One way you can help children of incarcerated parents

December 12, 2018

Richard Braceful remembers getting letters about his kids from his wife, Selena, during his incarceration. She would tell him how tightly they were holding on to their Christmas presents—even six months after the holiday.

Richard—now a Detroit, Mich., pastor—smiles when he thinks about this, knowing how quickly most children get bored with a new toy. But these were more than ordinary Christmas toys

Leaving behind six kids

Before prison, Richard had a dream job and a good relationship with his children, and he actively attended church. But then he started working a lot. Eventually, he quit going to church and Bible study altogether. In his mid-20s, when life became stressful, he turned to alcohol and began experimenting with drugs. Soon, he felt like he needed to be high to get through the day.

When he didn’t have the money to buy more drugs, Richard turned to armed robbery and carjacking. He was charged with five violent crimes at the age of 29. Selena was left alone to support six children, ranging from two to nine years old, as her husband faced a five-year prison sentence.

That was when Richard discovered Angel Tree®, a program of Prison Fellowship® that serves incarcerated parents by providing a pathway for restoring and strengthening relationships with their children and families. Approximately 2.7 million children in America have an incarcerated parent. That's about one in 28. Many of these children suffer heartache, loneliness, and shame. Angel Tree provides incarcerated parents with a pathway for strengthening and restoring their relationships with their children and families.

Prison Fellowship mobilizes local churches and community organizations to give hundreds of thousands of children a gift, the gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their incarcerated parent. In addition, many partner churches meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of prisoners’ families through year-round ministry such as camping and mentoring.

Reaching out from behind bars

When Richard found out about Angel Tree, he knew it would be one way to help his wife from a distance. After signing them up for the first time, he filled out the application again every year. Some Christmases, the Angel Tree gifts were the only presents the children received. Angel Tree took some pressure off Selena. “There was stress from not being able to buy gifts,” says Richard. “It relieved her of that. [She’d tell herself,] ‘I know this is coming. I know they’ll have this. Even if it was just for a season.’”

The gifts helped him stay connected to his kids, especially when he was incarcerated seven hours from home and went without a visit from his family for a year and a half. The presents communicated to his kids that he still cared about them and thought about them even when he couldn’t be there.

“The quality of the items showed love,” says Selena. The volunteers who bought the toys on Richard’s behalf “took the time to give nice things to the children,” she says. “I thank God for my family having the opportunity to receive gifts from their dad even though he was not in the home.”

Hearing his children’s reactions and seeing photos of them opening their gifts helped keep Richard going. “I cannot tell you what that did for me emotionally, and encouraging me to keep my head up,” he says.

Struggling with re-entry

When Richard was finally released, it was rough trying to become a daily part of the family again. There were some struggles, but Richard told himself he was relying on God, and his biggest problems were behind him. He got a job and even pastored youth at his church.

But soon, stressors and disappointment became too much, and instead of truly turning to God, he once again turned to alcohol and drugs for relief. When he needed money to fuel his addictions, he sometimes got it illegally.

Richard was charged with mail fraud in 2007 after he issued fraudulent unemployment checks from his workplace and pocketed some of the money. He went back to prison, but this time, he vowed to never walk away from God again.

Once again, Richard signed up for Angel Tree and sent gifts to his children who were still young enough to be eligible. His second incarceration was at a prison closer to home, which allowed his family to visit more. He also met volunteers from Prison Fellowship who helped reinforce the importance of relying on God for comfort and guidance every day.

Coming full circle

Richard was released for the second time in 2011. After feeling led by God to become a pastor, he launched a church in Detroit in 2012. He often shares the lessons he learned about humility, and clinging to God for the strength to face each day’s challenges, no matter how big. “I try to tell people, trying to live life without God is like trying to have someone work on your car [who] has never seen a car before,” he says. “They are just guessing, trying to find their way to what’s going on, and they have no clue.”

His children, now ranging in age from 23 to 30, are paying it forward as they lead an Angel Tree program at Richard’s church. “It was a really beautiful thing,” Richard says, “to have us come full circle.”

This article originally appeared here. You can find out more about Angel Tree and how you can participate here.

Jennifer Nelson

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Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24