My dentist appointment was as early as I could make it so that I could get my cleaning and beat the traffic to work. As my dentist completed his review of my mouth, the phone rang. It wasn’t the usual ring. It was that special ring that sounded like a European police car in a James Bond movie. Chuck Colson calling his daily radio show’s managing editor.
“Jim, I was on the phone yesterday with the White House and they’re going to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. We have to talk about this on BreakPoint tomorrow!”
"Chuck,” I replied, “I’m at the dentist.”
“That’s fine. Let me tell you what we need to say.”
The only strange part of the story — beside the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court — was that it happened while I was at the dentist. “Jim, have you seen today’s New York Times? It’s outrageous! Tomorrow on BreakPoint, I want to say…” was a regular part of working for Chuck.
He was interested in everything from politics to prisons, entertainment to euthanasia, stem cells to sexuality, literature to liposuction. Chuck believed, in the words of theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, words he quoted often, “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’” This belief that Christ is Lord over everything was the prime motivation for all that Chuck accomplished from prison ministry to worldview.
In fact, it can be argued that Prison Fellowship as it stands today is the institutional embodiment of Chuck’s spiritual and intellectual journey as he perceived more clearly the implications of the Gospel.
In Born Again, Chuck’s book about his coming to Christ in the aftermath of Watergate, he relates a moment of crisis that was part of his conversion. Driving home after visiting with his friend Tom Phillips in August 1973, Chuck pulled his car to the side of the road and wept.
And then I prayed my first real prayer. “God I don’t know how to find you, but I’m going to try! I’m not much the way I am now but somehow I want to give myself over to you.” I didn’t know how to say more so I repeated over and over the words “Take me.”
Then the gracious, loving, providential hand of God — the hand we typically expect will keep us out of uncomfortable or unhappy circumstances — took Chuck and locked him behind bars. Mocked in the press, abandoned by his old political allies, the money and power gone, Chuck traded his law practice and beloved Brooks Brothers suits for a job in the prison laundry and a used prison uniform.
The advice he heard before entering Maxwell Federal Prison Camp was to do his time quietly and privately. Keep to yourself. No practicing law. No giving advice. No getting involved in the lives of other inmates. But he couldn’t do it. Soon he was listening to legal and personal problems and helping his fellow inmates with letters to their judges, parole boards, and families. It broke his heart to see his fellow inmates languishing without Christ and without any chance to move on with their lives.
According to the Prison Fellowship website, as Chuck sat working on a letter for an inmate, a prisoner angrily yelled at him, “What are you going to do for guys like us when you get out?” Chuck promised he would never forget the men at Maxwell. “Bull!” the prisoner responded. “Big shots like you get out and forget little guys like us.”
Perhaps God used the at-times pugnacious, “I’ll-show-you” part of Chuck’s personality. Perhaps God gave him eyes to see through the prisoner’s anger to the inner hurt. But whatever God used, Chuck never forgot and Prison Fellowship (PF) was born out of a desire to see prisoners come to faith in Christ and live as disciples during their incarceration and after their release.
The effectiveness of the ministry is beyond doubt given the number of ex-offenders I met during my tenure at BreakPoint whose lives were turned around through the repentance and faith PF’s ministry helped bring about in their lives.
As the prison ministry became established and flourished, a new thought began to grow in Chuck’s mind: the criminal justice system was failing many. The victims of crimes, the communities impacted by crime, and criminals as individuals were given scant consideration. The Bible, Chuck came to see, taught a better way, a way of restorative justice instead of simple punitive justice.
In response to his growing convictions, Chuck established Justice Fellowship, the restorative justice advocacy arm of Prison Fellowship that promotes a system of justice that seeks to repair crime’s injuries to victims, communities, and offenders. The Gospel for Chuck had become much bigger than conversion and personal discipleship and his organization came to reflected that new thinking.
One of the issues Justice Fellowship dealt with was overcrowding and the sheer number of inmates in the United States. How, Chuck wondered, could the wealthiest nation in the world be so plagued with immoral and criminal behavior? The answer, he discovered, was false worldviews — even in the church — and BreakPoint radio and all its related initiatives were born to propose the rightness of a Christian worldview.
Colson biographer Jonathan Aitkin quotes a letter Chuck sent to PF donors in the early days of BreakPoint.
I believe that for too long we Christians have looked at our faith as simply a devotional relationship or as church-going, in short just one part of our life. But the fact is our God is Lord of all, and as His people we must articulate His truth in every area of life.
With age, Chuck lived out those words in increasingly expansive ways. At a time of life when many if not most people’s visions for their lives get smaller, Chuck’s vision became enormous. Consider a few of his projects from the past few years.
- The Centurions Program was Chuck’s succession plan. Inspiring and training a hundred men and women every year to “articulate His truth in every area of life,” he hoped that they would go out to inspire and train thousands more. And they’ve done it.
- The Colson Center is designed to resource thoughtful Christians in articulating truth.
- The Manhattan Declaration is inspiring a movement to defend life, marriage, and religious liberty.
- “Doing the Right Thing” looks at the need for a renewal of ethics and morality in American life.
And the next project he had in mind was perhaps the biggest of all: a movement of Christians to reform education — public, charter, private and Christian — from Kindergarten through university. This is a vast undertaking for someone half his age, but, then again, he never thought that way.
Chuck’s huge vision, insatiable desire to know, efforts to “take every thought captive to Christ,” and amazing ability to get things done were a reflection of what may have been his deepest core belief.
Chuck believed he was to be a good steward of the age in which he lived for as long as God let him live. That’s not his language. As a good Marine (and he was always a good Marine), Chuck talked about doing his duty, standing at his post, and taking the next objective.
Thank you, friend, for showing the way. We’ll take it from here — or, at least, I pray we will.
More of Jim Tonkowich's writing can be found at www.jimtonkowich.com.
Publication date: April 23, 2012