Cut from construction paper and tied with yarn, the paper angels of Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree project are the humblest of holiday decorations. Don’t let their appearance fool you. Each angel sparkles with opportunity for turning tragedy to hope; each may be the herald of a Christmas miracle.

Shoppers select an angel and see the Christmas dreams of child whose parent is behind bars written between the wings. Shoppers buy those gifts in the parents’ names. Some may see those gifts as ineffectual evangelistic tools, but as demonstrated by the transformed family of Jose and Mayra Abreu and many, many others, they are in fact an eloquent sermon of love and hope.

A Message of Deliverance

Christmas 1989 promised to be bleak for the three small children of Jose and Mayra. Jose was incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane: once again, Mayra had spent all her money on crack cocaine.

Street drugs and addiction cursed this young family. They forced them out of their apartment at gunpoint, making shelters, parks, and streets their home address. Drugs caused Jose such despair that at his trial for drug possession, he begged the police officers to shoot him and put him out of his misery.

But because anonymous shoppers selected paper angels bearing the names of Jose and Mayra’s three children off of an Angel Tree, this family was eternally changed on December 24, 1989.

After three years of homelessness, a government-housing apartment finally opened up for Mayra and the children just before Christmas. A roof over their heads at last, desperation remained — no furniture, food, money, and certainly no Christmas gifts.

And Mayra’s prison visits with Jose were marked with strange conversations.

“You don’t have to do what you are doing,” Jose would tell Mayra, urging her to give up crack cocaine. “Jesus is the way out.”

Said Mayra: “I didn’t want to hear about this Jesus. I didn’t have anyone reaching out to me, no Christians really doing anything for me. Little did I know that God had everything in the works already!” Paper angels were on their way to announce God’s love and deliverance.

On Christmas Eve, UPS delivered a boxful of wonderment. Inside was clothing for the children and toys. Surprised and puzzled, Mayra searched the wrapping for the name of the benefactor. She found it: Jose.

“I couldn’t really believe that (the gifts were from him), because he was incarcerated. How could he buy a gift for any of us?”

Then Mayra recalled that Jose had frequently mentioned Angel Tree, a ministry arm of Prison Fellowship. “They are going to call you and visit you. And bring you gifts,” he had told her.

Mayra had remained skeptical. “I had too many promises broken from people from churches,” she said. “But when I opened up that box and my kids saw the toys, I cried because of the joy they had. And I saw that there were actually people who did care. Whoever went out shopping for my children didn’t know me or what I was going through but they took care of my children. I didn’t have toys or a Christmas tree for my children because I was a drug addict and I had used all my money 10 days before on drugs. But they got gifts from an angel!”

Moved by the love of Jesus as shown through the anonymous “angels,” Mayra’s heart cried out to God in desperation. “I said, ‘God, if you are really God like Jose says You are, I need You to do a miracle in my life. I need You to take away the desire to do drugs.’

“And that was my gift: that was my miracle that day. I’ve been clean ever since.”

In evaluating the 22-years of the Angel Tree project, Mark Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, says, “What we have found is when a Christian takes the time to show love to a prisoner’s child, the prisoner’s heart — often times not a believer — is opened to the Gospel. Time and time again in the life of prisoners, Angel Tree is the instrument God has used to make His love for them known. It is a demonstration to them of God’s unmerited grace and mercy.”

Earley said that the names of children are giving to local churches that connect with the child’s caregiver to verify contact information. Volunteers either deliver the gifts or the children are invited to an Angel Tree party where the gifts are distributed. A growing program, it is anticipated that Angel Tree will serve 550-565,000 children this year, up 25,000 children from last year.

No longer a Christmas only program, Angel Tree camping now encourages participating churches to further contact with the children they served by sponsoring them to a week of Christian camping. Angel Tree also provides mentoring training to foster Christian role models for children. Interested individuals can make donations on-line or get further information at prisonfellowship.org.

Despite the expansion of the program, the paper Christmas angels on the Angel Trees are often the first harbingers of grace, forgiveness, and hope in the lives of prisoners and their families.

“For those of us who have never been in prison we can learn a lot from Jesus’ words where He said ‘If you visit a prisoner, you visit Me,’” said Earley.

Rebekah Montgomery is the editor of Right to the Heart of Women ezine and the author of numerous books on spiritual growth. She can be contacted for comments and speaking engagements at rmongomery@rebekahmontgomery.com or you can go to rebekahmontgomery.com

 

 

Visit the  Angel Tree website to learn more.