of the program that so many prisoners had used to show love to their children. Every prisoner in the gymnasium leapt to his feet to give her a standing ovation. The sound of their applause was deafening.
A LASTING LEGACY OF GRACE
Mary Kay called her own story of grace and redemption “mind-boggling,” and yet stories like hers continue to be written every day. Today there is a Prison Fellowship Academy at Julia Tutwiler Prison, where Mary Kay served time. Ms. Debra, incarcerated at Tutwiler since the 1970s, says it has helped to transform her life.
“God changed me on the inside, not the outside,” she shares. “The Prison Fellowship Academy is one of the best classes I have ever taken, and I will never be able to tell you in words how it impacted my life.”
Ms. Debra hopes to be released eventually, but in the meantime, she and other graduates are leaders in the facility they call home. One day, like Mary Kay, many will come out of prison to become ministry leaders in their communities on the outside.
Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, met Ms. Debra and other women during a recent visit to Tutwiler. She recalls, “There’s a privilege that comes with worshipping alongside the Church inside. Christians behind bars have a profound understanding of grace and a unique capacity for spiritual growth and community. As I contemplate the future of Prison Fellowship and the state of the Church in America—I believe we need to flip the script on how we view prison ministry. Too often, our expectation is we will redeem the lost behind bars. We fail to realize that revival awaits us, the visitors! As we equip the local church to worship and grow alongside the Church Inside, I believe we will not only inspire a new generation of culture changers emerging from prison cells, but we will see revival of the Church in America.”
As Angel Tree turns 40, the legacy of one former safecracker is irrefutable proof of the potential that’s behind bars, just waiting to come to light.
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