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April 2, 2008
Column #1,388
Advance for April 5, 2008
Chuck Colson: A Giant of the Faith
by Mike McManus

For the 31st year, Chuck Colson spent Easter with prisoners. He greeted inmates at Darrington Prison near Houston as "Fellow Convicts" and "Fellow Sinners." For those too young to remember, Colson plunged from being a top aide to President Nixon - to the first convicted for Watergate related crimes.

He was a new Christian when he served seven months of a one-three year sentence in 1974. However, on his last day in jail, in response to a challenge from a fellow inmate, Colson promised he would "never forget those behind bars."

He has not.  Colson created Prison Fellowship (PF), a ministry that has mobilized 30,000 volunteers to work with the inmates of 1,843 prisons in America and many more abroad. They lead Bible studies to help inmates accept Jesus as their Savior, and help ex-offenders "get the power of the Resurrection in their lives," as Colson puts it.

In an interview he explained, "Unlike many people in church who sit there like dead weights, these men know that Satan's hold on them has been broken."

Evidence?  While PF volunteers in Darrington Prison had been working intensively for only eight weeks with 62 inmates, they recruited 400 convicts for  the Easter service.

More important, in a recent year, 121,000 inmates attended monthly Prison Fellowship Bible Studies or In-Prison Seminars. Independent studies reveal that prisoners who participate regularly in such events are two-thirds less likely to be re-arrested.

On Easter Colson said he was "really glad that I went to prison" because "I now see how God has used my life."  He recounted that in Jesus's first sermon, he read from the Old Testament (Isaiah 61), that the Lord had anointed him "to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the release the oppressed."

          "Freedom to prisoners? That's an unpopular message," Colson asserted. "They tried to kill him!" 

When Jesus was brought to Pilate, Colson said, "He could have copped a plea. Pilate asked him if he were `King of the Jews.' All he had to say was no, because Pilate wanted to set him free. But Jesus replied, "Yes, it is as you say" (Luke 23:3).

He noted that one of the two prisoners crucified with Jesus said, "You are holy. I am guilty. Remember me."  Colson urged, "Engrave those words in your mind. We look at God and say, `We are sinners. Remember me.' Jesus replied, `This day you will be with me in paradise.'"

          Angel Tree is a successful Prison Fellowship ministry. Volunteers from 10,000 churches buy Christmas presents for the children of inmates, and give them as gifts "from your dad." Last year 450,000 kids received gifts, and a remarkable 15 million have gotten them since Angel Tree began in 1982.

My son, Adam and his wife, Amy, regularly buy presents for two families and deliver them in person. That sort of connection has prompted 150 churches to create a longer term mentoring relationship with 4,800 children.

Another wonderful evolution is that churches send 7,000 children of inmates to a Christian summer camp, which is life-changing.

Colson created a parallel ministry, Justice Fellowship (JF), to fight for prison reform. Some 2.3 million Americans are in prison - one in every 99 adults.  That's the world's highest incarceration rate - more than six times our closest rival, China.

            "Prisons are for people we are afraid of; but we have filled them with people we are mad at, such as people selling drugs or possessing them," says Pat Nolan of JF. "We spend $62 billion on corrections that is failing.. Over 50 percent are back in prison in three years."

However, over five years a coalition ranging from Family Research Council to ACLU and NAACP sold Congress on passing almost unanimously, the Second Chance Act that Bush will sign into law next Wednesday.  It provides:

1. $150 million over two years to help states prepare the 700,000 prisoners released annually from prison for their re-entry.

2.  Drug treatment: up to $90 million can be spent by the states on  drug treatment.  Four out of five convicts were either involved in drugs or were on drugs when they committed the crime. Only 10 percent get any treatment today.

3. $15 million a year for mentoring of ex-offenders by churches and community groups, matching mentors with inmates.

Colson says, "This legislation will help recruit, train and match loving mentors from our local churches to help hold inmates accountable as they take difficult steps back to freedom."

Truly, Chuck Colson is a giant of the faith.

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