Press-Republican

April 30, 2012

Why Colson spent Easter in prisons

Terry Mattingly, On Religion
Press-Republican

---- — It wasn't the typical Bible text for an Easter sermon, but the preacher knew what this congregation needed to hear.

Never forget, he said, what Jesus proclaimed in his first sermon: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed."

This isn't the sermon that many believers hear on Easter, but it's the one that prisoners need to hear, said Chuck Colson back in 1992, facing a small chapel packed with men at a federal prison near Denver. I first wrote about this service for Scripps Howard in a column days after the service.

This was also the sermon the former Watergate conspirator kept preaching to flocks behind bars during the decades between his own stay in Alabama's Maxwell Prison in 1974 and his death on April 21 at the age of 80. Anyone who wants to understand what changed Colson from President Richard Nixon's trusted "hatchet man" into one of the age's best-known Christian apologists needs to understand this sermon.

You see, Colson told prisoners across America and around the world, it was radical to proclaim "freedom for the prisoners" during the Roman Empire. And today? Anyone who preaches this message "in one of those nice churches downtown" will get the same icy response that Jesus did.

"The rich and powerful people," he said, with a dramatic pause, will "run you out of town."

Never forget, shouted the former Marine, that Jesus died as a prisoner. Was there anyone in the room who had ever been strip-searched, beaten and mocked? Did anyone know what it felt like to have the legal authorities use muscle in an attempt to wrench a guilty plea -- to a lesser offense, of course -- out of a desperate prisoner?

"Has anything like that," he asked, with a knowing smile, "ever happened to any of you?"

"Amen," said the prisoners. Some laughed, while others stared at the floor. Many waved clenched fists in the air to urge the preacher to keep going.

Colson kept going. Was there anyone in the chapel who had been betrayed by a friend? Perhaps a friend even turned around and provided evidence to the state? Was there anyone present who had been convicted of vague crimes?

In the end, of course, Jesus was executed -- between two thieves.

But that wasn't the end of the story, on that particular Easter morning in Colorado, or in any of the other Easter services the former White House powerbroker chose to spend behind bars after he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976.

"If you want to know what Easter is about, then there's no better place to find out than in the tombs of our society -- which is what our prisons are," he said. "On this, of all days, prison is the one place that Jesus would be. Believe me."

After Colson's death, most of the obituaries -- especially those produced in elite East Coast newsrooms -- focused on his Watergate role and, perhaps, on his pivotal work creating a new and powerful coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants.

Working with a team of talented researchers and writers, Colson also produced shelves of influential books and commentaries that addressed almost every controversial issue in American public life and politics.

Sadly, this all-politics D.C. Beltway perspective may draw attention away from Colson's trailblazing work in prisons, which ultimately created a network of more than 14,000 volunteers in more than 1,300 prisons nationwide and around the world. He also founded the Justice Fellowship organization, which has worked for the reformation of America's sprawling, bloated, crowded and, all too often, destructive prison system.

"That's where Chuck developed his social conscience. It was in prison, in all of those face-to-face encounters with those forgotten souls," said former Colson aide Michael Cromartie, in an interview this week. He currently serves as vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, but once served as Colson's first research assistant after the creation of Prison Fellowship.

"Chuck was never happier than when he took off his jacket and loosened his tie in a dingy prison chapel somewhere, facing rows of men in metal folding chairs who had big, thick Bibles in their hands. ... He embraced as many as he could. He tried to learn their names and hear their stories. He tried to make a difference in there."

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

Distributed by Universal Uclick for UFS.