"The sins of the fathers _______ (shall) (shall not) be visited upon the children."
Easy question, right? Of course not!
Well not everyone agrees, putting this story into the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Department.
Women volunteers working on a southeastern Wisconsin project to provide Christmas gifts for the children of incarcerated parents have been threatened by an anonymous caller. The Angel Tree Christmas program, organized by the Prison Fellowship of Milwaukee, purchases gifts for the children of Wisconsin prisoners.
In this corner of Wisconsin -- south of Milwaukee to the Illinois border, and west to Elkhorn -- there are 823 children with a parent in prison; long term incarceration, not jail.
Not everyone thinks this is a worthwhile project. A male caller -- his phone number is blocked from Caller ID -- has contacted a number of the women involved in the program to say that prisoners are hard criminals who don't deserve this kind of program. "Let them go to the Salvation Army, or Toys for Tots," he says.
Chris Lukasavige, chair of St. Lucy's Angel Tree program, said the caller told her, "If we don't stop this program, he will go to Fox News and newspapers to have them investigate."
Tina Stefaniak, SE Wisconsin coordinator of the program, has also received the calls. "It's like he's threatening me," she said, "but it didn't scare me. Bring it on! I need more churches involved!"
Angel Tree is just a small part of what the Prison Fellowship does, but this time of year it's the most visible. "We purchase gifts on the prisoners' behalf so their children remember them. We're trying to let the child know that mom or dad screwed up, but they still love you, just like God loves your parents even though they screwed up," said Stefaniak.
Convicts tell prison chaplains their children's names and ages, and what kind of gift they would like. That information ("Diego, 6, animal toy") goes on a tag hung on a tree at a participating church, and volunteers choose a tag and shop for the child, providing a toy gift or a clothing gift. Kids get one of each. Churches handle the distribution either by delivering the gifts to the homes or by holding a party to which the children and their caregivers are invited. There's a spending limit of $15-$20 per gift.
St. Lucy's Angel Tree has 150 angels -- gifts for 75 children. Lukasavige is optimistic that all the requests will be filled. "At St. Paul the Apostle they can't fill all the requests for angels," she says.
But it's not that easy everywhere. Luckily, the kids also have Tina Stefaniak on their side. Says Lukasavige, "Tina's incredible; any kids that are left over, she buys all the presents herself."
Stefaniak, a nurse at Aurora who also runs Dependable House Cleaning service from her home, is in her second year as the area's Angel Tree coordinator. "I enjoy kids," she says. "I started by delivering a couple of gifts at my church," and later directed her church's program.
The program's greatest need is Racine churches. "Out of my 823 children, about 650 live in Racine," she said. "I don't have many churches in Racine participating, and we have the greatest need here.
"I try to group the children to the churches, by zip code, so the people who collect the gifts can deliver them, and minister to these broken families one-on-one." Some churches deliver the gifts, while others have a big Christmas party and everybody comes to them.
Racine churches participating in this year's Angel Tree program -- so far! -- are: Faith Community Church, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, Racine Christian Reform Church, Taylor Avenue Church of the Nazarene, St. Lucy's Catholic Church, Northport Baptist Church and Evangelical United Methodist Church.
Other participating churches in SE Wisconsin are Southport Baptist Church, Kenosha (Northport's sister church); St. Mary's Lutheran Church, Kenosha; First Assembly of God, Kenosha; First Christian Church, Kenosha; Kenosha Bible Church; Prayer House Assembly of God, Kenosha; Raymond Community church, Franksville; Millard Community Church, Elkhorn; East Troy Bible Church; and Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lake Geneva.
If you or your church would like to participate in the program, Tina Stefaniak can be reached at 497-6813.