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Prisons and Parishioners: Churches Help Inmates’ Families Celebrate Christmas


Christmas is a time usually spent with friends and family. But for those who are separated from loved ones, the holidays can be a source of sadness rather than joy. Especially when that absence comes with feelings of shame and anger. Separation because of distance or death are often acknowledged from the pulpit, but how often are those separated from loved ones because of incarceration considered? Prison Fellowship, an organization ministering to inmates and their families, provides Angel Tree Christmas—an opportunity to care for both the ones behind bars and the families left behind during the holiday season. Several Christian Reformed churches across North America supported this venture this past Christmas.

Prison Fellowship was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson, an ex-prisoner and former aide to President Nixon. It is the largest Christian nonprofit that serves prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, with a sister organization established in Canada in 1980.

Churches that participate in the yearly Angel Tree campaign are given tags with the names of children who have a parent serving time in prison. Each tag includes a child’s name, gender, age, and gift suggestions. Inmates can include a note on the tag for the child. Church participants purchase and deliver a gift to the child, either at the child’s home or sometimes at a central Christmas party.

Rolling Acres CRC in Mason City, Iowa, loves being a part of Angel Tree Christmas, participating since 2009. This year, after sponsoring 51 families, they received an emergency call from the regional coordinator and helped another 30 families in a neighboring state.

At Jubilee Fellowship CRC in St. Catharines, Ont., 2017 was the first Christmas for the Angel Tree program. The congregation was looking for a new Christmas ministry, and Rev. Jack VanderVeer, the church’s community support pastor, brought this organization forward. The team was excited to help make the wishes of children come true.

“I love fundraising and that this is a Christian organization,” said Nadine Frederick, one of the volunteers at Jubilee. They purchased gifts for local children but also for children who live in other areas of Canada. The local gifts were delivered by drivers and others mailed.

Rolling Acres CRC distributes its gifts at a Christmas party held with other local churches. When the child comes to receive the gift with their family, there are festivities and an opportunity to share the gospel. Faith CRC in Elmhurst, Ill., also hosted a Christmas party to hand out their Angel Tree gifts.

“I love how the church can step in and help,” said Michaela Hennagir, one of the organizers at Rolling Acres CRC. “Every year there is a different story about how grandparents or caregivers were worried about how they would provide for the child in their home, and then they hear about Angel Tree Ministry and get the gospel story along with a gift and a generous bag of groceries.”

Along with the Angel Tree Christmas program, Prison Fellowship also offers a program called Angel Tree Camping; sponsored children spend a week at a Christian day or overnight camp during the summer. Prison Fellowship is grateful for all the supporting churches that help make these programs possible.

“I love how a bunch of different churches come together and pull off this amazing ministry,” said Hennagir, “because that's what being a church is all about.”

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