Charles Colson, former aide to President Richard Nixon and founder of Prison Fellowship, passed away Saturday at the age of 80. His death came as a result of complications of a brain hemorrhage.
Many news stories this weekend emphasized Colson’s role in the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s, in which he led Nixon’s efforts to discredit Daniel Ellsberg following the release of the Pentagon Papers on U.S. decision making during the Vietnam war. As a result of those activities, he pled guilty to obstruction of justice and served seven months in prison. Shortly before going to prison, Colson had a religious conversion to Christianity. And that led to the more important part of his life.
His experience had given him a special heart for prisoners and their families. On his release, he founded Prison Fellowship, and spent the next 35 years working for prison reform. Among other things, Colson and Prison Fellowship worked on issues of overcrowding in prisons, alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenses, programs to reduce recidivism, victim-offender reconciliation programs, and the Christmas-time “Angel Tree” program that delvers gifts to the children of prisoners. Justice Fellowship, a department of PF, works on changing public policy to reform the criminal justice system, and a sister organization, Prison Fellowship International now works in more than 100 countries. There are thousands and thousands of prisoners and ex-prisoners whose lives have been made better through those ministries.
Michael Gerson wrote in the Washington Post:
Chuck was a powerful preacher, an influential cultural critic and a pioneer of the dialogue between evangelicals and Catholics. But he was always drawn back to the scene of his disgrace and his deliverance. The ministry he founded, Prison Fellowship, is the largest compassionate outreach to prisoners and their families in the world, with activities in more than 100 countries. It also plays a morally clarifying role. It is easier to serve the sympathetic. Prisoners call the bluff of our belief in human dignity. If everyone matters and counts, then criminals do as well. Chuck led a movement of volunteers attempting to love some of their least lovable neighbors. This inversion of social priorities — putting the last first — is the best evidence of a faith that is more than crutch, opiate or self-help program. It is the hallmark of authentic religion — and it is the vast, humane contribution of Chuck Colson.
Jim Wallis said of his experience with Colson:
Chuck Colson and I met for the first time after he came out of prison. We found early agreement and a natural kinship on how Christians should minister to prisoners as Jesus asked us to in Matthew Chapter 25. I was impressed with how Chuck had allowed his own experience of prison and of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ to shape his new vocation which led to Prison Fellowship now the largest prison ministry in the world. It is for that prophetic ministry he will be most remembered.
Sojourners has joined with Prison Fellowship on a number of issues relating to prison reform over the years, and following the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords last year, Jim Wallis and Colson jointly authored an op-ed on conviction and civility. His family and Prison Fellowship colleagues are in our prayers.
Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners. Follow Duane on Twitter @dshankDC.