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Remembering Chuck Colson: From felon to fellowship

It was sad for me to learn of the passing of my good friend and mentor Chuck Colson, but we can learn much from how he lived his life.

Although Chuck was recovering satisfactorily from surgery two weeks ago, at 80 years of age, few people walk away from brain surgery.   A few days before his death, his family prepared for the inevitable.  My prayers and condolences go out to Patty and the rest of the closely-knit Colson family.

I first met Charles W. “Chuck” Colson more than three years ago at a fundraiser for Prison Fellowship at the Ronald Reagan Library.   I was invited by a friend to attend what I thought would be a typical do-good event led by the guy that went to prison over the Watergate break-in and cover-up.  Chuck founded Prison Fellowship after he served time in Federal prison.  Prison Fellowship is now the largest Christian prison outreach organization in the world.    

As a Christian believer I thought I was obligated to go to that fundraiser, and so I went – but with no real expectations as to what I might find.

What I learned that evening changed, and continues to change, my life in ways that I could never have predicted.   Redemption is the word that hit me right in the heart that night.  It was God’s goodness and redemptive power manifesting itself in the lives of the ex-offenders sharing their testimonies onstage, as well as the volunteers of Prison Fellowship so faithfully serving without fanfare.  Lives were being changed that night, I know…because mine was one of them.

In the middle of it all was a humble, authentic, capable, and articulate leader named Chuck Colson.  There was no one in the room who was more delighted to experience and support the work that was taking place in the lives of the ex-offenders and their families.   Chuck made a lasting impression on me.  We talked and made plans to stay in touch.  And we did. 

Several weeks after the event, Chuck and I began to correspond regularly about our life, our politics and our beliefs.   But mostly we talked about the importance of the prisoner in God’s eyes, the work that the ministry was doing, the social circumstances that give rise to a culture of crime, the fallout on innocent families and communities and the revolving door of incarceration that has become our criminal justice system. 

I am also a businessman.  I am concerned with making things work.  I have long sensed that our criminal justice system does not work effectively, but as I have learned more since first meeting Chuck, I have realized not only that its cost in taxpayer dollars is high, but even more disturbing is the social cost of its failure.   The criminal justice system is broken, and our prison system drains taxpayer dollars, and it does not rehabilitate.  The recidivism rate – that is, the inmates who are re-incarcerated — is upwards of 70-percent in California.

For decades, Chuck Colson has been leading the way.   And his death is a signal that the rest of us must continue with the work.

It is extraordinary that God’s redemptive nature and goodness would be made observable in the surprising example of Chuck Colson.   Indeed, when he initially expressed his faith as a born-again Christian, many skeptics thought it was a ploy to lessen his prison sentence.   But today Chuck’s long-time detractors from the Watergate era realize that Watergate is perhaps but a footnote attached to a life of good works.

Whatever viewpoint one ‘s worldview may be, it is without question that Chuck’s efforts for “the least of these” will have lasting, if not eternal, effect on the lives of the men and women behind bars, and on their families.

Although Chuck is now gone, his obedience to God’s vision leaves behind a network of people actively engaged in ministry to the prisoner, the ex-offender and the families of those presently incarcerated.  The ministry is Prison Fellowship, and I urge all of you reading – regardless of your faith – to become involved. Prison Fellowship is   literally touching the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Last year I was the one who gave the keynote address at the same Reagan Library event I had previously attended as a guest.  I am actively engaged in bringing faith-based solutions into the prison and becoming more involved in attempting to refine the judicial system.   I have personally visited, and spoke, in prisons and will continue to do so.  And I have financially supported innovative faith-based approaches that reduce racism and violence in prisons and, ultimately, in certain high-crime communities.

I now know that when God is busy redeeming someone in the room, just you being there is enough to change you forever.


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