Washington Post article
December 21, 1991
by Carey Kinsolving
About 1,200 children will be bused today to Kenilworth Recreation Center in southeast Washington for an afternoon of games, Bible lessons and Christmas gifts as part of an innovative ministry called Kids’ Konnection.
For many Washington area residents, public housing complexes such as Benning Terrace, East Gate, Barry Farms and Highland Farms invoke images of poverty, drugs and violence. But when Theresa and Steve Mullen drive through those neighborhoods, they see children who are torn between the innocence of childhood and survival in a violent adult world.
In 1989, the Mullens tore out the seats of an old school bus and created a Sunday school on wheels for children in the projects. Through the use of puppetry, their program – Sidewalk Sunday Schools – became such a hit that they had to forsake the bus for more space. The resident councils of several complexes voted to allow the Mullens to conduct their meetings on their properties.
Following Theresa Mullen, 45, around the projects is like trailing a spiritual pied piper. Children come from everywhere asking when she is coming to their house.
Looking like a coach with her sweatshirt, blue jeans, tennis shoes and clipboard, Mullen asks groups of children walking home from school if they have received permission slips to ride the bus for the Kids’ Konnection party.
On one occasion last week, Mullen motioned to 9-year-old Adam Fears. He walked over to Mullen’s red Dodge Colt, and she produced a pair of slightly used black Reebok tennis shoes donated by a suburban church.
But new clothes are far from the biggest need faced by most youths in those communities, said Mullen. They need good counsel.
“Many are caught in a tension between love and hate for abusive parents,” Mullen said. “Kids often become confused and blame themselves for their parents’ irrational behavior.”
One of Theresa Mullen’s first problem children came knocking at her door 12 years ago. Danell Williams, 20, came to Mullen as an 8-year-old to escape a fight between her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Mullen’s house in Arlington’s Green Valley area provided a safe haven.
Mullen helped Williams work through the false guilt she carried for her mother’s problems. “I thought it was me that was making bad things happen,” Williams said.
Mullen said she moved into the low-income Green Valley neighborhood in 1979 so she could work with troubled children like Williams. She said she became attached to the children in Arlington through her work with their mothers in the Arlington County jail.
Many youths who attend Mullen’s classes can’t afford the luxury of being a child because adult responsibilities have been foisted upon them. “When we conduct Sidewalk Sunday Schools, 7- or 8-year-olds will have babies on their laps,” Mullen said. “It’s like a little baby holding a baby. Sometimes an older child will be kept home from school to babysit the younger kids.”
Mullen teaches that children are not responsible if their mothers are taking drugs and abusing alcohol.
Coming to Sidewalk Sunday School allows children to remain young. Mullen recalls two boys who stood at the edge of her class. For awhile they seemed to struggle between joining in the fun with the other youngsters and maintaining their macho image as they clasped clublike table legs in their hands. Finally, they dropped the table legs and sat down with their friends.
The biggest challenge Mullen faces, she said, is communicating God’s love to children who often feel very unloved. “They have a hard time understanding that someone’s going to love them no matter what. That’s kind of hard for them to accept. But if you constantly keep showing them that love, they eventually grasp it – God can love me.”
Washington Post article
December 21, 1991
by Carey Kinsolving
Angels descended upon the Washington area last Saturday. They didn’t have halos, wings or white garments, but they did have a heavenly mission that was welcomed by more than 4,000 area children whose parents are in jail.
The angelic mission: to demonstrate God’s unconditional love by giving Christmas gifts to those who cannot repay.
It’s part of a program called Angel Tree. The program’s sponsors write the needs of children on angel-shaped tags that are placed on special Christmas trees at churches and shopping malls across the country. The tags bear the children’s first names only, their needs and, if appropriate, their sizes.
An “angel” in the form of a Christmas gift-giver takes a tag off the tree, buys something for the child and puts the gift in a designated place.
One angel, Carly Estes, 8, pulled a cardboard angel off the Christmas tree at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield last Saturday. It read: “Pamela, Age – 7 months, sweat suit, size 24 months.” Carly used money given by her grandfather for making A’s and B’s on her report card to buy Pamela’s gift.
Pamela’s mother, Michelle Leake, 25, received Carly’s gift with gratitude. She has just moved into a new apartment, but is unemployed. “Things are pretty rough right now,” Leake said.
Both Immanuel Bible Church and Allen Chapel AME Church in Southeast Washington have prison ministries, so they agreed to work together in distributing the gifts.
For the last five years Allen Chapel AME Church has put on an Angel Tree Christmas party. Last Saturday, children of prisoners, along with adults – sometimes a parent, but often an aunt or grandmother – sang Christmas carols and ate fried chicken and hot dogs.
The Rev. Larrie Williams started the program by stating the ultimate purpose of the Angel Tree party: “We’re here to receive gifts because God has given us the best gift, his son, Jesus Christ.”
Mojisola Akinbolajo, 9, prayed for the children, and “Amens” were heard when she asked God to stop the violence.
Eyes opened wide and children scurried when their names were called to come to the back of the room to receive gifts. Two-year-old twins, Kevin and Keith, looked like miniature Santa Clauses as they dragged their bags of three gifts back to their tables.
Last year, the twins’ mother was fatally stabbed. Mona Lisa Gaffney, the twins’ great aunt, is rearing them along with her brother’s daughter.
Seeing the joy on Kevin’s and Keith’s faces moved Gaffney to tears. Gaffney’s hours have been cut at the hotel where she works as a maid, and she didn’t know how she was going to buy gifts this year. “This is what Christmas is all about, giving and sharing – just being concerned about another human being.”
Through the Angel Tree program, relationships are developed that transcend the once-a-year giving. A few weeks ago, Gaffney received a box of clothes for her twins from one of the Angel Tree coordinators at Immanuel, Sharon Jensen.
After supervising the distribution of hundreds of gifts, Jensen went shopping Saturday night, but not for herself. The pastor of Allen Chapel AME, the Rev. Leon Lipscombe, told her about the needs of a family of nine.
By the next morning, Jensen had 60 gifts wrapped and ready to go: outfits for the older children, games for the younger ones and stockings stuffed with all kinds of goodies. Even the best of Santa’s elves would be pressed to match Jensen’s output.
Typically, each gift in the Angel Tree program is given in the name of the prisoner. But since this family had no one in jail, Jensen wrote on each name tag: “From Jesus.”
The Angel Tree concept began when a former inmate, Mary Kay Beard, remembered her own experience of watching women in prison trying to fulfill their roles as mothers.
Two shopping mall managers in Montgomery and Birmingham, Ala., agreed to allow Beard to set up Angel Trees. Her 1982 experiment, which is now a part of the Prison Fellowship started by former Nixon White House lawyer Charles W. Colson, has mushroomed into a nationwide movement with 5,200 churches sponsoring Angel Trees and 140,000 children receiving gifts in 1990.