Over the years I've told BreakPoint listeners many stories about how Angel Tree has affected the children of prisoners — kids who are often lonely, especially at Christmas, and how it’s affected their parent in prison.
But not long ago I heard an amazing story about how Angel Tree affected an unlikely group of prison inmates. A group that does not even observe Christmas: It's inmates who are followers or members of the Nation of Islam.
Jim Liske, the new CEO of Prison Fellowship, attended a wedding in North Michigan recently. At the reception, he happened to get into conversation with Rick Kiessel who, like me, is an ex-offender. Rick now owns his own business and is active in his church. Jim — who at that point had been with Prison Fellowship for just five weeks — asked Rick for his expert advice. When it comes to prison ministry, he asked, “What should I focus on?”
“Angel Tree,” Rick promptly replied. And then he explained why.
During his five years behind bars, Rick arranged for his young daughter to receive Angel Tree gifts every Christmas. So did Nation of Islam inmates — not because they celebrated Christmas, but simply because it was a way of sending their kids a present.
But God works in mysterious ways. When the children of Nation of Islam inmates came to visit their fathers in January, they were full of stories about their Angel Tree gifts. As Rick recalls, “They'd say, 'Hey dad, this present came from a church — a white church.'” Nation of Islam inmates were shocked. They could scarcely believe that not only had Christian churches been willing to help children of another faith, they were also demonstrating love for children of another race.
This had a tremendous impact on some of these men — so much so that they began looking into Christianity. Family, as you know, is everything in Islamic culture. “You could see the guys in the compound talking about it,” Rick recalls. These men might have been muggers and murderers, but when it came to their kids, these hardened criminals “could get weepy at times.”
What their children told them made them think: If the faith of the folks bringing gifts to their children led them to cross racial and religious divides, maybe there was something to Christianity. Something worth investigating. And that's just what some of them began to do. They began to seriously examine the claims of Christ.
You never know what God is going to do with those Angel Tree gifts we pick out, wrap, and deliver: That toy, or book, that piece of clothing the child needs, and of course the Gospel message.
You may think it is early to be thinking about Christmas, but I want you to understand how important Angel Tree is to prisoners and their children, and we've got to get started now. Encourage your church to take part in Angel Tree this Christmas. We need you. The prisoners and their children need you, and who knows who you might reach. It’s hard to witness to Muslims, I know, but here’s a way God may use to do it. To learn more, visit AngelTree.org. Or call 1-800-55-Angel.
With each gift we give, these children and their parents are being blessed, not only with material gifts, but with a spiritual one. One that may well lead to the Greatest Gift of All: The understanding of Who the Christ Child is, and joyful faith in Him.