I was born after Watergate. That is how I justify to myself the fact I had not realized that the Charles Colson I read about in those political history books that I like so much was the same Chuck Colson who founded Prison Fellowship. My father-in-law, a professor of religious studies and my favorite consultant on the religious doctrines of redemption, made the connection for me while we were sitting at his kitchen table in Scranton. I needed a minute to absorb the length of Colson’s journey — from being one of the “Watergate Seven” to founding an influential evangelical organization that ministers to prisoners and former prisoners. While I could not fault someone for being skeptical that a transformation of Chuck’s kind was possible, as a Christian I believe a lot of things that provoke skepticism in others. Chuck’s story made sense to me as a modern-day conversion of Saul.
I was probably one of the very few people who knew Chuck best as a colleague advocating for mercy and redemption, and not for his role as special counsel to President Nixon, or as a key political figure jailed for the Watergate scandal. But when I found out more about his life before Prison Fellowship, it made me respect him and his ministry even more.
My connection to Chuck is through Prison Fellowship’s partnership with the Brennan Center. Prison Fellowship is a member of the Brennan Center’s Community of Faith Initiative, which seeks to restore voting rights to the four million Americans living and working in our communities who cannot vote because of a criminal conviction in their past.
During the course of the Brennan Center’s partnership with Prison Fellowship, my admiration for Chuck Colson and his organization had good cause to grow. I cheered when, earlier this year, Chuck penned an op-ed in the Washington Post shortly after the candidates at a Republican primary debate sparred over the issue of criminal disenfranchisement to remind readers that “demonizing an entire class of Americans for electoral gain is wrong.” I was also charmed by Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program, an initiative that makes sure that hundreds of thousands of children whose parents are incarcerated receive Christmas presents and I am proud to say my church participated in this program.
More recently, the Brennan Center and Prison Fellowship have been working together to prepare for a briefing on the Democracy Restoration Act. This federal legislation, introduced by Senator Ben Cardin and Representative John Conyers, would restore voting rights in federal elections to people with criminal convictions after they have been released from prison and return to their home communities. The bill would also ensure that people on probation never lose their right to vote in federal elections, and would notify people leaving prison, sentenced to probation, or convicted of misdemeanors of their voting rights.
Everyone at the Brennan Center who expressed condolences about Chuck to members of Prison Fellowship heard basically the same response:“Chuck would want us to do our job and complete our mission.”
While there are many markers of a great man or woman, surely they must include possessing a humility that precludes overemphasizing the importance of one person, a dedication that inspires others to continue the work, and a compassion for the “least” in our society. Even his staunchest critics must concede Chuck had these virtues, and many others, in spades. He will be missed.