On a crisp winter evening in early February, just outside Washington, D.C., Prison Fellowship celebrated its 25th year of ministry. The Gala Celebration felt like an Academy Awards ceremony for evangelicals. A Who’s Who of Christian celebrities lent their enthusiastic support to Charles Colson, PF’s founder and driving force, as well as to the ministry itself. Senate Chaplain Lloyd Oglivie opened with prayer. Kay Cole James, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, gave the introductions. Apologist Ravi Zacharias and Republican activists as diverse as Gary Bauer and Jack Kemp stood from their tables and offered praise for the good work of their host. President George W. Bush sent a letter. Pastor and radio speaker Alistair Begg captivated the audience with an exposition of Joshua 4, made more transporting by his Scottish lilt.
The celebration, in fact, had been going on all week in Washington. Men in pinstriped suits and women in blazers thronged the Washington Hilton for a three-day retreat replete with speakers, devotionals, and lots of caffeine. The evening before the Gala Celebration, at the Founder’s Dinner, a more intimate PF gathering, another contingent of Who’s Who personalities gathered to celebrate PF. Among many others, Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson stood and hailed the ministry of Charles Colson: “This is an exciting time in Washington. We’re leaving tomorrow, going to a retreat with the President to plan the agenda for serving people through faith-based institutions.” Prison Fellowship, said Hutchinson, is an excellent model of how biblical principles can be applied to “the world of injustice.”
Meanwhile, 192 inmates from Cell Block E at the Newton Correctional Center gathered for “community.” Just off of Highway 14 in Newton, Iowa, past the Wrestling Museum, east of the Moose Lodge, and behind a fence with three layers of coiled razor wire, Willie was giving his testimony. He read from Genesis 3:9, but it took him awhile because the words were hard: After Adam sinned, the Lord God called to him, “Where are you?”
Willie is half Native American and half white. He grew up with both groups tormenting him. Had the Lord God asked Willie that question growing up, he would have said, I don’t know where I am. “I could relate to Adam,” Willie said in his testimonial. “I never wanted to be around people. I thought I smelled like pee. The reason I thought that is because people said, ‘You smell like pee.'”
Shame says there’s something wrong with you, and Willie grew up feeling that shame. He went to prison for theft and kidnapping and ended up in Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) at Newton, one of the three state facilities in the United States that has adopted this faith-based ministry. The IFI program resembles a monastery, but with convicts instead of monks. Of the three, only Newton is a medium-security facility. That means there are hard-core criminals there who have done things like murder and rape. It wasn’t until Willie went to prison, and later to the IFI program, that he could finally answer the question the Lord asked Adam.
Charles Colson once confronted the same question. His answer has helped enlarge the evangelical vision for ministry.
Colson has brought men like Willie and the world of evangelical celebrities into a single sphere. He has stood where Willie stands, in a world behind razor wire. And he has stood where Asa Hutchinson, Lloyd Oglivie, Ravi Zacharias, and Gary Bauer are standing, at the center of public life ensconced in a world of faith. He has meshed these incongruent parts and has rallied the evangelical church to embrace prison ministry as a means of social reform. It could be said that Colson’s legacy—high-energy, visionary, devout, and driven—is finally coming into focus, but not in his critique of culture, which he has expressed in his books, BreakPoint radio commentaries, and columns for Christianity Today.
Instead, the Colson legacy is coming into focus through the realm of government, where it all started. When President Bush established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he pointed to one of Colson’s key ministries as an example of how effective faith-based programs can work.
Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976 after being released from the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served eight months of a one- to three-year sentence for obstruction of justice. Today PF’s reach extends to 600 prisons in 88 countries. And the Washington-based organization has spun off several subsidiary ministries, moving beyond prisons to reach the families of inmates through Angel Tree, to provide a college education to ex-felons through the Colson Scholarship at Wheaton College, and to honor socially active Christian leaders with the annual Wilberforce Award.
In recent years, there has been some retrenchment. Last fall, to cut costs, PF closed 20 offices and eliminated 100 positions. And earlier this year, the ministry absorbed its public-policy arm, Justice Fellowship, and Neighbors Who Care, a program to equip churches to help crime victims. Colson says the cutbacks are due to slower-than-anticipated growth (6 percent as opposed to the 20 percent budgeted).
