Life of crime becomes seed for Angel Tree
By Allen Palmeri
JEFFERSON CITY—Mary Kay Beard has a captivating story of redemption from a life of crime that has resulted in God giving her a ministry to the children of prisoners that has touched millions.
Beard grew up in the Eldon area, was active in Rocky Mount Baptist Church, and even was a camp participant the very first year that Windermere Baptist Conference Center was open in 1958. A good seed was planted, she said, along with “a seed of rejection (that) would ultimately grow to a great root of bitterness.”
Surrounded by good family members—she is smack dab in the middle of nine children, with two brothers and two sisters on either end—she nevertheless left home as a teenager because “there was anger and bitterness, most of it directed toward our alcoholic father.”
That is when the 33-minute testimony she gave Oct. 9 to the senior adults of Cornerstone Baptist Church, Jefferson City, at Ryan’s Restaurant began to get interesting.
Away from Missouri, in another church setting, she quickly went back to doing the things that she knew to do as a child.
“I served on a number of committees, I sang in the choir, I taught a Sunday School class, but no matter how many good things I was involved in, there was always something missing,” she said.
She met a man on a blind date who was handsome and charming. She married him nine days later, not knowing that he was an ex-convict, a professional gambler, and one of the better safecrackers in the country. He provided her with all the money, fine clothing and jewelry she could ever want, but she always had to live with the fear of being caught.
Her husband began to teach her his trade amid their various bank robberies and safecracking jobs, and at one point her photo hung in the post office on the FBI “Most Wanted” list. She soon came to know that there was no security in her lifestyle. One day she went into the hospital for some surgery, and when she awoke her husband was gone.
“He had simply abandoned me, and I was devastated,” Beard said. “I built my life around my husband. I had given up not only my home and my family and friends, I had given up the principles by which my mama had taught me to live. And without my husband, there seemed to be no purpose to life.”
Emotionless, she drifted from town to town, oblivious to the Mafia contract out on her head. Her eventual arrest by four FBI agents was a relief; she was too numb to feel anything else. The severity of her plight in jail was the reality of 11 federal indictments and 35 state charges in four states for grand larceny and armed robbery. If everything went her way, officials said, she would get 75 years.
She was extradited to a Birmingham, Ala., jail a few days before Christmas, where she was held in solitary confinement. Some Christians shared the Gospel with her, and one day she picked up a Bible and flipped through it before stopping at Ezekiel 36:26-27, which begins, “A new heart will I give you, and a new Spirit will I put within you.” She started to see a diagram of the sentence, like she had seen so many years ago on a blackboard at the old Vernon School in Miller County, and the subject of the sentence leapt right out at her.
“I discovered it wasn’t about Mary Kay,” Beard said. “God is the subject. God said, ‘I, God, will change your heart.’ He will give me a new heart. He would put His Spirit in me. He would do all the work.”
That was the point of conversion. As she puts it, “one night in that little five-by-eight cell, I surrendered all.” The result was she finally felt that peace that passes understanding, that joy unspeakable, that her mother had.
She still had time to do and was sentenced to 21 years for armed robbery. But God was at work. In a matter of months, every other state and federal government charge was dropped. In a matter of five years, two short of the normal minimum time for good behavior, she was out of prison.
She joined Prison Fellowship as an area director and founded Angel Tree ministry in 1982, helping 556 children receive Christmas presents that first year through a simple concept of hanging red angels for girls and green angels for boys on Christmas trees at shopping malls. Since then more than seven million children have gotten gifts and heard the Gospel, she said. Angel Tree is also in 114 countries around the world.
Beard left Prison Fellowship in 2006 and now spends a lot of time year-round talking about Angel Tree through her ministry, www.encouragerministries.com.
“If you can reach children when they’re young, they are much less likely to go into prison, and, of course, the children of inmates are six times more likely; they are more at risk than anyone else’s children are,” she said.