Give Jesus More Than a Toy 


“Prison card” drawn by a jail mate of my childhood friend and prayer partner. Inside he wrote, “I pray for you EVERY day.”

One of my fondest Christmas memories from growing up was wrapping piles of presents. The gifts weren’t for me, nor for my family. The boxes of clothes and stacks of toys were for children of prisoners: men and women who were unable to share their presence or presents with their sons and daughters. Mrs. B, a woman at the church I grew up in, organized this gift-giving effort through Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship. At Christmastime, church members would select angel-shaped ornaments which listed on the back a name, age and wish list of a child whose parents were incarcerated. I LOVED wrapping gifts, so every year I volunteered to help with this part of the process. Yesterday I heard an ad on the radio for Angel Tree and my mind flashed back to curling ribbon and tucking the corners of snowflake-printed paper all afternoon in the basement of the church my family attended when I was growing up. Reflecting on our outreach efforts, I recognized that although Angel Tree has its merits, buying a toy for a child can be an easy cop-out in addressing the larger complexities of a system that has robbed the children of spending the holidays with their parents in the first place. Over the past few years, I’ve become aware of this system and the implications it has on our nation.

On the ideological side, I’ve become aware of mass incarceration and restorative justice, that the United States locks up more people than any other nation. On the practical side, developing close friendships with people most impacted by this system has caused me see up-close what it’s like to have family members locked up during the holidays. Participating in Angel Tree gift-giving is a good starting point for those with privilege to think beyond ourselves at Christmas, but what about the other 364 days of the year? It’s easy to wrap a toy and put a bow on it and feel good about ourselves, but what about being in long-term relationship with families and children who are incarcerated? What about working to change system so fewer moms and dads are away from their children next December 25th? What about reconnecting with a cousin, uncle, “black sheep” of your family or high school classmate who’s currently impacted by our system? Rather than ostracizing that person for poor choices, consider establishing a mutually respectful friendship  with them–and their family–throughout the year? After all, according to the One we celebrate at Christmas, doing so is the same as forming a friendship with Him.

I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. ~Jesus, (Matthew 25:36 & 40)

If we genuinely care about the children in our communities whose parents are locked up, we won’t simply buy them a toy. I was delightfully encouraged to find that Prison Fellowship, the larger organization which Angel Tree is an outreach of, works in a variety of capacities throughout the year to support prisoners and work towards justice reform. If you’re looking for ways to get involved year-round beyond establishing personal connections with those you already know, organizing a small group to go through their Outrageous Justice study could be a good place to start.



Prisons = Modern Day Plantations

National Civil Rights Museum

National Civil Rights Museum

Isaac Franklin was one of richest men in the southern United States a century and a half ago. When he died in 1846, he owned over 700 slaves who worked his six plantations in Louisiana.

I learned about Isaac Franklin while visiting the National Civil Rights Museum a couple weeks ago via their special exhibit on slavery. In addition to reading about this wealthy slave owner, what struck me the most in this exhibit was a plaque in the back corner; had I been in a hurry, I could have easily overlooked it.

The plaque noted the widespread economic impact slavery had on society at the time. Not only did rich plantation owners like Isaac Franklin who benefit from owning other humans. Numerous industries prospered financially from the slave trade and included:

  • Banks that offered loans to slave traders
  • Insurers who underwrote policies to cover slave shipments by land, rail, river and sea
  • Food suppliers who sold supplies to coffee drivers and slave-pen owners
  • Lawyers and bureaucrats who collected fees for each piece of paper involved in slave transfer and sale
  • Brooks Brothers and other clothing companies that supplied plantation clothing
  • Steamboat companies and ship captains who got paid to transport slaves as cargo
  • Medical providers, such as doctors, hospitals and private clinics, who got paid to revitalize slaves to get them ready to sell because they frequently became sick during transportation
  • Tax collectors who received revenue from slave sales and annual personal property tax

These weren’t petty transactions either. For example, William Kenner took out $14,000 in an insurance policy to ship 22 slaves on November 29, 1821, via the New Orleans Insurance Company. This was at a time when an average income ranged from $300 to $1,000 annually. Imagine the cost of clothing 700 slaves for Isaac Franklin, and in an era when goods weren’t mass-produced for cheap by “developing nations.”

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Paper Produced by Abolitionist

Reading that plaque caused me to realize that abolitionist of the time weren’t just up against wealthy slave owners. They met widespread resistance because slavery had widespread economic impact. I marveled that the system had ever collapsed…then I realized it took a war before change occurred.

Then I asked myself, “Did the system ever really collapse?”

I thought of Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow book and The House I Live In documentary followed by Ava DuVernay’s 13th documentary that expose mass incarceration as modern day slavery in the United States, particularly for many men of color. Those with a felony charge experience lack of access to education, jobs, housing and even voting. And as these documentaries and book trace, the impact disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s. ~New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

Prisons were one of the few growing industries in 1980’s and 90’s when Clinton passed a $30 billion bill to expand. Michelle Alexander brings us specific numbers:

The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

Prisons have been required to keep those facilities filled. And much like slavery 150 years ago, all sorts of industries benefit from our mass incarceration:

  • Taser gun manufacturers
  • Health care providers
  • Phone companies
  • Construction companies
  • ALEC-an organization that writes bills for politicians that usually benefit a corporation.

To take on such comprehensive structures, we must address the economic systems of our day, as Shaun King is doing through the Injustice Boycott launched yesterday. Lasting structural change cannot otherwise occur; it will only take on a new name.

Isaac Franklin’s property is a tangible example of how slavery switched names. Ever wonder what happened to his six plantations where those 700 people were enslaved? Well, four of of the six became what is today Louisiana’s State Penitentiary.