Willow Creek's 'prison packs' are having a lasting effect.
Pastor Bill Hybels was reading from the Gospel of Matthew 25, when he came across a verse that he couldn't shake:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
"As Bill was reading this passage of scripture, that phrase, 'When you were in prison you came to visit me,' it kind of just hit him like, 'I don't know if we're doing this as a church,'" Willow Creek teaching pastor Steve Carter says.
Out of Hybels' focus on that verse was born the idea for a program to bring Christmas presents to every inmate housed in an Illinois prison.
In the program's first year, the church and its congregation helped pack and deliver 30,000 presents to Illinois inmates. Using the connections the church had already made with the Illinois Department of Corrections through their prison and jail ministry program, they tested their new plan out in 2013. The following year, they set out to provide a pack to every single person in an Illinois prison.
A July 2015 report by the Illinois Department of Corrections lists the state's prison population at 47,483.
Packing that many presents is an all-hands-on-deck experience, turning the church into its own version of Santa's workshop.
Willow Creek, located in South Barrington, Illinois, is one of the country's largest churches, averaging more than 20,000 attendees per week. As the holiday season rolls around, parishioners line up to help pack presents — which include popcorn, honey buns, Christmas cards, puzzle books, calendars, journals, and Bible studies.
Behind bars, inmates often feel forgotten and isolated, cut off from the outside world. The gifts from Willow Creek make them feel seen again.
On Willow Creek's Facebook page, they shared the story of Brandon, a former inmate and recipient of one of the church's prison packs. His story shows how something so small can do so much to bring hope to the hopeless. When he was 16, Brandon joined a gang and began selling drugs. After his third conviction on gun possession charges, he was sentenced to six years in prison; he would spend four behind bars.
"I joined a gang because I wanted some attention. I wanted some love," said Brandon in Willow Creek's video. "Like the guy who showed me how to sell crack. He checked up on me three times a day."
Each box costs around just $5 to pack, but the inmates who receive them get something far more valuable: a reminder that there are people out there who care about them.
"I think deep in our core, everyone wants to feel seen and known," says Pastor Carter. "And so who are those people we can see or know?"
This is a lesson that goes beyond inmates and beyond any one specific situation. It's a lesson in empathy and giving that's worth remembering year-round. Life is filled with small things that can have a big impact on the lives of others, and there's no better time than now to give back (if you're in the position to do so), to call a friend or relative you haven't spoken to in a while, or to just let someone know that you're there for them.
It's a season of hope, and we can all be a part of it.