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RIP Mary Kay Beard, Notorious Safecracker Turned Angel Tree Founder

RIP Mary Kay Beard, Notorious Safecracker Turned Angel Tree Founder

Wallace Henley is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Don and Mary Kay Beard walked into my life one Sunday morning in 1984 like a mother and father goose trailed by a brood of scrungy ducklings.

They made their way down to the front pews, and sat under my nose as I stood in the pulpit of the somewhat pretentious sanctuary of the Birmingham church where I was pastor. It was as if Mary Magdalene and Levi the swindling tax collector had married and brought forth children after their kind.

I and the congregation might have been truly aghast if we had known these visitors were a convicted embezzler and notorious bank robber-expert safecracker whose lovely face had once been featured on an FBI Ten Most Wanted poster. Their brood of ducklings consisted of more jailbirds and social misfits and castaways.

Mary Kay Beard passed from us on April 17, and I am having a John Donne moment. It was he who said, in paraphrase, that he was diminished by the passing of every person. My world shrunk when Don died in 2006. Now there's a bigger hole in the world because Mary Kay is gone.

It's not just me who feels the loss, but many more — perhaps even millions. Read on.

Mary Kay was the child of a godly mother and alcoholic father, surrounded by nine siblings. The home was schizophrenic, she told an interviewer for the American Family Association journal. Mother steered the kids to church, but Dad impacted them all with his dysfunction.

Mary Kay grew up angry and determined to prove herself. She completed high school at 15 and nursing school at 18. Not long afterward she married a man she had met on a blind date, and discovered too late he was a career criminal who was a polished safecracker. He tutored his wife in those skills, and she became noted in the underworld.

The husband abandoned Mary Kay, but the safecracking acumen did not. The law caught up with her in 1972, when she was 27. Mary Kay faced 11 federal indictments, 35 charges, and a lifetime in prison.

Mary Kay spent five months in solitary confinement where she did some serious thinking. Scriptures from her childhood in church with her mother floated back into her mind. Mary Kay began attending a prison Bible study because it was the only way she could get out of her cell.

Finally a man and his wife who represented the Gideons gave her a Bible. They introduced Mary Kay to the Scripture that gave her hope and changed her life: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you." (Ezekiel 36: 26-27)

"I returned to the faith of my childhood and committed my life to Jesus Christ," she said.

Meanwhile, after serving five and a half years of a 180-year prison term, Mary Kay was surprised with an early parole. She joined Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship staff in 1982, ultimately becoming its Alabama state director. In 1984, she met and married Don Beard, also an ex-convict, who had served nine years for embezzlement. Like Mary Kay, Don had given his life to Christ while in prison.

Don and Mary Kay formed a powerful ministry team. They joined our church in Birmingham, and, in addition to Prison Fellowship work, founded several social service ministries.

Mary Kay's greatest legacy is Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree ministry. It started in Birmingham when she placed Christmas trees in two shopping malls. The trees bore the names and ages of children of inmates. Our Birmingham church became the storehouse for all the gifts on that first Christmas as people brought presents for 550 kids.

Within a few years Angel Tree went national, and then global. The ministry God birthed through Mary Kay has now touched more than six million children and their families worldwide.

In 1986 I accepted the call of a Houston church to be its pastor, and soon after invited Mary Kay and Don to join my staff. Their energy and vision went to work again. Mary Kay helped establish the Encourager Center for Biblical Healing at our church, and she and Don launched Encourager Ministries, through which they continued to impact people who had been sexually abused, drug and alcohol-addicted, guilty of crimes, and suffering mental and emotional scarring.

Don died in 2006, but Mark Kay was unstoppable. She was compelled to help others find that new heart and spirit. She, like Don, exemplified it. I think of Mary Kay, despite her suffering from chronic flu and even bouts with pneumonia, working long, hard hours to help us convert an old drafty, moldy building on the edge of downtown Houston into a ministry center.

And speaking of Don, I recall a Monday morning when the pastor who usually carried the church collection to the bank was unavailable. I went to Don's office, and gave him a bag containing $30,000. As he walked out he suddenly turned and looked at me, and we both began to laugh. It had hit us simultaneously that I, who had served in the scandalous Nixon White House, was giving the church's money for safekeeping to a convicted embezzler. Our laughter turned soon into tears as we were both impacted by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Mary Kay gave elegant witness to that life-changing grace of the Lord.

I suspect that in Heaven she and our mutual friend, Chuck Colson, are enjoying a good laugh over God's wonderful sense of humor. He transformed and brought together Mary Kay, a bank-robber-cum-safecracker, and Colson, a man convicted of Nixon-era political crimes, and then used them both in the transformation of so many others.

That's why midst my tears and sense of diminishment I too find joy and hope.

Wallace Henley, a former Birmingham News staff writer, was an aide in the Nixon White House, and congressional chief of staff. He is a teaching pastor at Second Baptist Church, Houston, Texas. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.