By the time she turned 27, Mary Kay Beard had established herself as one of the most notorious criminals in the USA.
Along with her husband, Mary Kay was wanted in four states for a string of bank robberies and was the target of a mafia “hit” for double-crossing the mob on a diamond heist. She appeared on the FBI’s “ten most wanted” list, and had earned the reputation as “the Bonnie Parker of Alabama.” It seemed likely that Mary Kay’s life would come to the same kind of violent end as that legendary bank robber.
But God had a different plan.
In 1972, Mary Kay was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a 22-year sentence in an Alabama prison. And it was in that prison that God would call her to a new life.
Flipping through a Bible one evening, Mary Kay read Ezekiel 36:26-27:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
“OK, God,” she prayed in her cell that night, “If you will do that for me, I will give the rest of my life back to you.”
Mary Kay spent six Christmases in prison, while serving her sentence for burglary, grand larceny and robbery. Each Christmas, local churches and charities would bring gifts in for the women. Mary Kay then watched as those women gathered the soap, shampoo and toothpaste received and re-wrap them as Christmas gifts for their own children.
“Oh that’s the heart of a mama,” she thought, “She might be a thief like me, or a drug addict, but she has the heart of a mama.”
She vowed she would do something for children who have a parent in prison when she was released. The result of that promise was Angel Tree, a Prison Fellowship programme begun in the USA in 1982 and designed to share God’s love by enabling parents in prison to send a gift to their children at Christmas.
On 17 April 2016, Mary Kay Beard passed away. But the programme she helped to found continues to have a profound impact on families across the world, including here in England and Wales.