Even so, Colson and PF continue to make an impact. Over 150,000 inmates attend PF Bible studies; 27,000 prisoners are connected to pen pals; and 50,000 men and women enter prisons as PF volunteers.
Colson’s achievements have not come easily. He fell hard after his days with President Richard Nixon. The prison stint alone tested him. But on top of it, he faced personal tragedy. “My father died while I was in prison, and my middle son got arrested for marijuana possession. Those were hard years,” he said in an interview.
His conversion in the early 1970s, in the wake of Watergate, elicited derision and rebuke from Republicans, Democrats, the press, and even Christians who thought it was a joke. One pastor stood up at the Founder’s Dinner and recalled the time shortly after Colson’s conversion when he challenged him: “Colson, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to know how we can know if you’re serious.” Colson paused and answered, “I guess the best way to tell you whether I’m serious or not is for you see what I’m doing ten years from now.”
Twenty-six years later, Colson has earned the respect of Christians and non-Christians, liberals and conservatives. He has won numerous awards, including the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (1993) and, most recently, the Canterbury Medal for the defense of religious liberty. And with the help of collaborators, he has written dozens of books.
He is as comfortable in the presence of presidents, senators, and the national media as with drug dealers, murderers, and sex offenders. He has bridged seemingly unbridgeable gaps—first between evangelical faith and social activism, and second between activist evangelicals and the cynics who dismiss them as kooks. In The Weekly Standard, the Heritage Foundation’s Joe Loconte called Colson “one of the most important social reformers in a generation.”
The man manages to stay a step ahead of most of us, which frustrates him to no end. He remains a force for change and innovation—always looking forward, always breaking the rules. Under Nixon, it landed him in jail. Under Christ, it has brought him and his vision to a moment whose time has come.
Learning Dirty Tricks
Colson grew up an only child in a working-class family in Winthrop, Massachusetts, under the noses of the Harvard boys. His father, Wendell Ball Colson, dropped out of high school to support his widowed mother. Later in life he attended school at night to become a CPA. It took him 12 years.
Charles Colson was born in 1931, during the Great Depression. “I had a loving, domineering mother, and a great father who was my best friend and had a great influence on my life,” he said in an interview. He credits his father for instilling in him the Protestant work ethic and “the Puritan sense of right and wrong.”
The young Colson’s aptitude for manic work output showed itself early. His first article, titled “How Americans Should Do Their Part to Win the War,” was published in a Boston newspaper when he was 12. Around the same time he was making and selling model airplanes and giving the money to the military to purchase a jeep. (He still has a photograph of himself standing with a World War II officer next to the jeep.) He attended the preparatory high school Browne and Nichols, where he was captain of the debating team, president of student government, editor of the school newspaper, and a three-sport-a-year athlete: football, basketball, and baseball. He was a long-ball hitter and struck out a lot.
He got his first taste of political dirty tricks in 1948 as a volunteer for then-Governor Robert Bradford’s reelection campaign. He came to see phony mailings, planting stories in the press, and voting tombstones as part and parcel of hardball politics. He liked it. He developed a penchant for it.
He graduated from high school as valedictorian in 1949 and received a full-ride scholarship from Harvard. The only thing sweeter than that was thumbing his nose at it. He opted to take an ROTC scholarship at Brown. “If you grew up in the Boston area, you looked at Harvard and their aloofness and superiority and thought, ‘If I get in, I would tell them I don’t want them.’ It was pride, even in those days,” he said.
Hubris, like hardball politics, was another taste he would acquire.
One aspiration exceeded the next as he began his ascent to the places of power. He graduated from Brown in 1953, joined the Marines and rose to the rank of captain in two years, and later took a job in the Navy Department in Washington while attending law school at night at George Washington University. He served as assistant to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for two years, completed law school in 1959, and joined the prominent law firm Gadsby & Hannah, where he worked until he joined the White House in 1969 as an aide to President Nixon. There he earned the reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man.”
