The Legacy of Prisoner 23226
Instead, the Colson legacy is coming into focus through the realm of government, where it all started. When President Bush established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, he pointed to one of Colson's key ministries as an example of how effective faith-based programs can work.
Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976 after being released from the Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama, where he served eight months of a one- to three-year sentence for obstruction of justice. Today PF's reach extends to 600 prisons in 88 countries. And the Washington-based organization has spun off several subsidiary ministries, moving beyond prisons to reach the families of inmates through Angel Tree, to provide a college education to ex-felons through the Colson Scholarship at Wheaton College, and to honor socially active Christian leaders with the annual Wilberforce Award.
In recent years, there has been some retrenchment. Last fall, to cut costs, PF closed 20 offices and eliminated 100 positions. And earlier this year, the ministry absorbed its public-policy arm, Justice Fellowship, and Neighbors Who Care, a program to equip churches to help crime victims. Colson says the cutbacks are due to slower-than-anticipated growth (6 percent as opposed to the 20 percent budgeted).
Even so, Colson and PF continue to make an impact. Over 150,000 inmates attend PF Bible studies; 27,000 prisoners are connected to pen pals; and 50,000 men and women enter prisons as PF volunteers.
Colson's achievements have not come easily. He fell hard after his days with President Richard Nixon. The prison stint alone tested him. But on top of it, he faced personal tragedy. "My father died while I was in prison, and my middle son got arrested for marijuana possession. Those were hard years," he said in an interview.
His conversion in the early 1970s, in the wake of Watergate, elicited derision and rebuke from Republicans, Democrats, the press, and even Christians who thought it was a joke. One pastor stood up at the Founder's Dinner and recalled the time shortly after Colson's conversion when he challenged him: "Colson, I believe in Jesus Christ and I want to know how we can know if you're serious." Colson paused and answered, "I guess the best way to tell you whether I'm serious or not is for you see what I'm doing ten years from now."
Twenty-six years later, Colson has earned the respect of Christians and non-Christians, liberals and conservatives. He has won numerous awards, including the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (1993) and, most recently, the Canterbury Medal for the defense of religious liberty. And with the help of collaborators, he has written dozens of books.
He is as comfortable in the presence of presidents, senators, and the national media as with drug dealers, murderers, and sex offenders. He has bridged seemingly unbridgeable gaps—first between evangelical faith and social activism, and second between activist evangelicals and the cynics who dismiss them as kooks. In The Weekly Standard, the Heritage Foundation's Joe Loconte called Colson "one of the most important social reformers in a generation."