By Joy Lucius and Hannah Harrison
December 2020 – Angels heralded the birth of God’s Son on that first Christmas long ago. Those angels directed shepherds to find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And so it was that angels, shepherds, animals, and earthly parents worshipped in adoration as immortal majesty met meek mortality in the form of Baby Jesus.
Angels still flood the Christmas season in countless numbers and creative ways. The two following ministries incorporate Christmas angels symbolically into powerful outreach efforts.
Itawamba Crossroads Ranch (ICR) in Northeast Mississippi utilizes the creativity of adult special needs participants to produce and sell handcrafted pottery angels to help fund continued construction of the residential facility where they will soon live.
Prison Fellowship (PF) focuses holiday efforts on children of prison inmates through its Angel Tree program.
Angels in these two distinctly different ministries will bring good tidings of great joy to all people, reminding all that they bring news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Itawamba Crossroads Ranch
November 2, 2002, was Renae Bennett’s birthday. Instead of a celebration, Bennett experienced the darkest day of her life when her 17-year-old son Marcus had a catastrophic motorcycle wreck.
Comatose after a traumatic brain injury, Marcus was given little hope by doctors, who repeatedly encouraged Bennett to stop all life support efforts.
“All I could do was pray,” she recalled. “I told God: ‘You brought Marcus into this world; You’ll have to be the one to take him out.’” God spared Marcus’s life, but his recovery was arduous. He spent two years in rehabilitation relearning all basic life skills.
Even then, normal life was impossible. He still needed care his family could not provide. So, Bennett sought help through institutionalized care. As a result, the next four years of Marcus’s life were a nightmare.
Realizing her son was merely a statistical number to governmental caregivers, Bennett searched in vain for a Christ-centered place of loving care that Marcus could call home.
“I was truly at a crossroads,” Bennett explained. “I couldn’t put Marcus back in an institution, and I couldn’t find one anywhere offering hope or purpose.
“Then, God asked me, ‘Why don’t you build a home for Marcus and others in need?’”
So, she did.
With progress slowed to a standstill by COVID-19, the ranch is now scheduled to open fully in July 2021. It will provide high-functioning, special needs adults a true community, a place to live, work, socialize, and worship together in a nurturing, Christ-filled environment.
At present, ICR’s first completed building phase includes a gorgeous complex of five duplexes, 10 private homes for 10 residents. Each unit will contain a fully-furnished living room, bedroom, and bathroom. A common safe room is accessible to both residents.
A completed lodge is accented with stonework and cedar beams. It serves as the hub for all residential activities including meals, classes, and social gatherings.
“Our residents will have a home they can be proud of,” Bennett explained as AFA Journal toured ICR. “Like everybody, these men and women dream of having a home, a job, and friendly neighbors.”
While building that dream, the staff and board of ICR have relied totally on church, community, and corporate donations, avoiding all government funding.
“If we want something, we pray about it,” said Bennett. “If we can’t pay for it or it’s not donated, we believe God doesn’t want us to have it.”
Total dependence on God’s provision has served ICR well. So far, their 42-acre complex also includes a greenhouse, a prayer garden, and the Skills Depot, a 3,700-square-foot work facility.
The Skills Depot is the scene where future ICR residents are already commuting to work on their angels. Here, Marcus (who began creating angels several years ago) is joined by others as they craft acrylic paintings and make pottery.
“I’m good at glazing pottery,” Marcus said, holding up a piece he was glazing. “But I have to watch Mom. She’s a little messy.”
Like Marcus, the other men and women make their pottery and paintings with well-deserved pride. After all, their platters, bowls, vases, and canvases will help add 10 more duplexes, providing homes for a total of 30 residents.
At present, community volunteers also visit the Skills Depot, helping residents create their works of art, pieces that have become quite collectible. Each year, people wait expectantly for the signature ICR Christmas Angel ornaments. The 2020 angel is a stunning, gray-green creation.
“This Christmas Angel is our signature piece,” Bennett explained. “It reminds us that God offers every resident of the ranch a life filled with purpose and hope.”
“I just want my mama here,” said Tatiana George.
Like many children with incarcerated parents, Tatiana had no clue she would spend years without her mother. When Tatiana was 15, her mother was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Her story is told on the Prison Fellowship (PF) website.
While spending most of her teen years motherless, Tatiana’s mood and mental development were negatively affected. She spent many months, days, and holidays wishing she had her mama with her. Yet, when it came time to visit Mom in prison, she couldn’t muster up the courage.
“I didn’t want to visit my mom in prison because it felt like going to a funeral home,” said Tatiana. “I knew I couldn’t take her back [home] with me.”
Every missed celebration broadened the divide between mother and daughter. And the older Tatiana became, the more she began to question her worth, attempting suicide twice. But a still, small voice stopped her on the second attempt, saying, “Your life will get better. This is not your ending. This is your beginning.”
Suddenly, she sensed a greater purpose. “Right then, I knew my life was going to change,” she said.
Shortly after that season of strife, Tatiana’s mother called her from prison, asking what she and her brother would like for Christmas. The shocking question came through the ministry of PF’s Angel Tree program.
The rest is history.
“Angel Tree helped mend our relationship,” Tatiana said, “because every time she signed us up, she made me know she wasn’t just thinking about herself that holiday. She was thinking about us too. It made me feel loved and cared for.”
For PF, the Angel Tree program is a way to shine the light of Christ into the hearts of prisoners’ children. Currently, PF estimates 1 in 28 U.S. children has a parent behind bars. Angel Tree allows churches, groups, or individuals to select an approved child’s name and information (age, hobbies, needs, etc.), bless that child with Christmas gifts, and demonstrate God’s love.
Each child receives a gift he or she asked for, a gospel presentation, and a personal message from the parent. Meanwhile, PF also ministers to the parents by giving each a Bible.
Not only does Angel Tree bring great joy and Christmas cheer, but it also strengthens family relationships and brings many to faith in Christ.
“My mom and I have an outstanding relationship today,” Tatianna concluded. “Angel Tree brought us closer to God.”
Be an angel
▶ See and order ICR’s angel ornaments and other art pieces at xroadsranch.org or call 662.585.3334.
▶ Due to COVID-19, this year, PF is offering a virtual Angel Tree. To participate in the 2020 Angel Tree program, sign up your church or group – or yourself – at prisonfellowship.org/angeltree.