Colson’s first marriage to Nancy Billings, with whom he had three children, dissolved in 1964 after a long period of separation. Colson confesses that his “preoccupation with politics and business” contributed to the divorce. He married his present wife, Patricia Hughes, later in 1964. Not one for the limelight, Patricia has been a faithful partner and a stabilizing force throughout Colson’s life.
Tangled in Watergate
The funny thing about the Daniel Ellsberg business, which preceded Watergate, was that it initially hadn’t bothered President Nixon. In 1971 Ellsberg, a former Marine and aide to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, leaked the top-secret “Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times. Colson described them as “nothing more than a compendium of old memos, position papers, and cables detailing how John F. Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen had gotten us involved in Vietnam.” It made the Democrats look bad, and politicos did this all the time. It was only after Kissinger noted that such leaks compromised Nixon’s ability to conduct foreign policy, and so made him look weak, that Nixon went after Ellsberg, who had become a hero of the antiwar movement.
The President called Colson. “I want him exposed, Chuck. I want the truth about him known. I don’t care how you do it, but get it done,” Nixon said.
“I needed no coaxing,” Colson recalls.
Colson set in motion a smear campaign and began to dig up dirt on Ellsberg. He says he did this without any regard for how it might affect Ellsberg’s impending trial on federal charges of theft and conspiracy.
Jonathan Aitken, author of the 1996 biography Nixon: A Life (who will also be writing Colson’s authorized biography), wrote, “Nixon and Colson could hot one another up to the most feverish of bouts of plotting and scheming. ‘Those who said that I fed the President’s dark instincts are only 50 percent correct,’ recalled Colson. ‘Because 50 percent of the time he was feeding my darker instincts.'”
Colson says these tactics, and the paranoia that fueled them, “plunged us across the moral divide.”
“Chuck Colson had nothing to do with the Watergate burglary and nothing to do with the activities of the Gordon Liddys of this world,” Aitken said in an interview. “He did, however, contribute to a climate inside the White House in which those sort of things could happen. He didn’t order the break-in [of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office], which was utterly wrong, but he was part of the overzealous ‘can do anything, will do anything’ [mindset] that caused these things.
“So while he didn’t order the break-in, had he known about it, he would not have objected.”
Being crowned defender of the president appealed to Colson’s inflating hubris. Whether during evening excursions on the presidential yacht, the Sequoia, or at wee-hour meetings in the inner sanctum of the White House, Colson was Nixon’s go-to man for dirty tactics. Richard Nixon was Charles Colson’s raison d’etre. The President’s ambition, paranoia, and craving for respect knew no bounds. For Colson, attending to Nixon’s obsessions felt like trying to quench brushfires while the forest was up in flames.
The Watergate controversy intensified. The climate in Washington grew more hostile. By late 1972 even the indomitable Chuck Colson began to buckle. He was tired. Nixon was forever calling him at odd hours, summoning him to the Oval Office to talk over this or go over that. When Nixon was reelected in November of that year, Colson resigned as Special Counsel to the President and longed to retreat into private life. But the web of Watergate only tightened its hold.
In Born Again he recounted the story of his dramatic conversion. He had been visiting the home of friend and colleague Tom Phillips, who had been converted at a Billy Graham crusade. Phillips had confronted Colson with the gospel and read him a portion from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity that stuck with him: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”
That summer evening in August 1973, Tom Phillips asked Chuck Colson if he would like to pray with him. Colson, aching inside but hard on the outside, awkwardly agreed. (“Sure—I guess I would—fine.”)
He felt the inner movement of the Spirit but did not cough up the words of surrender.
Later that night, “outside in the dark [sitting in the car], the iron grip I’d kept on my emotions began to relax. Tears welled up in my eyes. … and suddenly I knew I had to go back into the house and pray with Tom.” Only Tom had already gone to bed. Colson parked along the roadside and hoped his friend couldn’t hear him sobbing.
Colson was truly converted that summer. But he had made so many enemies and had done so many nasty things that even Christian Republicans didn’t believe it.
