Two weeks ago on December 5th, I volunteered with Melanie and Richard Gunsolus for the Angel Tree Christmas Party. It is an outreach event with the purpose of giving Christmas presents to children with one or both parents in prison. As the children played, colored, and opened Christmas presents, their parents and caretakers could simply relax and watch. Over 150 people attended, 80 of which were children, and they all got to hear the gospel. Melanie told me, “I think the party is really important because you get to interact and can evangelise to people. It’s not just about giving a gift, but giving the greatest gift.”
One of the most impactful parts of the party was when Mariah, a student at Biola, went onstage and spoke about how Angel Tree has affected her life. Her father went to prison for murder, and because of that, her mother started drinking heavily. Eventually, she became completely unable to take care of daughter, and gave Mariah to her grandma to raise. Mariah said that because of Angel Tree, she felt wanted and connected to her dad.
After the party, I got to sit down with Mariah and find out more about her story. She shared that as she grew older, she came to accept the fact that her dad was never around and that she couldn’t see her mom very often. Her family members kept telling her over the years that her father would be out of prison by the time she was 16 or 18, however that never happened. “These ages would come up and I would expect him to get out, but he never did.” They were trying to encourage her and give her hope, but instead they gave her false expectations.
Because her parents were never around, she began to feel that it was her fault, that she was inadequate. “Growing up I thought they wanted a better child,” she said. Her grandmother would try to comfort her and tell her it was her parents decision and not her own fault,but even with the support of her grandma, she couldn’t escape the feeling that they wanted a better child.
I asked Mariah how Angel Tree helped her process these feelings. She explained that because her father was in jail, their interactions were limited, but Angel Tree provided another way for them to connect. . Mariah said that knowing he would take the time every year to sign her up to get a gift helped her feel how much he cared about her. She felt closer to him when she went to church with her grandmother to pick up her own present. She was always looked forward to the week after the event when her dad would send her a letter asking her what she got. Through all of this, Mariah was able to feel loved and worthwhile, even in her parents absence, by the ministry of Angel Tree.
Now, Mariah is growing closer to her mother and she gets to see her father in person. She was so conflicted ] when she met her father for the first time, “I wasn’t too sure what to say. I couldn’t say it was ok because clearly it wasn’t, and he was in prison for what he did.” She said, “I did get to tell him that I loved him and still saw him as my biological father.” Her grandmother’s influence helped play a huge role in helping know that she was loved. And her participation in Angel Tree consistently reminded her that although her parents made mistakes, “there was a God who cared.”
Written by: Robert Heckert