by James J. Ackerman
This week we’re coming up on an important milestone in our ministry calendar. Our founder, Charles Colson, passed away on April 21, 2012. Chuck was a mentor who had a great impact on my life, and his absence still brings a sense of sadness.
Yet in essential ways, his legacy remains with us, and that fills me with deep joy. Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s current executive vice president of strategic initiatives and next CEO, has spent significant time going over Chuck’s writings from the early days of our ministry. On this anniversary, I’ve invited Heather to share her reflections on what it means for us to carry that original vision into our next era.
When Chuck passed away, my dad forwarded me the Washington Post article covering his legacy. I vividly remember that my dad had written at the top, “He's someone we'll want to talk to in heaven some day!”
My church had done Prison Fellowship Angel Tree® at Christmas when I was growing up, and I had become familiar with Prison Fellowship® from my work in the justice space. When my dad sent that article, though, I came to fully appreciate the enormity of Chuck’s influence on the Christian community.
When I joined the staff of Prison Fellowship and later went through the Colson Fellows program, I learned a lot more about Chuck, his history, and his writing. In 2020, when I got the opportunity to oversee Prison Fellowship’s efforts to mobilize the Church to restore those in prison, I began requesting a lot of our older documents. There, and in rereading Born Again, I found many components of the vision I later presented to our board of directors.
A VISION FOR TRANSFORMATION
While the scope of the ministry has grown in the last five decades, I was surprised to find how much the main tenets of Chuck’s vision have remained the same. First, Chuck believed God was calling local churches to be the primary vehicle of His grace to those affected by crime and incarceration, and Prison Fellowship would exist to equip and inspire them for that purpose. Second, Chuck firmly believed that God is shaping future leaders of the Church and communities in prison today. He recognized the untapped potential of those now sitting in cells. Though it would take a few years to begin Prison Fellowship’s advocacy work, the ministry of second chances has been in our DNA from the start.
As we look to the future, my vision is much the same as Chuck’s. I want us to encourage local churches on the outside to come close to the Church on the inside, because God is already there, at work in hearts. His Church is alive and well in prison. It’s not just about waiting until men and women get outside to become the leaders of tomorrow; it’s about realizing that our brothers and sisters behind bars, who have hit rock bottom and are, in so many cases, undistracted from the pursuit of Christ, have a lot to teach us in our distracted daily reality. The fire God has lit within them has the potential to spark revival not only within prisons, but outside as well.
Prison Fellowship will continue to play a vital role in equipping the Church. In the decades that we’ve done this work, we’ve developed relationships, written life-changing curricula, and adopted evidence-based practices that help people behind bars thrive and flourish. As we move forward, we can train volunteers who go into prison in best practices. We can share about how to support life-giving relationships while maintaining healthy boundaries with those inside prison and with those returning home. We can also be an important liaison between churches and corrections. We can enhance the many church-based prison ministries that have grown up since Chuck’s day and open doors for new ones to come in.
RESTORING BROKEN LIVES AND SYSTEMS
Nearly 50 years have passed since God gave Chuck a vision to remember the men with whom he served time—and all those like them—by founding Prison Fellowship. The context of corrections has changed since then. The prison population has grown ten-fold, and there is, rightly, a greater emphasis placed on evidence-based programs. Prison Fellowship will keep pace with those changes. While always remaining true to our Christian values and origins, we will continue to measure our programs’ outcomes to make sure they are as impactful as possible as we seek to restore lives.
We also need to continue to connect our work of personal restoration to the broader redemption of systems and the culture, to see the values of the Gospel expressed in the public square. I can only imagine the impact it will have as those in prison who don’t know Christ see the Church reflect a consistent witness through its concern for the real challenges and injustices they and their loved ones face. Many will be convinced through a compelling vision of holistic flourishing based on the Gospel.
OUR INVITATION TO SEE GOD AT WORK
When Chuck founded Prison Fellowship, it was on the surprising premise that there was no better place to see God at work than in prison. Today, to all who haven’t yet had the experience, I would say, “You're missing out. Visiting prison will change your perspective, and it'll change your world." And what God is doing there still has the potential to change our world today.
I didn’t get to meet Chuck, so I wouldn’t speak for him. But I do think that he would be really thrilled with where we are today. And not because of willpower or talent, but really because God has been so gracious and blessed us.
A faithful community of supporters and advocates works alongside Prison Fellowship to seek justice, love mercy, and restore hope as we follow Christ into prison. Because of the prayers, support, and active engagement of so many friends, the vision God gave Chuck has continued to impact our world in amazing ways—and will for years to come.
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