“I never knew if the day I got home from school was going to be one of those frightful moments,” Autumn* recalls.
She has vivid memories of getting to dress up to go to her aunt and uncle’s church. Mostly on Easter Sundays, these visits during Autumn’s childhood opened her eyes to the strikingly different circumstances in her household. They surfaced in her a keen desire for a home life more stable than the one she had. Her parents' persistent fighting made life feel unsettled and distressing.
“My aunt and uncle had a rock-solid faith, and it's not that their lives were perfect or that they didn't go through trials, but there was just a peace that they had that was not present in my home,” she says.
Observing them planted a seed in Autumn to one day raise her own family in the church and in a home of faith, marked by encouragement and kindness.
How could Autumn change her own family’s legacy?
AN INVITATION TO CHURCH
Autumn’s dad went to prison when she was about 10 years old. Almost immediately, life for Autumn, her sister, and their mother settled into a peaceful routine. They moved into their grandmother’s home, a safe place where Autumn felt secure enough to let her guard down, no longer fearful of frequent quarreling.
“While he was away, there was stability,” Autumn says. “We were living with my grandma; her house was my safety net.”
A year or so into her father’s incarceration, Autumn and her sister were invited to a Prison Fellowship Angel Tree® Christmas party at a local church. Her father had signed his daughters up for the program, which provided Christmas gifts on his behalf, as well as a personal message from him.
At the lively gathering, Autumn and the other children of incarcerated men and women heard the Good News of the birth of Christ, and received their gifts.
“I was old enough to know that even though these gifts were supposed to be coming from my dad, they didn't really come from my dad,” she says. “But I just remember feeling really loved.”
While she doesn’t remember exactly what kind of gift she received, she can’t forget the atmosphere from the party.
“I just remember being surrounded by a bunch of people who were just so loving and giving and serving,” she says. “They were all about serving others.”
GROWING IN FAITH
Autumn was aware of the efforts of the volunteers and church staff making the Angel Tree Christmas party a special moment for her, her sister, and so many other children in their situation. That event introduced community, acceptance—and Jesus—into her family’s life, leading to the start of positive changes for Autumn.
“I do vividly know that going to Angel Tree at Faithful Central Bible Church was the beginning of my mom walking with the Lord and the beginning of me walking with the Lord. Angel Tree was really the start of it. I loved my church,” she says.
Soon after, the family became members of the church and were involved in various ministries. Autumn participated in the church’s dance ministry and took part in a mission trip to Jamaica.
That Angel Tree party opened up a wider world of possibilities for Autumn, surrounding her with believers who modeled authentic Christian lives. Autumn and her mother grew in their own faith, each learning to read God's word and grow in their prayer life.
Soon they would rely on that faith even more; the dynamics of their home life would soon shift as Autumn’s dad was coming home.
That Angel Tree party opened up a wider world of possibilities for Autumn.
RESPITE IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
Things changed radically for Autumn when her father returned from prison. Not only was he moving in with Autumn, her sister, and her mother into their grandmother’s home, but her grandmother was moving out.
“It just shook my whole world,” she says. “When he came back from prison, my parents' fighting resumed intermediately. There was an instability.”
In looking back at that period of her life through her journal entries, Autumn recalls the overwhelming sadness she felt. But she also has gratitude for her church both as a place of respite and for the spiritual growth she experienced there.
The local church replaced her grandma’s home as a place of sanctuary for Autumn—and provided her with faith to believe that God had a future for her. Balancing out the difficulty of her home situation at the time were believers who served as supportive mentors to her.
The local church replaced her grandma’s home as a place of sanctuary for Autumn.
CREATING A HOME OF SUPPORT AND SANCTUARY
After high school, Autumn graduated from college, then received a fellowship to attend graduate school. Today she is a college lecturer at a Los Angeles college.
Her husband, who she met in high school, has served as a bridge of stability for her family of origin. The couple invited Autumn’s mother and brother, who was born while she was in college, to live with their young family. Along with Autumn’s mother, Autumn and her husband played a hands-on role in supporting her brother who attended a private school.
“My husband is more like a brother to my brother, but he's also somewhat like a father figure,” Autumn says. “My brother had a completely different childhood than I did or my sister did.”
Her home has become the place of love and faith that Autumn had always aspired to have one day.
BRINGING ANGEL TREE FULL CIRCLE
She and her husband have two children and serve on the leadership team at their church home. When their pastor wondered how they could serve their community at Christmas, Autumn immediately thought of Angel Tree.
“Our leadership team is so excited,” she says. “We will make an announcement to the congregation soon on how they can get involved.”
The love for Jesus and faith that she witnessed at that first Angel Tree party is still evident in her mother’s life, her own, and now her family’s. It started with a gift but was much more than that, Autumn says.
“If I go back and I think about the seed that was planted back when I was young and we went to that Angel Tree event, it's completely changed the way our family's trajectory has gone.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
It started with an Angel Tree gift but was much more than that.