An Angel Tree Christmas


As I write this, NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, has tracked Santa somewhere over Texas. As you know Christmas Eve is a long day for all four Santas. The northern hemisphere Santa starts east and travels west to work the time zones. Sometimes, if he has time, he will stop by my house of coffee and cornbread. But, not this year. He knows that my schedule is jammed with my own efforts of resistance against Trump, and Santa approves.
I did not even go to the North Pole to help in my usual capacity of address verification. There is a group of us who go every year to help Santa locate children who may have moved or become homeless or who have been displaced for some other reason. When I told Santa that I would not be able to come this year. He gave me a local assignment. “I want you to visit the Angel Tree program at your church,” he said. Santa never commands, but it is very difficult to say no to him.
I have been familiar with the Angel Tree program for years. It is a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship where parents in prison sign their children up to receive Christmas presents from them. Local churches take the names and buy, wrap, and distribute the gifts. My mother was committed to Angel Tree. My Christmas memories of her include her shopping for and wrapping the presents in our basement. And she did it all with such joy. I find Christmas tedious. I am bah humbug about the whole thing. I consider the holidays female slave days full of shopping, cooking and cleaning until I hear the Messiah, especially the Quincy Jones adaptation, and then I can breathe in the true meaning of the season. This was not the case with my mother. She seemed to enjoy all the shopping, cooking, and even the cleaning for the holidays.
So, I did not mind going to the Angel Tree program. At our church, the Angel Tree families are invited to come and have breakfast and lunch. We break into groups for Bible study after breakfast, and then return for lunch and the distribution of the gifts. This year when I went, I asked how I could help and it turned out that the person who was supposed to work with children six and under may not be able to make it. So, here I was saying yes to working with little children.
Once upon a time in my life, I was a teacher, but I taught adults. Post graduate adults. Most were young adults, but adults none-the-less. I taught my first Sunday School class when I was sixteen- years- old, but the students were eight-years-old. This was way out of my comfort zone. Two other women and I took a group of ten to fifteen children into the nursery to play and to talk about the Christmas story. The older children sat with me at a table and we talked about the nativity. They had the experience of going on a road trip and having to stay at a motel. They could imagine how scary it would be not to have a room at the end of the day. When I told them Mary was about to have her baby and that the only place she and Joseph could go was the stable were the animals were, the six-year-old girl in the group was horrified.
I have become so accustomed to the Christmas story that it has become rote. It is routine. This little girl’s shock reminded me that the idea of a human being having to give birth in a stable is a shocking, horrible, heartless thing.
We talked about God. One six-year-old said God is nothing. I suppose that he has heard some adult say this to him or around him. I have no idea what he has heard or seen in his life. I have no idea about who his parent is or why his parent is incarcerated. I know nothing about his care givers. I do know that his incarcerated parent loves him enough to put his name on a list so that he would know that his incarcerated parent loves him. I do know that his care givers brought him to the event. He is a very bright boy, able to put the puzzles together very quickly and is easily bored. My guess is he may on his own question the existence of God when life is so hard for so many people. God is Love. I told the children.
Then I asked what they thought Love was. The same little girl who was horrified at the thought of Jesus being born in a stable with the animals, said; “Love breaks your heart.” Again, I did not know any details about the home in which this little girl lives. I did not know what she has heard the adults around her say. And, I could not honestly tell her that she was wrong. “Yes,” I said. “Love will break your heart. But it can also make you very very happy.”
A six-year-old boy said that “Love is kindness.” I knew a little of his situation because during breakfast, I sat with him and his grandmother who had brought him to the event. We did not talk about who in the family was incarcerated, rather we talked about the the boy’s mother and the little brother the family was expecting at any time. We talked about the grandmother’s church, her work as a seamstress, and her own church’s project of making pillows and giving them to the poor. It was clear from her grandson’s answer about what Love is that he has been taught the importance of kindness. Many adults, I thought, would not have been able to answer the question of what is Love with such simplicity and truth.
God is Love, I told the children and Jesus came to earth to be love in human form. At the end, for our presentation to the larger group the children could say that God is LOVE and God is the creator of EVERYHING. We said together: “Jesus is the reason for the season. The God who made me loves me.”
America incarcerates a larger portion of its population than almost any country on earth. The incarcerated are disproportionately people of color. Mass incarceration affects not only individuals, but it affects the people who are connected to those individuals– mates, children, extended family, and the community at large — that misses their human capital, their presence and their love. According to a report by Vice News, 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. In a criminal justice system whose primary aim is retribution rather than restoration, children suffer as well as the incarcerated parent.
Lawmakers in both parties have recognized the problem of mass incarceration and the negative effects it has on our country. There have been efforts in Congress to address this problem by ending mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and thinking of other ways to deal with our sister and brother citizens who have broken the law. Those efforts were blocked by now Attorney General Jefferson Sessions when he was in the Senate. Now, he is rolling back Obama era policies intended to lower the number of incarcerated people in the United States. He is willing to feed the beast of the prison industrial complex. More money for the wealthy. Since there is no direct correlation between the number of people incarcerated and crime rates (crime has been falling even while incarceration rates come down) ending incarceration as retribution will not make the society less safe.
On this Christmas Day, whether or not you are a believer, let us all rededicate ourselves to the principle of kindness. Let us show our love through care for one another. Let us return to the ability to be horrified by the multitude of indignities that we heap on our sister and brother human beings, those who have been driven from their homes because of natural disaster, ethnic cleansing, war, or poverty. Let us demonstrate to little children and to people of all ages that Love can make us happy, both in giving Love and in receiving Love. Let us show little children that God is not nothing, but that God is Love.
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, Happy New Year, Blessed Epiphany!
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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