A version of the following article originally aired as a BreakPoint commentary on August 18, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission.
Charles W. “Chuck” Colson was packing his bags to go home, having served his time for a Watergate-related offense. A new Christian when he entered prison, his faith had been tested behind bars. But he was sustained by the unwavering support of his wife, Patty, and that of his Christian friends on the outside. Also, he’d focused his energy while in prison ministering to fellow inmates.
As Chuck was saying his goodbyes, a large prisoner named Archie confronted him. “Hey, Colson,” he snarled, “You’ll be out of here soon. What are you going to do for us?”
Chuck said, “I’ll help in some way. I’ll never forget you guys or this stinking place.”
“Bull!” Archie yelled back, “I’ve seen big shots like you come and go. They all say the same things while they’re inside. Then they get out and forget us fast. There ain’t nobody cares about us. Nobody!”
Those words were at least part of the reason that Chuck, in August of 1976, filed papers to incorporate a brand new non-profit ministry: Prison Fellowship.
Chuck not only kept his promise to remember those in prison, he mobilized thousands of Christian volunteers and churches to do the same. For 40 years now, the most forgotten-members of our society have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, through Bible studies, seminars, and mentoring.
But Chuck wanted to do more than help those within the walls. He wanted to break the cycle of crime and incarceration. And so, Prison Fellowship has also mobilized churches and volunteers to minister to the families of prisoners through Angel Tree, which delivers Christmas gifts to the children of prisoners in the name of their incarcerated parents.
Chuck also led Prison Fellowship to advocate for biblically based justice reform, and today they even work with wardens and prison staff to create safer more rehabilitative prisons to help those who leave prison make a crime-free return to their communities.
In his 36 years of public ministry, Chuck advised presidents, received honorary degrees, won the nation’s highest civilian award. But as he said, the greatest joy in his life was what he called “living monuments” to God’s grace: prisoners transformed by the love of Jesus Christ.
In fact, to mark its 40th anniversary, Prison Fellowship has announced the Charles Colson Hope Awards to honor some of those living monuments. One of the initial recipients is the late Mary Kay Beard, an accomplished bank robber who managed to make the FBI’s Most Wanted List. While in prison, she saw the despair on the faces of the women at Christmastime who couldn’t give their children Christmas gifts. The women would scrounge toothpaste, combs, anything to give to their children.
When Mary Kay left prison and became Prison Fellowship’s director in Alabama, she came up with the idea of Angel Tree. Collecting prisoners’ gift wishes for their children, she placed them on little paper angels hung on a Christmas tree in a Birmingham mall. Church volunteers would purchase and deliver the gifts. That simple idea is still changing lives more than three decades later.
Another Hope Award recipient is Danny Croce, who gave his life to Christ after being handed a Bible behind bars. He earned a Charles Colson scholarship for ex-prisoners to Wheaton College. Danny was ordained and became a chaplain at the very jail where he served time. He remains in prison ministry to this day.
Jesus has used Chuck Colson’s legacy at Prison Fellowship to save and transform legions upon legions of men and women like Mary Kay and Danny.
I invite you and your church to join in Prison Fellowship’s next 40 years of ministry, through direct in-prison ministry, Angel Tree, praying, donating, however God leads. Just go to PrisonFellowship.org to find out more.