Give Jesus More Than a Toy 

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“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.