At this year’s Founder’s Dinner, Tom Phillips recalled, “I prayed about what to do. I wished the problems would go away. Sometimes I prayed Chuck Colson would go away. But God gave me no peace with that kind of prayer.” Instead, Phillips connected Colson with Doug Coe, National Prayer Breakfast organizer and a Christian networker inside the Beltway. Coe tried to convince the believers in Colson’s political camp of the authenticity of his conversion, to no avail.
As a last resort, Coe contacted Harold Hughes, the well-known Democratic Senator and outspoken Christian. Coe recounted at the Founder’s Dinner, “I called Senator Harold Hughes and said, ‘Senator, I have a friend who is in tremendous need and needs a friend. I was wondering if you could meet with him and maybe help him along with the Lord.'”
When Hughes learned this friend was Colson, he uttered a stream of curses and hung up on Coe.
An hour later, the phone rang. The senator was on the other end. “I’m sorry. I know that’s not what Jesus would want me to do. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll meet him. But it has to be after 11 o’clock at night. And it has to be out in the countryside.”
At this stage of his Christian life, Colson had never prayed aloud and had not finessed the art of Christian testimonials. Hughes was understandably skeptical. He asked Colson to tell him about his newfound faith. In halting gestures, Nixon’s onetime hatchet man made his confession. After 20 minutes, Coe said, Hughes got up, walked across the room, and embraced Colson. “We are brothers for life,” he said.
He went to prison in July 1974 for “devising a scheme to obtain derogatory information about Daniel Ellsberg, to defame and destroy Mr. Ellsberg’s public image and credibility. … [and] to influence, obstruct, and impede the conduct and outcome of the Ellsberg trial.” Colson penned those words and gave them to the prosecutor to be read in the courtroom.
Thereafter he was prisoner 23226 of Dormitory G, sharing living space with 40 other convicts amid the smell of body odor and tobacco and the sound of bodily noises. Tippling scotch-and-sodas with Nixon and Kissinger on the Sequoia was a faraway dream. He had entered the world of vinyl furniture, black-and-white tv sets, dirt-brown work clothes, and laundry duty.
Colson adopted the two key rules for survival in prison: “Keep your mind where your butt is” (don’t think about home) and “Trust nobody with nothin'” (don’t get involved). His reputation as the pretty-boy big-time lawyer of the fallen President preceded him. Fellow prisoners displayed equal measures of disdain and suspicion. Colson took less desirable work assignments to avoid the appearance of privilege. In time, his authenticity began to turn the tide.
A turning point came when he read a passage in J. B. Phillips’s New Testament: “For the one who makes men holy and the men who are made holy share a common humanity. So that he is not ashamed to call them his brothers” (Heb. 2:11). Suddenly he understood how God, in Christ, “went to prison” to rescue those in bondage. This revitalized his understanding of God and ignited a new sense of mission for him in prison. He realized he had been called to prison, albeit a necessary step to crucify his hubris. What’s more, he discovered that he was to be a brother to those in bondage, just as Christ became his brother.
Colson got involved. He applied his legal expertise to help navigate people through the convoluted and often unjust court system. He also touched them by praying with them and leading Bible studies. This violated the second rule for survival, but it also gave him a glimpse of the positive effects of treating criminals with dignity.
He did not gloss over the seriousness of his fellow inmates’ crimes. As a lawyer, he understood that justice demanded crimes be reckoned with. Yet, he came to see that those men, though criminals, were also brothers, and as such needed to be restored and forgiven of their crimes as much as victims needed to feel justice has been served. Colson caught a vision for restorative justice. It is restorative, not retributive, justice that brings healing and new possibilities. It is the same kind of justice that God demonstrated to us through Christ.
Twenty-five years later, Prison Fellowship’s innovative InnerChange program models Colson’s vision for restorative justice and serves as a paradigm for his wider sense of mission.
Keeping Ex-Prisoners Free
Chuck Colson attended President Bush’s initial White House meeting to discuss prospects for government-supported faith-based initiatives. The President made a passionate plea, says Colson, for people to give faith-based solutions a chance. The President was asked, How do we know this will work? He said, “Chuck Colson over here can tell you it works.” Bush was referring to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program that Bush himself had helped PF initiate in Houston when he was governor of Texas.
