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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

A Name on a Tree

Providing Christmas Joy to Children of Prisoners

By Alyson R. Quinn
Nov. 17, 2013

Margo Nance is blessed.

She has lived in Chicago for all of her 61 years. She has four brothers and two sisters, and all seven siblings grew up in a safe, loving environment, with Christian parents to protect and instruct them.

“When we left church and came home, it was an addendum to church,” laughs Nance, remembering how Christ-centered activities permeated the four walls of her childhood abode.

Many children living in America today — 2.7 million of them, including 1 in 9 African-American children — aren’t building such rosy memories, because they have an incarcerated parent. Living with a relative or in foster care, these children’s lives are frequently filled with instability, confusion, fear, and shame over the mistakes a parent has made. Too many have never crossed the threshold of a local church, and they go about their days with their deepest needs unmet. They are the forgotten victims of crime. 

Along with Chicago Embassy Church, an Assemblies of God congregation, Nance is on a mission to reach out to children with a parent in prison, thousands of whom live in Illinois’ Cook County.

An Opportunity to Love Neighbors

Nance, who has a degree in Christian counseling, has attended Chicago Embassy Church for the last 20 years. She loves the people, the high quality of the preaching, and the joyful intensity of the worship. She also appreciates the congregation’s emphasis on reaching out to their neighbors — including the families of prisoners — with the love of Christ.

For 17 years, Nance has led her church’s participation in Angel Tree, a national outreach by local congregations that deliver Christmas gifts and the gospel to children in the name of their incarcerated parents. When she was first asked to serve as the coordinator for the Angel Tree team, Nance says she “beamed” at the opportunity to serve others in a practical way.

“I really have a burden for souls,” she says, and Angel Tree offers her church an annual opportunity to meet local, hurting families at their point of need.

Embracing the Forgotten “Angels”

Every autumn, Nance and her Angel Tree team receive a list from Prison Fellowship, the parent ministry of the Angel Tree program. The list gives information for approximately 50 children whose incarcerated mother or father has filled out an application to have them served by Angel Tree. The church team calls each child’s caregiver to make sure they are willing to participate.

Then, right after Thanksgiving, team members write each child’s name, age and desired Christmas gift on a tag in the shape of an angel. The tags are placed on a Christmas tree in the narthex of the Embassy Church’s historic building on South Princeton Avenue.

Each tag represents a life in need of a healing touch: a 6-year-old girl whose mother is in a federal prison two states away; a 15-year-old boy in foster care who has learned to act tough, but cries himself to sleep at night; a toddler whose incarcerated father has never even held him in his arms.

Every year, members of the church enthusiastically claim the tags. Nance says the tags usually are gone within a week. The volunteers purchase and wrap a toy and an item of clothing for each child, and each gift is inscribed with a personal message of love — like “Daddy loves you” or “I pray we’ll see each other soon” — that the incarcerated parent wrote down on the application filled out in prison.

Close to Christmas, the gifts are personally delivered to the children’s homes, presented with love on behalf of the parent.

“When the volunteers deliver the gifts,” Nance says, “they see how the faces light up. And the parents are just as grateful as the children for the gifts.”

The smallest children, who may not even fully understand the reasons for a beloved parent’s absence, tend to get especially excited.

“They’re like, ‘Wow, wow, wow! This is for me! This is for me!’” Nance says.

Because extreme financial hardship may accompany a parent’s incarceration, Angel Tree gifts are the only presents many of the children will receive for Christmas. But Angel Tree is about far more than providing material things, as needed as they may be.

The ministry provides an opportunity for incarcerated parents to connect with their children at a time of year when separation can be especially difficult. Hurting families also connect with local congregations that care about them in spite of their loved ones’ crimes. As a result, prisoners and their families may very well connect with God, the Giver of the ultimate Christmas gift.

“It doesn’t matter if the house is a mansion or a shack,” Nance insists, “we have to fulfill the calls that Jesus gave us.”

Thirty Years of Service to Children

Prison Fellowship is the largest national outreach to inmates, ex-prisoners, and their families. Each year, with administrative support from Prison Fellowship, thousands of local bodies such as Chicago Embassy Church sign up through Angel Tree to serve boys and girls, from newborns to teenagers, living in their area.

Founded in 1982, Angel Tree was the brainchild of Mary Kay Beard, a former bank robber from Alabama who once featured prominently on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. While serving her prison sentence, Beard watched how incarcerated mothers carefully saved items as small as a bar of soap to give to their children during Christmas.

When Beard was released and joined the staff of Prison Fellowship, she wanted to do something to help incarcerated parents connect with their children during the holidays, a time when the separation from loved ones can feel unbearable. She hung angel-shaped tags on a tree at a Birmingham-area mall, and Angel Tree was born. During the past 30 years, gifts have been distributed to more than 9 million children of incarcerated parents.

Last Christmas, 226 Assemblies of God congregations — representing 40 different states — reached out to 8,967 children of prisoners through the Angel Tree program. Together, thanks to a new emphasis placed on Angel Tree, AG churches ministered to 27 percent more children than in 2011. As with Chicago Embassy Church, these congregations are finding Angel Tree equips members to reach families they might otherwise never see.

“Angel Tree affords us an opportunity to go to people we don’t know and minister to them, where we know the need is great,” Nance says. “Angel Tree has compelled us to reach out more to the community. Our church believes in the Great Commission, and compelling men to come to Christ. This is part of our mission. Our congregation has gotten hold of the vision.”

Extraordinary Ministry

As Chicago Embassy Church embraces Angel Tree as part of its evangelistic outreach to the community, opportunities for extraordinary ministry open. Last year, a church representative called a child’s caregiver to make sure she wanted to participate in the program.

The caregiver explained her family had lost its home in a fire, and her daughter had just given birth to a child. Touched by the family’s difficult circumstances, members of the church went above and beyond to provide much-needed items for the entire family. The caregiver was so blessed by the church’s concern for her family she came to ask for prayer.

“When she came, we were overjoyed,” Nance says. “It was one of the most anointed times.”

Prisoners’ families feel the unique strains of parental incarceration every day — not just at Christmas — and Prison Fellowship encourages Angel Tree churches to continue ministry to children and caregivers throughout the year. Chicago Embassy Church wants to pursue these opportunities in the future.

“We want to fulfill the call of Christ in the summer, too,” Nance says. “We are looking at mentoring and other initiatives that will help us stay in touch with these families.”.

To learn more about Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, visit or call 1-800-552-6435.

ALYSON R. QUINN is senior writer for Prison Fellowship Ministries based in Lansdowne, Va.

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