The passing of the man I consider the most influential evangelical of our generation, Chuck Colson, brought to mind a flood of memories from my days as his chief of staff and in other positions at Prison Fellowship Ministries from 1983-1995, and then as his public relations counsel for some years after that.
The first of those memories was in March 1983 when I arrived in PF’s Great Falls, Virginia, office to begin as director of public relations, leaving a somewhat parallel position at World Vision in California, drawn by Washington, D.C., a fascinating mission, and mostly by the evangelical star, Chuck Colson.
I was 29 and although I’d already been around the world a few times, I learned quickly that high level media outreach in the most powerful city in the world was far different than sun-baked L.A.
Chuck was rarely in the Virginia office because he traveled extensively, and when he wasn’t traveling he tried to live his life with Patty in their Naples, Florida, home. So when he came to the PF office a couple of weeks after my arrival, I was anxious and didn’t know what to expect from the “Nixon hatchet man.” He was gracious and welcoming, of course; but little did I know then that my long career at PF would include years of traveling with Chuck, managing his office, and as he put it, serving as his “hatchet man.”
It didn’t start that way, however, and today I’m thinking of just the first striking memory. During that first week in the office with Chuck, I received a call from Ted Koppel’s producer at ABC Nightline. They wanted Chuck on the program for the 10th anniversary of Watergate. Chuck hated these Watergate anniversaries and retrospectives; although the media turned its attention to figures such as Colson during these times, he didn’t want to talk about Watergate; he wanted to talk about prison ministry, worldview, and topics like the “moral imagination” of followers of Christ.
But I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After years of trying to sell media on coverage of the massive international development work of World Vision, with only occasional success, in my first few weeks at PF, I had Nightline begging for an appearance by my boss. It’s why I’d moved to Washington.
However, Chuck was playing hard to get. Finally, the producer asked if she could talk to Colson by phone, and he relented. After a long conversation, he reluctantly agreed to appear on the Watergate-themed program. The producer, Chuck told me, had made a final pitch: “Chuck, you know that Ted and I are Jewish, but if you’ll come on the program, we’ll both convert.”
Chuck immediately agreed. And he did the program.
The next morning, I was summoned to Chuck’s office and he handed me–with a wry smile–two paperback copies of his bestselling book Born Again. Both were inscribed: “I wanted you to read more about your new faith.”
He told me to drive immediately into the city and deliver the books to ABC, which I did—and of course all knew the conversion pitch was tongue-in-cheek from the beginning, and that was the end of the story.
But today it represents for me the perfect Colson story: He was selective in his use of his time; always conscious of his faith and witness; always ready with the quip; and there was always a good chance a practical joke was near at hand.
Heaven is a richer place today, and here on earth we sit by a large pair of Bostonians with little chance they will ever be filled.
He is a hero of the faith, a great American, and an unforgettable friend and mentor. I already miss him.