The Legacy of Prisoner 23226
On a crisp winter evening in early February, just outside Washington, D.C., Prison Fellowship celebrated its 25th year of ministry. The Gala Celebration felt like an Academy Awards ceremony for evangelicals. A Who's Who of Christian celebrities lent their enthusiastic support to Charles Colson, PF's founder and driving force, as well as to the ministry itself. Senate Chaplain Lloyd Oglivie opened with prayer. Kay Cole James, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, gave the introductions. Apologist Ravi Zacharias and Republican activists as diverse as Gary Bauer and Jack Kemp stood from their tables and offered praise for the good work of their host. President George W. Bush sent a letter. Pastor and radio speaker Alistair Begg captivated the audience with an exposition of Joshua 4, made more transporting by his Scottish lilt.
The celebration, in fact, had been going on all week in Washington. Men in pinstriped suits and women in blazers thronged the Washington Hilton for a three-day retreat replete with speakers, devotionals, and lots of caffeine. The evening before the Gala Celebration, at the Founder's Dinner, a more intimate PF gathering, another contingent of Who's Who personalities gathered to celebrate PF. Among many others, Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson stood and hailed the ministry of Charles Colson: "This is an exciting time in Washington. We're leaving tomorrow, going to a retreat with the President to plan the agenda for serving people through faith-based institutions." Prison Fellowship, said Hutchinson, is an excellent model of how biblical principles can be applied to "the world of injustice."
Meanwhile, 192 inmates from Cell Block E at the Newton Correctional Center gathered for "community." Just off of Highway 14 in Newton, Iowa, past the Wrestling Museum, east of the Moose Lodge, and behind a fence with three layers of coiled razor wire, Willie was giving his testimony. He read from Genesis 3:9, but it took him awhile because the words were hard: After Adam sinned, the Lord God called to him, "Where are you?"
Willie is half Native American and half white. He grew up with both groups tormenting him. Had the Lord God asked Willie that question growing up, he would have said, I don't know where I am. "I could relate to Adam," Willie said in his testimonial. "I never wanted to be around people. I thought I smelled like pee. The reason I thought that is because people said, 'You smell like pee.'"
Shame says there's something wrong with you, and Willie grew up feeling that shame. He went to prison for theft and kidnapping and ended up in Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) at Newton, one of the three state facilities in the United States that has adopted this faith-based ministry. The IFI program resembles a monastery, but with convicts instead of monks. Of the three, only Newton is a medium-security facility. That means there are hard-core criminals there who have done things like murder and rape. It wasn't until Willie went to prison, and later to the IFI program, that he could finally answer the question the Lord asked Adam.
Charles Colson once confronted the same question. His answer has helped enlarge the evangelical vision for ministry.
Colson has brought men like Willie and the world of evangelical celebrities into a single sphere. He has stood where Willie stands, in a world behind razor wire. And he has stood where Asa Hutchinson, Lloyd Oglivie, Ravi Zacharias, and Gary Bauer are standing, at the center of public life ensconced in a world of faith. He has meshed these incongruent parts and has rallied the evangelical church to embrace prison ministry as a means of social reform. It could be said that Colson's legacy—high-energy, visionary, devout, and driven—is finally coming into focus, but not in his critique of culture, which he has expressed in his books, BreakPoint radio commentaries, and columns for Christianity Today.