NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Franklin Avenue Baptist Church is making Christmas brighter for some 225 children whose parents are imprisoned.
“We recognize it as fulfilling a need and planting a seed,” said Elvira Brown, prison ministry director at the New Orleans church.
“The need is great on so many levels. Many of these children will not get any other gift for Christmas.”
In Louisiana, Franklin Avenue is among more than 100 churches committed to serve nearly 4,000 children whose incarcerated parents signed up for Angel Tree, a benevolent and evangelistic outreach coordinated by Prison Fellowship.
Nationally, Angel Tree networks with thousands of churches to give gifts to children, presented as given by the parents, along with Gospel tracts and the parents’ personal messages.
Brown said Angel Tree presents a positive image of Christianity to needy children and the families with whom they live, many of whom are not members of missions-minded congregations.
“They need to know that love is what we’re all about,” Brown said.
Louisiana houses about 3,000 federal inmates as well as about 38,000 state inmates, plus an uncounted number of local jail inmates. Children of imprisoned parents likely are impoverished, have emotional and behavioral problems and suffer sexual or physical abuse, according to the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Churches develop relationships with the children and the families, ministering to them throughout the year, as Angel Tree encourages. Franklin Avenue distributed the gifts during a Christmas program Dec. 12, introducing the children to Christ through storytelling, a play and liturgical dance.
“We do have some families that do continue to come to church,” said Brown, who is working to develop a mentoring program through Franklin Avenue’s prison ministry. In addition to its Angel Tree outreach, the church plans to provide for an additional 20 children identified separately through the congregation.
Elsewhere in Louisiana, Trinity Baptist Church in Lake Charles, which has participated in Angel Tree nearly 20 years, distributed gifts to 90 children at a Dec. 5 Christmas musical and encouraged the families to continue to fellowship with the church.
“There are some who have come back and we have some families that have joined,” said Pam Ford, Trinity’s Angel Tree coordinator. “[These families] have become a part of the family and they are experiencing the ministry that is available at Trinity.”
Angel Tree provides an opportunity to foster evangelism and giving among Trinity members while showing love for the incarcerated, Ford said. “It’s a special opportunity for parents to teach their children and for the congregation as a family to express what the real reason of Christmas is,” she said.
“We wrap our arms around everyone who comes through those doors. They get filled with the love of Jesus,” Ford said of the outreach. “There’s a connection that takes place where it doesn’t matter about any differences that may appear outwardly. Our hearts are united as one.”
First Baptist Church in West Monroe, meanwhile, is delivering Angel Tree gifts along with Bibles to the homes of the 80 children, said Joy Regan, who coordinates the outreach along with her husband Ed.
“It’s a good ministry to serve or represent the person that’s incarcerated, to be able to do something for the children that [their parents] can’t do,” Regan said. “We also want them to experience God’s love in their lives.”
And the children certainly are responsive, Regan said. “We can tell in these kids’ eyes. They say, ‘This is from my daddy?'”
Diana Chandler is a freelance writer and member of Irish Channel Christian Fellowship in New Orleans. This article first appeared in the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree outreach is online at www.angeltree.org.