America's most prominent Christian prison ministry partnered with the Baltimore Ravens and local churches last weekend to deliver the Gospel to children whose parents are in prison.
Prison Fellowship held a daylong sports camp for over 100 children involved with its Angel Tree program on Saturday at the Ravens practice facility in Owings Mills, Maryland, a venue local sports fans know by the nickname "The Castle."
Prison Fellowship conducted the free Angel Tree Sports Camp in partnership with the Ravens and Coca-Cola Consolidated.
Founded in 1976 by Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship serves families whose lives have been impacted by poverty and a relative's incarceration. One of its initiatives, Angel Tree, offers multiple sports camps nationwide to help children with incarcerated parents build relationships while encouraging physical and spiritual growth.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Prison Fellowship CEO James Ackerman said the organization holds about two or three Angel Tree sports camps a month in various locations around the United States.
In addition to football, Prison Fellowship has held camps focusing on basketball, bowling and ice skating, with the group starting to branch out to soccer as well.
"The Angel Tree sports camps we've been doing for about 11 years, but this is the first time we've done an Angel Tree sports camp with the Baltimore Ravens," Ackerman said.
The ability for Prison Fellowship to use the same field where Ravens players practice in preparation for their games on Sundays came about thanks to Coca-Cola Consolidated, a Prison Fellowship donor with a close working relationship with the Baltimore NFL franchise.
The camp ran for three or four hours, with eight stations on the field covering all the main disciplines of football. The volunteers for the event are provided by local churches, according to Ackerman.
Some stations taught focused on throwing and receiving, while others taught blocking and tackling techniques.
The camp featured retired players and coaches. Active professional football players and coaches could not attend as the Ravens traveled to face the New England Patriots this weekend.
"So there's eight different stations. The majority of the kids who are coming out are middle school, high school age. As a football camp, the majority of them [are] boys," Ackerman said. "But there [are] a fair number of girls who come out as well."
After registering, the kids met the coaches and separated into eight groups based on the different stations on the field. Every 15 minutes, the groups rotated through the stations. They eventually broke for lunch and listened to a talk.
"And those talks [shared] about the Lord and stepping into new beginnings with Jesus," Ackerman said.
After the lunch talk, campers continued going through the stations.
At the end of the day, the kids also listened to the testimonies of women raising children in the inner city while their husbands are in prison.
"The whole goal is to give the kids hope, right? Hope that you could maybe one day play for the NFL yourselves, hope that God has a purpose and plan for your life," Ackerman stated.
"God has gifted you and has hope for you. And so that's the whole thesis of the entire trip."
Each child was given a backpack containing a pair of athletic shoes, a football and an age-appropriate Bible.
"So the kids, we want them to experience the ultimate hope that is stepping into a relationship with the Lord," Ackerman said. "But also the hope of being able to come out to a place that, to be frank, they would never otherwise have access to. And, you know, they're getting to train on the same field as their heroes that they watch on Sunday in the Ravens."
The nonprofit CEO believes these Angel Tree camps are important for children with incarcerated parents growing up in poverty in the inner city. He added that the camps provide kids with the perspective that God loves them and their lives matter, filling them with "hope and ambition."
Another way that Prison Fellowship serves children with incarcerated parents is through its Angel Tree Christmas program. During the summer, the organization's volunteers sign up parents in prisons throughout the country for the program, which delivers gifts to their children on the parents' behalf.
"Angel Tree Christmas is about buying gifts and delivering the Christmas spirit to the children of the incarcerated on behalf of their parents," Ackerman said.
While visiting the incarcerated parents in the summer, Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers speak with them about staying in contact with their children, if possible.
"So our goal with the kids is to steer them in the direction that is Christ-centered, to living out their full potential in the Lord, and avoiding the street culture and gang culture that leads so many people down the path of juvenile facilities and prison," he said.
Prison Fellowship aims to keep families connected so that if the parents are released, they can be "engaged" and "healthy" parents that positively impact their children's lives.
Last year, Prison Fellowship launched a collaborative called Opportunity Kids with a grant from Walmart and support from Coca-Cola Consolidated. The effort works alongside groups such as Black Girls Code, which teaches teenage girls to code, and the Boys and Girls Club of America to point kids toward success in their schooling and careers.
The collaboration will start in five cities: Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Dallas.
"If we work together collaboratively, we can actually shift the whole generation to give them hope and create opportunities for them," Ackerman said.
Prison Fellowship is also involved in advocacy work and is working to persuade senators to support the Equal Act. The act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year and awaits approval by the Senate, aims to eliminate the disparity between punishments for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.
While there is enough bipartisan support for the bill, Ackerman said that Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has yet to act on it. The nonprofit CEO hopes the legislation will garner enough votes and be at the president's desk by the end of the calendar year.