In a display of Christmas charity, Willow Creek Community Church will send every inmate in Illinois a special gift bag in time for the holiday season.
"I follow God's son, Jesus Christ, who was blindingly clear about how I should engage with prisoners," founder Bill Hybels said in announcing the initiative. "If I had passed away at 55 despite all that clear training and additionally because I'm a pastor, I would've had to explain to God that I didn't pray for prisoners, that I had never visited one, I had never lifted a finger to help prisoners in any way."
Hybels said that when he first began visiting prisoners, "the first overwhelming sense" he got was that "this was one of the most hopeless environments on the planet."
"Hope," he said, "has to be brought inside by those from the outside."
The pastor revealed that churches in four other states have also joined the initiative, and said he's been praying that every incarcerated person in all 50 states will someday receive a Christmas bag.
Hybels was joined by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, who urged Christians to show love to those condemned by society.
"God is calling broken people here to stand with Him to do justice," Stevenson said. "In the Church, we come because we're broken ... we confess that and there's power in that and we have to share that with a world that has gone astray."
"Of course people who commit crimes have to be held accountable. God wants us to hold people accountable," he said. "But He also wants us to keep pushing for redemption."
In addition to sending gift bags to prisoners, the church sends volunteers to local prisons every week to host Bible studies and visit inmates.
An inmate who goes by "Paris" said the program has changed his life.
"I'm trying to become a better person," he said, adding that the Christmas bags are "phenomenal."
"It gives us a sense of love, ... of joy. We get a sense that somebody out there that love us that don't even know us. That love is very strong and profound," he said.
Willow Creek started the initiative five years ago, according to the church website, and has grown rapidly ever since.
"Willow Creek Community Church has sought to bring hope to some of the most forgotten places in our state by assembling 'prison packs', small gift bags with books, activities, cards, and some tasty treats that are sent to over 70,000 inmates each year," the website notes.
"God has expanded the hearts and compounded the compassion of Willow Creek attenders, making the prison pack initiative one of most enthusiastically attended weekends each year."
"We wanted to inject a little hope and wanted to give them a gift with meaning," Hybels told the Chicago Tribune in 2015.
"God, we pray that these bags will release a sense of hope and relief for people who will be spending Christmas Eve in a cold cell, alone."