Article Dec 19, 2018

How God used gift-giving to transform a family’s life

"I got to see him while he was in jail, but I never saw him once when he went to prison," Josh Rakestraw remembers of his father, David.

Shackled by addiction, David knew his life was out of control. He just couldn't put the bottle down, and it encouraged his volatile temper. One day someone "laid a hand" on his children's mother and David retaliated. He went to prison for aggravated assault and spent three years behind bars at three different facilities.

While David was away, Josh and Samatha's mom was caught in her own battle with addiction. She and the children moved from one Missouri shelter to the next. They lost all contact with David.

Three years is a long time in the life of a child, and for Samatha, it was just easier to let her father slip from her memory. He probably forgot about me anyway, she often thought.

Mending the broken

Being separated from his children crushed David. Guilt and regret pierced him to his core. Finally, he cracked open a Bible and let the words wash over him. "I turned to the Lord to seek his comfort," David explains. "That was a blessing, because the Lord sat me down for three years, and I didn't have any distractions but to read the Word of God."

His new journey began with that Bible and Saturday night church services. David was soon attending Prison Fellowship® classes, Bible studies, and Celebrate Recovery behind bars. Each day, he drew closer to his Maker and took steps toward healing and sobriety.

And each day he thought of Josh and Samatha. "I kept a journal for three years," says David. "I wrote down how much I loved [my kids] and how much the Lord loved them." David doubted that his son and daughter would ever read those words—let alone believe them. He wished he could do more, but he without an address, he had no way of contacting them. Even if he could, he was still behind bars.

Angel Tree® was his last hope. He prayed it wasn't too late.

Not forgotten

Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship, provides a pathway to reconciliation between prisoners and their families. Often this starts with a simple gift delivery to prisoners' children at Christmas on behalf of their incarcerated parent.

Even though David didn't know where his children were living when he signed them up, Angel Tree found them. Friendly volunteers from a local church provided wrapped gifts and the gospel message to two bewildered Rakestraw children. The wrapping paper flew, revealing a puzzle, game, teddy bear, and toy dump truck, all from the last person they expected.

I have a dad? Samatha thought. I thought he forgot about me.

The greatest gift was realizing their dad still loved them and thought about them. Angel Tree helped fill the void Josh and Samatha had felt without their dad.

A family of faith

Time passed. In prison, David was growing stronger in his faith, and his kids were starting a faith journey of their own. The summer after their Angel Tree Christmas, Josh and Samatha were invited to a week of Angel Tree Camping® on a scholarship. Camp awakened a hunger for Christ in both children. Before the week was over, they had committed their lives to Jesus.

"Angel Tree taught me about Christ!" Samatha says. "He is my Savior and he died on the cross for me! He changed my life for the better."

Now in their teens, Josh and Samatha live with David in Bethany, Missouri. They attend church together and enjoy being a family again. Ask about their favorite memory since David was released, and they'll tell you: Before a tearful crowd of worshipers at their church, all three were baptized.

David and his kids have just one wish left—that the children's mother will join them as a follower of Christ. She was recently sent to prison because of a drug conviction and was released to a halfway house. "I think the Lord has a hold of her too," David shares.

Samatha is believing the promise of Acts 16:31, where Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household." She has childlike faith that God can deliver on that promise. She believes it’s only a matter of time. Even in the waiting, she is thankful that God has mended her family and restored hope where it was lost.

"[Angel Tree] is an awesome program," says David. "It does change lives. Not just for the moment, but it changed my life and the rest of my kids' lives."

This article originally appeared here.