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Ex-Con

The Remarkable Second Career of Chuck Colson

Jun 28, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 39 • By JOE LOCONTE
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Sixty-seven-year-old Chuck Colson looks almost spry as he threads his way through the New Jersey State Prison, a maximum security facility in Trenton, New Jersey. The barbed wire, watchtowers, and 15-foot walls suggest a pretty exclusive club: Only men who've committed crimes earning them 25 years to life are admitted here.

Charles Colson

Charles Colson

But it is Easter morning, and Colson is here to preach. Over 200 inmates, in khakis and T-shirts, turn out to hear him. "Jesus turned the values of the world upside down," he tells them, "because he came not for the victors, but for the losers."

So while other religious celebrities are exchanging pleasantries with well-groomed congregants, Colson is mixing it up with violent felons. He shakes hands, embraces them, prays with them. Several slip notes into his pocket, thanking him for coming. "I'd rather preach in prison than anywhere else," he says later. "You're meeting people at a point of incredible need. You don't have to explain that they're sinners. They know it, and they're hungry."

As the founder of Prison Fellowship, the world's largest prison ministry, operating now in 83 countries, Colson has repeated the scene hundreds of times. Most every warden in America knows who he is. Thousands of inmates have read his book Born Again, where he recounts his jolting journey to Christian faith -- from serving in President Nixon's inner circle to sorting laundry during his stint at a federal prison for Watergate crimes.

Still, the image of Chuck Colson praying with prison thugs doesn't fit the stock portrait of one of America's most powerful Christian conservatives, which Colson clearly is. Soon after U.S. senator Sam Brownback arrived in Washington, he asked for a meeting with Colson, whom he calls a leader of "soul-based conservatism." Presidential hopeful Gary Bauer describes him as "the voice of real wisdom" for Christians in politics. James Dobson, president of the vast radio ministry Focus on the Family, phones him every few days for advice. Former drug czar Bill Bennett and Princeton criminologist John DiIulio -- the toughest of the tough-on-crime crowd -- both say Colson helped change their minds about the purposes of incarceration.

What is surprising is that, in an era so politicized that even cloistered monks might show up on Meet the Press, Colson himself rarely enters national politics. He makes only occasional television appearances, is seldom in Washington, and has never tried to build a political organization.

Over the last 25 years, the man who at one time would have "run over his grandmother" to win an election, has built something else: a vast and effective ministry of mercy to the nation's prisoners. His legions of church-based volunteers, drawn from virtually all denominations, are active in most of the nation's 1,600 state and federal prisons. His programs extend to both the children of inmates and the victims of crime. A state prison in Texas, run like a spiritual retreat center, is getting visits from criminal justice officials nationwide.

Along the way, Colson has established himself as one of the most important social reformers in a generation. His work among inmates earned him the 1993 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, placing him in the ranks of Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Mother Teresa. He's become a voice for "muscular" Christianity, denying liberal notions of human goodness, while insisting that faith produce good works. "He has helped recover a great reform tradition, the tradition of William Wilberforce in England, the abolition movement in America," says Martin E. Marty, one of the nation's foremost historians of religion. "He's showing what can be done to renew culture through these mediating institutions."

While some conservative Christians suggest pulling out of the culture war, the former Marine captain shows no sign of retreat. He dismisses talk of building "alternative institutions" as a one-way ticket to marginalization. His upcoming book (co-authored with Nancy Pearcey) How Now Shall We Live? is a plea for Christians to reengage their world with biblical thinking. "Our culture needs to be reevangelized," he says. "The Christian worldview must be brought to bear in new form and forcefulness on the intellectual and moral framework of contemporary life."
 
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