In Matthew 10:16, Christians are admonished to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Often though, Christian organizations and ministries are the ones at the forefront of propagating the expectation in the mind of their respective supporters that sincere believers are --- in the words of the Washington Post --- to be uneducated and easy to command.
The Angel Tree Project is a program administered by Prison Fellowship Ministries where Christmas gifts are provided to the children of the incarcerated on behalf of their parents. While there is nothing wrong per say with such acts of charity even though Prison Fellowship mouthpieces such as Chuck Colson get heavy-handed at times that it is somehow the fault of the average American that these misunderstood souls are behind bars and that these convicts are the 21st century equivalent of Rousseau’s noble savage or somehow on par with Mother Teresa in terms of moral goodness as detailed in my column “A Big Helping Of Christmas Guilt” published in 2003, one way in which this charitable outreach markets itself to the broader Christian community might make some of Colson’s fellow Watergate conspirators blush in terms of its duplicity and slight of hand.
One of the techniques organizations across the religious and political spectrum use to get the unsuspecting and gullible to part with their hard earned money is direct mail fundraising where pity party letters are sent out laying the guilt on recipients that somehow if they do not respond with the requested contribution that the world is somehow going to come to an end. With such melodrama, the least one could ask for is at least a little consistency.
For the past several years and I offer as evidence the letters sent out in 2006 and 2007, though what prompted me to retain the 2006 letter in the first place was its startling similarity to the 2005 letter, that are worded almost identically each of these years. What’s the big deal, some may ask, as direct mail fundraising efforts don’t come cheap as those composing such epistles can command up to six figure salaries according to a classified employment ad that use to run in Human Events.
Maybe so, but for that price one should be able to get a letter where the errors and convenient oversights are not so easy to spot for the reader who has not left their discernment at the church house door as many have been conditioned to do in this age where it is assumed the statements made by Evangelical superstars are somehow above the scrutiny of we mere mortals.
Both letters center around the plight of an inmate named Richard --- the whys of his incarceration are conveniently omitted as most citizens of good conscience are usually adverse to the sob stories of ax murderers or serial rapists --- who contacted Prison Fellowship in the hopes of getting the Angel Tree Project to provide his daughter with a Christmas present. It is at this point the letters begin to breakdown.
The 2006 edition of the letter reads, “When he wrote this letter, Richard had not been able to send Jennifer a gift for four years.” In the 2007 edition of the letter, it reads, “When he wrote this letter, Richard had not been able to send Emily a gift for four years.”
So who is it? Is Richard’s daughter Emily or Jennifer?
If Richard has two daughters, when why isn’t that mentioned in the letter? Furthermore, why from one year to the next is the impression created that Emily and Jennifer are the same child?
Accompanying the more formal direct mail fundraising request was what looked to be a letter written by the convict mentioned in the letter. In both notes Richard writes, “For I haven’t been able to give her nothing for 4 years and I still have 9 years left.”
Which is it? If in 2006, Richard had not been able to give his daughter anything for four years with there being nine years left of his sentence, in 2007 wouldn’t he have not given his daughter a present in five years with eight years remaining on his sentence? I know jailbirds don’t usually have reputations as scholastic superstars, but it doesn’t take much mathematical aptitude to arrive at that piece of ciphering properly.
The minds of many are so clouded that they will probably be glad to accept just about anything they are told by the Evangelical celebrati. One might even give the benefit of the doubt that maybe the inmate has two children. However, there is one touch to the notes that goes beyond excusableness.
On the back of each of the hand written notes is a picture of a young girl. If the image of a child is to be used to elicit a sympathetic response in the hearts and minds of potential benefactors, shouldn’t marketers have the decency to use a different urchin each year? Is the girl on the letter Jennifer or Emily; for all we know she might be a child not even related to any of the parties in question even though the photo is passed off as such.
Though they mean well, the Breakpoint commentaries produced by Prison Fellowship Ministries have a tendency to make you feel guilty if one enjoys something less than highbrow culture. The very least the organization can do is to aspire to the same level of quality and excellence in the way it decides to raise funds.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.