If numbers mean anything, Charles W. Colson might qualify as one of today's evangelical superstars. Prison Fellowship, the organization he began in 1976, now has a budget of $18 million and has branches in 48 states and 40 other countries.
The ministry has a paid staff of 310 and has recruited nearly 40,000 volunteers who work in 632 state and federal institutions.
But there is little to suggest stardom in Colson's dealings with staff and ministry supporters. While other evangelical ministries have suffered from an excess of glitz and glitter, Colson seems to deliberately move toward the opposite extreme.
On a recent Friday morning, he walked into a hotel meeting room after a Prison Fellowship Bible study began. He sat quietly in the back, sipping a cup of coffee and occasionally greeting colleagues who came over to shake hands.
No one even made mention of Colson's arrival during the lively discussion of prayer. During a break, there were quiet exchanges with volunteers who had come to Washington for a week-long gathering. And when the session, held in a room of the Washington Hilton, was over, Colson matter-of-factly announced plans for visiting Lorton Correctional Complex, the District's prison in Northern Virginia. Little room exists for glamor when one's congregation is behind bars.
This low-key approach to his work says much about Colson, the 59-year-old writer, speaker and lay minister who has become famous in both Christian and secular circles for his work in prison reform and the way his life turned around after he left the Nixon White House in 1973. He served six months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.
After Colson and the others in the group got into a van to go to Lorton, Colson turned to the Rev. Bob Russell, pastor of the South East Christian Church in Louisville, and said, "I want you to tell me about what the church is."
During the week Colson had asked several of his clergy friends to describe their conceptions of the biblical role of the church. "I've been trying to figure out for at least 10 years why everybody goes to church in America and it's not a Christian country," Colson said. "At the root of it, if the church were really the church, we couldn't be in the dilemma we're in."
The role of the church will be the topic of Colson's next book. He said he thinks one problem the church and its pastors face today is that "we don't want to tell people that this is the way to live, because we don't want to hurt their feelings." Russell commented that "we can't worry about being controversial. The truth has to come first."
At Lorton, Colson and his party were met by prison officials and Al Lawrence, the District's area director of prison fellowship. They first went to a ward for handicapped prisoners, where Colson shook hands with several of the inmates and chatted with them about their lives and beliefs.
After a lunch in that building, the Colson party went to a medium-security building on the grounds. A service was to be held at the prison chapel that day, but the inmates in that building would not be able to attend because they were confined to their cells, some for their own protection.
As at the facility for the handicapped, Colson chatted with the prisoners and asked how long they had been there and when they would get out. But he never asked for which crime a prisoner had been convicted.
Colson asked each inmate, "Do you know the Lord?" Most answered affirmatively and smiled. Some showed him their Bibles and told him how their faith was sustaining them.
One young man replied to the question by saying, "I would like to." Colson told him that he needed to make a personal commitment to faith in Jesus Christ to become a Christian. He offered to lead the inmate through the "sinner's prayer," but cautioned, "Don't pray it unless you really mean it. It won't do anything for you unless you really mean the words."
After the two prayed and the man asked Jesus to live in his heart, Colson promised to send him literature and to ask the prison chaplain to follow up. As with the other prisoners he met, Colson stressed the importance of daily Bible study, prayer and fellowship with other Christians, especially after the young man gets out of prison.
"The world will suck you down if you're not careful," Colson warned.
At the chapel service, Colson was the last person to speak. He stood on the side as inmates and visiting singers praised God and some inmates shared their own testimonies of faith.
When asked to speak, Colson stressed that he and the other Prison Fellowship workers do what they do because of their faith in Christ.
Pointing to a life-size depiction of Jesus's crucifixion, Colson said he and the others visit prisons "not because we're nice people and do good things. It's because we follow the one who's on that cross."
He recounted how, in the late 1970s, he had visited Norman Carlson, then the director of federal prisons, and tried to persuade him to allow Prison Fellowship to take some inmates out of prisons for Bible study and discipline sessions. He said that Carlson had been skeptical until he was told about one inmate who had prayed for him by name.
Colson told the Lorton inmates that the incident demonstrated that "God hears the prayers of people like you, and you're not powerless. This whole ministry started because a brother had faith and started praying in the back of that chapel in prison."