Last year, Judson College invited Mary Kay Beard to speak for one of our weekly chapel services. Judson girls heard Mrs. Beard’s story and how she had to go all the way to prison to come to an understanding of how her story fits into God’s story for humanity.
But that was only the beginning.
After making it onto the FBI’s Most Wanted List, being landed in prison for bank robbing, and repenting from a sinful life and accepting Christ, Mary Kay began to notice some things about her fellow inmates.
Anytime church groups came in to hold holiday services or just “regular” Bible studies, they would always bring things to give to the inmates. Usually, it would be practical things...soap, toothbrushes, etc. But, as Mrs. Beard noticed, the women would almost never use these toiletries. They would wrap them up and save them; some would even cut deals and make trades with other women.
Why…Mary Kay wondered…would they do this? (The ladies obviously needed soap…the prison didn’t provide these types of items).
Once Christmas time rolled around, our speaker told us, she understood. Families visited during the Christmas holidays.
She watched from behind the scenes as children who hadn’t seen their mothers in weeks, months or even years, excitedly ran up to these thieves, murderers, and prostitutes for a warm and long-awaited embrace.
Before the children left, their mothers would give them their Christmas present…usually a toothbrush, a package of soap, or some toothpaste.
Flip ahead…a few chapters later.
A few years later, after Mary Kay had been released from the Julia Tutwiler Prison and graduated from Auburn University, she began a career as the Director of Prison Fellowship. She was the first female to hold this position, and when her first assignment was given, her mind and heart immediately took her back to the Christmases she spent in jail.
She had been instructed to develop a Christmas program. As Mary Kay recalled those mothers and their sweet babies…she knew that it was time to think outside of the box and do away with the traditional prison programs.
Mrs. Beard set up Christmas trees in two different malls in Alabama. She had lists of children’s names ready, and she began to ask people to buy a Christmas present for the son or daughter of an inmate…they were already at the mall doing their Christmas shopping, right?
After about five hours on the first day, Mrs. Beard was running out of names. Soon she was contacting prisons all over the state to give all the shoppers someone to buy a gift for.
Her idea, now thirty years old, has spread to all 50 U.S. states, along with 114 foreign countries.
Today…we call her idea Angel Tree Ministries.
Mrs. Beard reminded Judson girls of our stories in God; they are all different, but all meaningful. She reminded us of the importance of prayer. Praying had obviously become an irreplaceable part of her life while serving her sentence and while later serving to meet the needs and desires of about 9.3 million children across the world.
It is the one thing, she told us, that has always been a part of her story.
It was about this time during the service that I started to think about the children I’m serving here in Perry County. I often wonder why God won’t make things better, especially in one of the twenty poorest counties in the nation. Many of my prayers become wordless, and there are days when burn out and frustration set in like the plague.
My story in God isn’t quite coming together as Mrs. Beard’s has. And, you know, it may never come together just right. God doesn’t always use us how we think He will, and sometimes we just don’t see what He’s doing. Did Mrs. Beard have any ideas that prison would change her life, along with the lives of many others, during her first weeks in jail? I doubt it.
Figuring out our stories is a frustration for...well…everyone. But is especially a concern for teens and young adults. Next time I’m wondering what’s going to happen next, don’t know when to turn the page, or have strayed from the plot of my story, I hope that I remember Mary Kay Beard’s words and her call to constant prayer.
I hope I remember the advice of a criminal…
“God doesn’t tell us to pray in order to inform Him, He tells us to pray in order to obey Him.”