I never met Charles Colson. But the ministry he started played a pivotal role in my life. I don’t know that I would ever have gotten involved in prison ministry some 20 years ago were it not for Prison Fellowship.
At that time I was a grad student. I had gradually formed a desire to be involved in what I term “Matthew 25 ministries”—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. For whatever reason, it was visiting the imprisoned that drew my attention.
I didn’t know anyone who was involved in prison ministry, and I didn’t really know where to start. I had quite a bit on my plate as a doctoral student. I needed to take my comprehensive exams to be admitted to candidacy, and then I needed to write my dissertation. I told myself that I needed to take care of those hurdles first, then I’d get involved in prison ministry.
But then I thought about how I hoped I’d be hired as an assistant professor at a “publish or perish” research university, and get married, and have children. In my mind I pictured myself at the end of my life, still rationalizing what I had always meant to do, but never did. The very next day I wrote a letter to the national Prison Fellowship headquarters asking for contact information for the regional PF ministry.
I am unsure what I would have done without Prison Fellowship. PF had a national presence. Most prison ministries are local; I wouldn’t have known even how to find a local ministry, and I wouldn’t know whether any would want or even accept my participation. (I have rarely met in-prison volunteers who weren’t Baptists of one sort or another, members of independent fundamentalist churches, or Pentecostals. My Missouri-Synod Lutheranism is usually suspect in these circles.)
The national PF headquarters connected me with the regional ministry, which ran a training program and helped me with the logistics of getting into the state’s system of prison volunteers.
I first went in as a facilitator for one of PF’s weekend in-prison seminars. The prison was fifty or sixty miles from where I lived, so I got up early on Saturday morning to get to the prison in plenty of time before we were to go in. (Prisons aren’t really set up for late-arriving volunteers to dribble in throughout the morning.)
The gothic style of the prison looked all the more foreboding in the overcast early morning gray. Years later I initially wondered whether the prison was where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. (It wasn’t—but it could have been.)
After going through security, the prison staff herded the small group of volunteers through a narrow hall, and then through a large, metal door into an even smaller hallway, with another metal door closed at the other end of the hall. The first door shut behind me with a “clang” sufficient for Hollywood.
The leader took us through the materials, and we broke into small groups to talk, read, and pray. We repeated on Sunday. Nothing momentous happened that weekend, but it was a good weekend. I got to meet a couple of men whom I didn’t know before. And that really was (and is) my goal.
In Matthew 25 Jesus says “I was in prison and you came to me.” He doesn’t say that he was in prison and you preached to me, or that you came to make me a better person, or that you came and taught me “principles for living.” Now maybe some of that other stuff happens—I hope it does—but that other stuff isn’t the reason for prison ministry.
The way I see it is that there are Christian brothers on the inside of prisons, and I go to visit them as I go to visit my friends on the outside. I don’t visit my friends on the outside to preach to them, or to try to make them better people, or to teach them anything. To be sure, all of that can happen to them through me, and to me through them. But that other stuff is incidental to visiting them as a friend, whether on the outside or on the inside. In Christian fellowship we change each other as we meet Christ in one another—me as much as the men I visit on the inside.
Meeting Jesus inside prison walls is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received in my life. After my start with Prison Fellowship I worked with other prison ministries, and ultimately organized my own (modest) local ministry—a step that would have been utterly inconceivable to me twenty years ago.
Perhaps I would still have stumbled into all of this even without Prison Fellowship. But I don’t know that I would have. Without PF it would have been easy for me to have excused and rationalized not going into prison year after year—and all the while maintaining the best of intentions to go in “some day.” So I’m more than happy to give credit where credit is due. For the privilege I have been given to go to Christ’s brothers inside prison walls, I am eternally thankful to my Lord, and to his servant, Charles Colson.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Stephanos Bibas, Colson’s Enduring Legacy
Thomas G. Guarino, A Catholic Appreciation of Chuck Colson
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.