In the late seventies, after Chuck had started the ministry of PF, I was asked to come to a in-prison seminar. Evidently this was the second one PF was attempting and things were moving fast in the relationship with the Federal Prison system. Their first in-prison seminar at Oxford, Wisconsin was a success, and they realized that they would need to build a stable of speakers and teachers who could go under their auspices into the prisons. This forced Chuck to trust the few preachers he knew to help him select some others they felt might be effective in prison. I am not sure why they asked me, except that some may have thought prison was were I belonged, but I was happy and excited to be asked.
I remember flying up to Sandstone, MN and spending a short week in that prison. The reaction of the inmates was awesome, and I found that often to be the case. The PF seminars allowed a whole group of volunteers to come in, as well as those of us who supplied most of the teaching. The men and women who were incarcerated celebrated that week, and the fellowship and love between those of us from the outside, and those on the inside, was real and intense. It was something of an adrenaline rush emotionally, and leaving those folks became hard to do. Leaving prison was easy, and a relief, but leaving them behind was hard.
Several times in the few years I was able to work for PF I had the privilege of being with Chuck. Michael Cromartie would whisper in his ear as he approached me to remind him of who I was, and he always made me feel as if were akin to a preacher rock star. I remember visiting death row with Chuck in Georgia, and the guards took us into the death chamber. As we stood around the chair, Chuck decided to discuss the death penalty with me. This was no mere intellectual discussion. The men we had just left were a few meters away, and this was where they were headed. He wanted to know what I thought because he really wanted to get it right, he wanted to stand where the Bible and Jesus told him to stand, he wanted to stand in the right place for the right thing. Neither of us thought it was easy to figure it out.
In a strange turn of events, after I had left the U.S. to be a missionary in Kenya for a few years, I was made the temporary head of Prison Fellowship International, Africa. This allowed me to work for PF in various African countries, go to the International Conference in Northern Ireland, and get caught up in African church politics, which didn't turn out too well for me.
I relished the fellowship of some of the men I taught with in PF, George Soltau, Steve Smallman, Carl Ellis, and then a growing group of ex-cons, or graduates of in-prison seminars, who came on staff with PF. These were some of the coolest people, with the wildest stories, who had experienced grace in amazing ways.
"A bruised weed I will not break, and a smoldering wick I will not snuff out," the theme verse from Isaiah for PF was absolutely what the ministry was about. This is God's tender hand to those who have failed, who are not just broken but sometimes disgusting. If you have never been disgusted with yourself I don't know if you can get down on the floor and wash Jesus feet with your hair. He who has been forgiven much, loves much. This is what I experienced in those times when we worshiped inside prison walls, at Angola, at Marion, at Stillwater, Menard. In places like Zambia, Botswana, and all over Kenya. To meet volunteers as varied as nuns and priests and Mennonites, and Calvinists all loving on inmates, pointing them to Jesus, hoping for them to find in Him a Savior and deliverer. It is humbling to meet a man who has spent all his adult life in prison and be told it is the best thing that ever happened to him, because it was there he met Christ.
I had to make a choice between my other commitments; my local church, the Army Chaplaincy, and my family, and I couldn't continue to keep up the pace. But I learned one thing, and that was the Charles Colson was for real, and if ever there has been an American/Christian hero in my lifetime it was him. Even if he had to have someone remind him of who I was he had the ability to make people feel important, and that he cared about them, even as he cared about big ideas too.
He may have had more friends in prison than he did on the outside, but wherever his friends were and are, we were blessed to know him.