Thursday, May 17, 2012
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Chuck Colson (Courtesy of Prison Fellowship)When the 'hotline' rang, Charles Colson, who died 21 April 2012 aged 80, knew it came from the Oval Office. He was being summoned by the President – Richard Nixon. That was in 1971 as the White House focused on the following year when Nixon would face re-election against George McGovern, the Democratic Senator from South Dakota. Nixon won the election but was forced to resign in 1974 rather than risk impeachment as result of the Watergate scandals.

Colson, a brilliant lawyer from Massachusetts, was one of Nixon's key aides and known as his 'hatchet man'. He once said he would run over his own grandmother to get Nixon re-elected. But then came Watergate which snared Nixon, Colson and others. It got its name from the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters in the posh Watergate building, by operatives linked to Nixon. But it came to signify all the so-called 'dirty tricks' of the Nixon White House.

It sent Colson to federal prison for seven months – an experience that led him as a new 'born again' Christian to found the world's largest prison fellowship and the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Thanks to his conversion, Colson had chosen to plead guilty to the Watergate-related charges against him. He was quoted in an ABC News obituary as saying in 1993, 'I shudder to think of what I'd have been if I had not gone to prison. Lying on the rotten floor of a cell, you know it's not prosperity or pleasure that's important, but the maturing of the soul.'

Chuck Colson (Courtesy of Prison Fellowship)After his release from federal prison, I came to know him. When we met I shared my own experience as one changed, through Moral Re-Armament (MRA), now known as Initiatives of Change, from a southern journalist defending racial segregation to one writing to heal rather than hurt, to unite rather than divide and to bring people together rather than drive them apart. In the months prior to Colson's death I had nicks of conscience that I should try to contact him. I had no idea he was that near death. I was stung when I learned he died before I could reach him. It was a lesson for me.

Learning of his death, I got his book, Life Sentence, off my bookshelf and found the long-forgotten beautiful note he'd written to me on the first page: 'With fond memories of our interview four years ago – God bless you in your great work.' Beneath his signature was Gal. 6:9. I quickly checked the verse: 'Let us never tire of doing good, for if we do not slacken our efforts we shall in due time reap our harvest.' The book is one of a number Colson wrote, the first being, 'Born Again'.

While on The Cincinnati Enquirer, I returned from lunch one day to find a phone message from him. I rang him, and he asked me to join him at his motel downtown. The Major League baseball season was about to open in the city, and I figured he had come for that. But he quickly disabused me of that notion. He said he'd given up on baseball since the players now had such huge salaries (meaning higher ticket prices and doubtless shutting out many fans). Instead we talked about his prison ministry. He gave me touching stories of his prison visits.

Colson's early post-prison life was not easy. He and his wife, Patty, were worried about their son, Chris, an 18-year-old college freshman in Columbia, South Carolina. He in a way had also been touched by Watergate. He'd obviously had to endure the shame of seeing his father go to prison. And he was briefly jailed himself.

In Life Sentence, Colson writes that Chris 'had been shown a way to make some quick, easy money. Foolishly, he had purchased a few ounces of marijuana, then was arrested in a campus raid along with 40 others. Because his name was Colson, his case made front-page news. A lawyer friend of ours bailed Chris out of the "tank" in the city jail, but Chris' problem was the main reason, along with the release of other Watergate prisoners, that prompted Judge Gesell to free me early. For Chris faced criminal charges.' But with his family's support, Chris turned over a new leaf and was able eventually to clear his record.

Former US Senator Harold Hughes from Iowa was with Colson when they met with Norman Carlson, then head of the US Bureau of Prisons and laid before him the idea of a Prison Fellowship. It was believed doubtful he would go for it. So they were stunned when the meeting ended and Carlson said, 'Go ahead with your plans, Mr Colson, Senator Hughes. I'll issue the order. Get together with my staff and work out the details.' The rest is history with prison fellowships across the United States and abroad.