RICHMOND, Va. — There are many types of Christmas stockings. Most are familiar with the ones hung by the chimney with care, yet since the 1950s many churches around the state have stuffed red Christmas stocking coin holders to support prison ministry in Virginia.
The Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia began providing chaplains to the state prison system in 1920. Virginia’s state constitution with its strong emphasis on the separation of church and state prohibits the state from hiring prison chaplains and compensating them with taxpayer monies.
So Protestant Christian denominations pooled resources to form a non-profit ministry organization that would become the Chaplain Service.
Today CSPMV has chaplains serving in 31 state adult prisons and three state juvenile correctional facilities. The chaplains serve as prison pastors to 32,000 adult inmates (2,500 of whom are women), as well as 600 young men and 50 young women in the juvenile system.
In response to needs of inmates in the 1940s some churches began filling stockings with toiletries and hygienic items and the Chaplain Service secured permission from wardens to give them to inmates at Christmas. For some it was the only Christmas gift they received. But as time passed it became more difficult to get needed approvals due to security regulations.
Now with the state providing most of the needed toiletries, the emphasis has shifted to meeting the spiritual needs of inmates by providing more chaplains and more work hours for chaplains.
The red Christmas stocking is an annual reminder that Jesus said, “I was in prison and you came to me,” says Randy Myers, vice president of Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia Inc.
An letter and sample red stocking are mailed to 5,000 churches from several denominations across the state every August, along with testimonies from men, women and youth whose lives have been impacted by the ministry of the chaplains.
In the early days the coin slots on the stockings were for dimes, not quarters as they are today. And there’s now a slot in the stocking for paper bills or a check.
Whether it’s a project for Sunday school classes, youth groups, WMU organizations or the entire church, the Christmas stockings are an opportunity to inform members and get them involved in support of the prison chaplains and the men, women and youth they teach and serve in Jesus’ name.
Barbara Francis (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer for the Religious Herald.