To get a sense of how the InnerChange Freedom Initiative works, picture Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s vision of Christian community inLife Together: a rigorous routine of early rising for private and group devotions, classes in the Bible and other topics, communal meals, work, and worship. Now, replace peach-faced seminarians with tattooed, long-haired, tobacco-reeking criminals whose cultural reference points include concepts like “25 years with an 85 percent mandatory.”
Recidivism (the pattern of ex-cons returning to a life of crime, and eventually to prison) has been the major reason prison-reform advocates have been willing to entertain faith-based solutions.
“Right now the system is failing,” says Jack Cowley, the national director of operations for IFI. “More people come back to prison than stay out.”
Adds Sam Dye, program director of IFI in Newton, Iowa, “The state wants to reduce recidivism. We say, ‘We will help you meet that goal. However, our methodology is transformation through Christ. You don’t have to buy into that, but that’s our methodology. You let us work out our program with that philosophy and we’ll meet your goal.'”
Colson has cited the recidivism numbers coming in since the first “graduating” class of IFI in Houston. “Eighty inmates have come through the full 18-month program and have been released from prison, matched with a mentor, and are in an outside church,” he told his guests during the Gala Celebration in Washington. “Only three have been taken back into custody.” That is a recidivism rate of less than 5 percent, which is unheard of in general prison terms. According to Jack Cowley, typical recidivism rates among the general prison population hover around 50 percent.
Some prefer to downplay Colson’s enthusiasm for IFI-Houston’s initial numbers. “I get nervous about recidivism because every state counts it differently,” says Dye. “It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. Most people don’t realize there are technicalities. Some of the stuff Chuck Colson says is going to raise expectations way too high. He’s saying the recidivism at [IFI-Houston] is at 5 percent. If we get 30 percent [in Newton], we have a revolution.”
IFI started in April of 1997, first in Texas, then Kansas and Iowa. Overall, more than 600 men are currently enrolled. It is a strictly voluntary program and comes to a state facility only when the governor or the office of corrections has invited IFI in.
At Newton, says Dye, “We don’t receive any state-appropriated tax dollars. What money we do receive from the state comes from the pay phones in the prison yard. The company that contracts the pay phones reimburses IFI to help us underwrite nonreligious services.” Indeed, the states only fund about one-third of the $600,000 that it takes to run each IFI program; PF foots the majority of the bill. Consequently, IFI’s vitality depends heavily on donor contributions and the participation of local-church volunteers.
Modeled after a prison ministry founded in 1973 in Brazil, IFI is currently for male prisoners who are within two years of their release. The mission, according to program literature, is “to create a prison environment that fosters respect for God’s law and the rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners.” Graduates from the program receive ongoing discipleship training from Christian mentors after their release.
According to Cowley, becoming a Christian is not a prerequisite for inmates wishing to join the program. “You get those who don’t intend to develop a relationship with Christ, and that’s okay,” he says. “You can stay in the program without making a confession of faith. We’ve got Muslims. All I tell them is, ‘We can’t tell you to take on Christ as your personal Savior. But we can tell you if you’re going to stay in the program you’ve got to act like a Christian.'” In many instances, however, acting like a Christian eventually takes on a tramsforming effect.
“There are a lot of goodhearted people [working in prison reform] who have great intentions, but they don’t address the heart of man,” says Dan Kingery, a counselor at the Newton prison and a veteran with the Iowa Judicial Department. “That’s where the change has to take place.”
With prisons becoming increasingly overcrowded and ineffective at true rehabilitation, government leaders are desperate for answers. And the early success of programs like IFI is making them take notice, says Kingery. “I’ve seen in 16 years of working in state government that faith and government do not go well together. But right now, there is this explosion of interest and consideration.”
A Dual Mission
The basic concept behind restorative justice captures the heart of Charles Colson’s wider vision. That is, personal redemption ought to reverberate outwardly to affect one’s larger community. Joe Loconte calls it Colson’s “dual sense of mission”—first to prisons and then to the wider culture.
“Ideas have consequences,” says Colson. So Christians must have a solid grasp of the “ideas” that make up the Christian “worldview.” They must, in turn, engage and disseminate these ideas in a larger context, the same way a prisoner who has appropriated personal faith must carry that into spheres that restore community and the victim.
