Each year at this time many thousands of people participate in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program. The names of the children of inmates are placed as “angel ornaments” on Christmas trees in churches, businesses, and shopping malls. Along with each name is a short list of the “gift wishes” that child has requested. People take the ornaments from the trees and purchase the Christmas gifts for those children. The idea is that the individual who takes a name is, in essence, purchasing a Christmas present on behalf of that child’s incarcerated parent. The gospel is also shared with the child. Since the program’s inception six million children have received gifts who otherwise wouldn’t have received them.
What most people don’t know is that the Angel Tree program began with a woman named Mary Kay (no, not the cosmetics queen). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was a notorious safecracker and bank robber who wound up on the list of America’s Most Wanted. She and her husband became so infamous that they earned the nicknames “the Bonnie and Clyde of Alabama.”
But Mary’s criminal career ended in arrest in June of 1972, and she was hit with no less than thirty-five charges and eleven federal indictments. The sum total of years to which she could possibly have been sentenced was 180, and she went to jail to wait for the outcome of it all. During her six months in jail, she began to go to weekly church services. It was the only way that she could get out of solitary confinement.
Having grown up in the deep south, Mary had heard the gospel in Sunday School, and so hearing the familiar story of Christ once again made no major impact on her. What did impress her greatly was the dedication of the volunteers who organized the services. Since the Sunday service started at 7:00 a.m., those volunteers had to get up around 5:00 a.m. to drive to the prison, get through all the security, and get things set up for the service. Such dedication baffled Mary. She couldn’t figure out why anyone would get up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to go and visit prisoners.
So, one morning she asked an elderly volunteer, “Why do you bother?” The woman answered, “Well, Jesus loved you enough to go all the way to Calvary. So we love you enough to come in here and tell you about Him.” That answer pierced Mary to the core, and over the next few weeks God began to convict her of her sinful and wasted life. One night, as she sat alone in her small cell, she opened up the Bible that one of the volunteers had given her and began flipping through its pages. One passage in particular caught her eye. It was Ezekiel 36:26-27:
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”
Upon reading that passage Mary knew what she needed: a changed heart. So right there in that cell she prayed for the first time since she was a little girl. She said, “God, if you can do all that – if you can really change my heart – I’ll give my life back to you.” And God really did change her heart. More and more Mary began to study the Bible and grow in her relationship with Jesus. Then she received some good news about her sentencing. She got twenty-one years, with a maximum of seven to serve. Considering her life of crime, it could have been a lot worse.
Mary spent three of her prison Christmases at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for women, and each year local church groups brought the inmates gifts of shampoo, soap, and toothpaste. Mary was always glad to receive these gifts. She noticed, however, that many of her fellow inmates would save their items, crudely wrap them up, and give them to their children as presents when those kids came for Christmas visits. As Mary would say later, “Most children wouldn’t think much of such small gifts, but in prison there was such joy on their faces! It really didn’t matter to them what they got; it was from Mama.”
In all, Mary ended up serving six years in prison. After her release she agreed to become Prison Fellowship’s first Alabama State Director, and one of her assignments was to create a Christmas project for the inmates. It was during one of her speaking engagements, however, that a conversation with an ex-inmate’s daughter changed the direction of the assignment. The woman asked, “What about the inmates’ kids? They are the real victims.” That question took Mary’s mind back to the toiletries she had seen her fellow inmates pass along to their children as Christmas gifts.
Then she hit upon an idea. She paid a visit to the same prison that had once held her and asked the women for the names of their children and where they lived. Next, she contacted the caretaker of each child and asked what the child wanted for Christmas. That provided her with the first 100 of what would become her “paper angels.”
Mary then took those 100 names and placed them on the first Angel Tree, which was set up in Birmingham’s Brookwood Mall the day after Thanksgiving. An advertisement in the Birmingham News paper notified readers about the project, and many of the store owners in the mall agreed to offer a 10% discount to shoppers who bought their Angel Trees gifts in their store. Much to Mary’s delight, all 100 paper angels were gone in four days.
Well, she knew exactly what to do after that. She visited more prisons, collected more names, contacted more caretakers, and put more angels on the tree. The gifts were wrapped by volunteers and each child’s caretaker came and picked up the gifts for their child. Mary enlisted the aid of the Gideons organization and the mail-carriers of the Birmingham News to deliver the gifts for the children who lived far away. Everything went smoothly, and that first year 556 children received gifts.
But the effects spread much further than Mary could have ever dreamed. For some time she had been offering various Bible study groups in her former prison, and the attendance at these doubled beginning in January. Who were all the newcomers? They were the mothers of the children who had received gifts. Now these women would get to hear the same gospel that had so miraculously changed Mary’s life.
And, as they say, the rest is history. The following year Mary’s Angel Tree program extended out to twelve states and was off and running. It is now Prison Fellowship’s most recognized and popular program and reaches the children of prisoners in no less than 90 countries besides the United States. So when you are out and about this Christmas season, if you run across an Angel Tree, consider taking an “angel” and making that child’s Christmas. And when you do, think of a roughneck woman from Alabama named Mary Kay. Better yet, think of Jesus Christ, the Savior who marvelously changed that roughneck’s heart and made her a new creation:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)