In celebration of Prison Fellowship’s 40 years of ministering to prisoners and their families, we will be taking a look back at the early days of the ministry and remembering the people and the stories that have helped to make Prison Fellowship the nation’s largest prison outreach. In the following reflection, Ethics and Public Policy Center Vice President Michael Cromartie remembers Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, whom he served as research assistant in the 1970s.
My very first job when I graduated from Covenant College was to be Chuck’s research assistant and travel companion. He had just been released from prison and was starting Prison Fellowship. Despite seven figure job offers after his release, Chuck had vowed he would never forget those he left behind in prison. The admonition in Hebrews 13:3 to “remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them” is something Chuck took very seriously. I traveled with Chuck as we visited state and federal prisons throughout the country. Observing Chuck speak in prison chapels and visiting with inmates on death row was an unforgettable and remarkable experience that I will never forget. Any elitism that Chuck might have learned from his patrician upbringing or his years in the Nixon White House were completely gone. He cared for each and every inmate, about the conditions of their lives, and about their plight. His concern was real, genuine, and palpable. And they knew it. They were often big, burly, tattooed men of every race and background. Chuck embraced and hugged them all. I saw him do this often—away from the lights of TV cameras and the media—and it was always moving and memorable.
Because of Chuck’s good mind and insatiable curiosity, in our travels I also had the privilege of introducing Chuck to leading Christian scholars and thinkers. People like Richard John Neuhaus, Carl Henry, Richard Mouw, R.C. Sproul, Richard Lovelace, Os Guinness, and various other theologians and church historians. Chuck loved engaging with them about Christian theology, philosophy, and history. He was an eager student, he knew how much he had to learn, and he was eager to “catch up” quickly. He had a teachable spirit and was a “quick study.”
When Chuck died many of the obits in the secular media highlighted his past as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” and “dirty-tricks specialist.” Too little was said about how he spent the most important years of his life, post-Watergate, caring for the poor, the vulnerable, and for “the least of these.”
Michael Cromartie is Vice President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and was Chuck Colson’s first research assistant, beginning in 1976.