“For better or for worse, law reflects the moral views of the people,” says Colson. “Roe v. Wade did not come out of nowhere. It burst on the scene because of the cultural condition in the 1960s and the upheaval in American attitudes and values. The court begins to reflect that consensus of value.”
If Christians engage in the public discourse, Colson says, it leads, inevitably, to political engagement. In fact, he sees such involvement as an extension of the Great Commission.
“The Christian’s primary concern is bringing people to Christ,” Colson says. “But then they’ve got to take their cultural mandate seriously. We are to redeem the fallen structures of society.” He appeals to John Calvin’s view of government as “a holy, responsible institution ordained by God.” Reform through governmental structures is not a panacea, he admits. “But at the same time, don’t neglect it.”
He is quick to add, “I get nervous about the [voter] scorecards. There’s always a danger when you say this is ‘the Christian agenda.’ You can’t make it a monolithic movement and say all Christians believe this. But you can say, ‘Here are the burning moral issues that, as Christians, we must address.’ We’ve got to speak to the moral truth.”
Heavily influenced by Calvin and Calvinist giants like Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer, Colson nevertheless champions vigorous human agency. In Colson’s theologically formative years, church historian and Edwardsian scholar Richard Lovelace tutored him. Lovelace, after the fashion of Jonathan Edwards, embraces a postmillennial optimism about the glorious advance of the church bringing in the kingdom on Earth and pushing back the powers of darkness through the Spirit of God. Colson eschews eschatological categories when it comes to his mandate, concluding that cultural engagement “is a constant commission to be part of God’s creative process,” whether one is “premill, amill, or postmill.”
This, in turn, has informed his view of Christians and government. He, of all people, understands the futility of hoping the state will redeem the heart. Yet, he rallies the church to engage the political arena and raise the Christian banner high.
“People in this country are discovering that what they thought to be ‘the good life’ is failing,” Colson says. “They are saying, ‘Show me something better.’ What an opportunity for the church! I’m not sure the next Supreme Court decision is going to help us. But ten years from now it will be different, depending on how well we do our job. We can’t simply live in our Christian ghettos and talk our own language and use our own code words. We’ve got to get out there and reach other people. This is a worldview battle.”
One former aide has called Colson a “driven popularizer.” The “popularizer” part of him wants to disseminate his message for Christians to permeate culture on a broad scale. The “driven” part exerts itself full throttle, relentlessly, on many fronts at once. This has taken its toll.
Colson’s “dual sense of mission” has taxed both Prison Fellowship and its gifted staff (and ex-staff). The recent retrenchment, perhaps, reflects the sense that Colson himself realizes the danger of spreading himself and the ministry too thin. “We’ve decided to concentrate on the core ministries,” he says. “This has forced us to reorganize and reprioritize. I think it’s healthy.”
The burnout rate among Colson’s people is high. One person called them “the Bruised Reed Club.” In serving the wider mission, sometimes the lines get blurred as to who’s writing what, whose idea it was, and who’s getting the credit. People who enlist with Colson know, to some degree, that these are the rules. And Colson has led the way in modeling shared bylines and publishing credits with ghostwriters.
Still, by virtue of the sheer force of his personality and sense of mission, the credit ultimately returns to Colson. This has caused pain and regret among some ex-staff who have, they feel, lost ground in their own careers in order to keep Colson in the limelight.
Best-selling books and Christian celebrity, if not distractions, are also tools. The vision of Charles Colson is to transform culture through faith that works.
Which brings us back to the essential Colson. “As far as I can tell, we haven’t heard a writer addressing the personal, spiritual, theological journey of a prisoner who has inspired people the way Chuck Colson has, since Bonhoeffer,” says Aitken. “In ecclesiology and theological terms, there’s an ongoing debate about faith and works. If ever there was a lesson from the Charles Colson story, it is that being justIFIed by faith produces colossal works.”
The most vigorous and enduring demonstration of Colson’s “colossal works” has been in the context of prisons. Jack Cowley thinks IFI will carry Prison Fellowship into its “post-Chuck” years. Indeed, according to PF leaders, several state prisons are looking to adopt the IFI program within their walls. “They are waiting on us to get our act together,” says Cowley.
One wonders what the cultural impact could be if criminologists, psychologists, and theologians came together to champion the cause of getting IFI into state prisons throughout the country. “With the Bush White House pushing faith-based initiatives,” says Loconte, “at this particular moment, Colson’s message resonates.”
Colson likes to tell the story about the time he visited England and looked for the grave of his hero, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was the British Parliamentarian who faced multiple setbacks in his crusade against slavery. In 1833, after decades of defeats and shortly before his death, he finally saw the Emancipation Act enacted, once and for all abolishing the slave trade. Colson climbed a hill that led to the small church Wilberforce attended. Inside, toward the back, a tiny stained-glass window bore his image at its center. Beneath it a rock advertised “50P” (now about seventy cents): the cost of purchasing the pamphlet about Wilberforce’s life.
A pamphlet? Colson was amazed that so great a legacy was reduced to so modest a memorial. He left the church downcast. He walked outside into a beautiful summer night. The air was fresh and a mist was falling over the green valley. Then he had a moment of clarity. He saw rows and rows of freed slaves walking forward, chains falling from their bodies. That, he came to see, was Wilberforce’s legacy: living monuments, prisoners set free.
Colson learned in Dormitory G that the only difference between obstructing justice in the White House and murdering your stepmother was a matter of degree. One of the hardest moments he faced during the prison ordeal was the moment they took his identification. Then he was prisoner 23226. He was nobody.
Today when he stands at the podium and receives accolades from Christian superstars, he remembers that number. It reminds him of who he is. He’s just like Willie. They both relate to Adam. Willie is still behind bars, but he’s free. He doesn’t smell like pee. He stands with Chuck Colson. They know where they are.
Wendy Murray Zoba is a senior writer for Christianity Today. Her latest book is Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America’s Soul(Brazos).
A Special Plea
Prison ministry in general, and IFI in particular, have three ongoing needs:
More volunteers who are willing to visit men and women behind bars.
After-care mentors who can disciple ex-prisoners and keep them accountable.
Christian business people who are willing to hire ex-cons “on the outside.”
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today.
United Press International notes that Chuck Colson is again powerful in Washington—even though he lives in Florida.
Slate.com called Colson “one of America’s greatest Christian leaders” but worried that he’s becoming “just another Gary Bauer.”.
Religion flourishes behind bars thanks to Colson’s ministries, Reuters reports.
The San Francisco Chronicle examines the ministry work of the InnerChange Freedom Intiative.
Facing old ghosts, Colson wrote for U.S. News and World Report on the pros of impreachment.
Prison Fellowship Ministries and subsidiary programs (InnerChange Freedom Initiative, MatchPoint, Angel Tree (new site | old site), Operation Starting Line and The Wilberforce Forum) offer background, the official newspaper and ways to help online.
Charles Colson’s books include (available on Christianbook.com): How Now Shall We Live?, The Body, Against the Night, Justice that Restores, Science and Evolution, The Christian in Today’s Culture, Why I Believe in Christ, Life Sentence, The Problem of Evil, Loving God, and Born Again.
Amazon.com offers Nixon: A Life by Jonathan Aitken.
Colson’s columns for Christianity Today are available at our site, including:
Merchants of Cool | We should be angry that the media hawks violence and that parents allow it. (June 6, 2001)
Slouching into Sloth | The XFL is but the latest sign of the coarsening of our culture. (Apr. 17, 2001)
Checks and (out of) Balance | Moral truth is in jeopardy when the courts enter the business of making law. (Feb. 27, 2001)
Pander Politics | Poll-driven elections turn voters into self-seeking consumers.(Jan. 3, 2001)
Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (Nov.8, 2000)
MAD No More | In this post-Cold War era, it’s time to rethink our nation’s defensive strategy. (Sept. 27, 2000)
Salad-Bar Christianity | Too many believers pick and choose their own truths. (Aug. 8, 2000)
A Healthy ‘Cult’ | A lively response by one unusual audience shows how God’s power transforms culture. (June 12, 2000)