In 1974, the Watergate scandal sent White House special counsel Chuck Colson to federal prison. A new Christian, he faced challenges and adversities that tested his faith and self-respect. Paroled in 1975, Chuck could easily have closed the book on that dark time and moved on with his life as inconspicuously as possible. But Chuck knew that God wanted him to hold onto his ties to prison and continue to identify with his fellow prisoners despite the skepticism and scorn of Chuck’s critics. So in 1976, with little more than a vision and the support of a few friends, Chuck began Prison Fellowship (PF) to proclaim to inmates the love and the power of Jesus Christ.
One of the not so often told stories of the emergence of Prison Fellowship was that involving Norman Carlson. Mr. Carlson was the Director of the Bureau of Prisons. He was in attendance at a seminar at a Federal Prison in McNeil Island, in the state of Washington. At the closing moments of the workshop, an inmate asked for prayer for Mr. Carlson. That request, as much as anything, sealed the deal for Prison Fellowship to have access to Federal Prisons in America.
At first, through the support of the Federal Bureau of Prisons director, Prison Fellowship began transporting dozens of Christian prisoners out of prison for intensive training through Washington Discipleship Seminars (WDS), held in the nation’s capital. Those prisoners then returned to prison to evangelize and teach their “colleagues.” But in 1977, Prison Fellowship ran into a hurdle when a warden from Wisconsin refused to furlough one of his prisoners to attend the WDS. Instead, he challenged: “If your program is so good, why don’t you bring it inside the prison?” Chuck and his team were up for the task, and three weeks later, 93 inmates attended PF’s first-ever in-prison seminar in Oxford, Wisconsin.
That seminar paved the way for hundreds of thousands of prisoners nationwide to receive biblically-based teaching through in-prison seminars and Bible studies over the past 56 years. That first in-prison event also reinforced the importance of training local volunteers to enter prisons and build relationships with inmates.
Today PF’s ministry relies on a volunteer network of more than 20,000.
Chaplain Niles Behrens selected me and Ken Jackson from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to attend the first Washington Discipleship Seminar in Washington D. C. The institution, however, decided to cancel my nomination because of my past record and instead sent another man in my place.
The in-prison seminars were initially called Adventuring with God seminars. The U. S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners already had numerous volunteers from the community of Springfield, Mo.
I had been released from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in 1978, nine months when the Adventuring with God seminar reached Chicago. Reba Place Fellowship hosted the Prison fellowship staff that came to administer the colloquium, including Ken Jackson, who, after his release, became a Regional Director for the Midwestern states. Several fellowship members volunteered to go to prison for the seminar, myself included. It was highly improbable that I would be allowed back into prison because the institution in Springfield didn’t let me go to Washington, D. C.
Chaplain Russell Stroup of Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, the newly appointed Chaplain for the MCC, suggested I submit my name. But it wasn’t the prison administration that first showed restraint regarding my going back in. My small group at Reba Place Fellowship wanted to discern whether it was an opportune time for me to go back in. Of course, I disagreed strenuously. I learned something about myself that I must confess still exists today. I need to handle authority bodies better. Individually, I loved each and every one of those in the group. They were and still are heroes to me who paved the way for my continued freedom. But collectively, they took on the appearance of the parole board and denied me time and again. Emotionally it was a rough time, with constant prayer being sought by them and me. It carried with it quite a bit of stress and frustration. Ultimately, they agreed that it would be okay for me to go in. I remember the weight of anxiety that was lifted when they okayed my involvement, walking down the beach with Judy (nee Hullings) Kalina, and telling her that as heavy an experience that was to go through, “that’s only one issue I’ve got to deal with” pointing to the lake, “it is only a drop in the water and I have a whole lake full of things to deal with.”
The prison allowed me to go in and participate in the seminar. At its conclusion Chaplain Stroup told the volunteers that we needed to form a nucleus to come back and visit the prisoners. I was most certain that they let it slide to let me participate in the seminar. There would be no chance they would allow me in as a regular volunteer. Nor was there any chance that Mr. Arbogast wouldn’t know who I was, and it would be he to sign off on the volunteers. Chaplain Stroup again encouraged me to put my name down. God will confound the wise. I was approved.
It is one thing not knowing, quite another not to know what you don’t know. It was marvelous for me to return to the prison as a volunteer. Why not? Who knew better what the men were going through than me? My small group, for one. They understood that I would be under pressure and stress, and frustration. They may not have said, “You can’t handle it.” But they knew. Still, I was surprised that not 9 months previously, the Assoc. Warden didn’t want me released to the halfway house, and here he was, signing my volunteer permit. And what literally did that mean? I could take the L down to the MCC, present my pass to the guard at the reception desk, and walk in on my own. Absolutely mind-blowing. I visited the men on the floors, especially the ones I had been on. They acknowledged that many men get out and say they will do something but never do. I came back as a free man, still on parole, which made it even more unbelievable, but I had come back.
I continued for many months or years, didn’t you? The truth was, it was too soon. When we don’t know that ‘we don’t know,’ we need other people to tell us, and hopefully, we’ll trust them and believe them. Otherwise, life will teach us as it taught me.
I will always hold to the saying, “You cannot train a man for freedom while in captivity.” In prison, I was confident in my identity and where I was; outside, I needed clarification because the game was different. The rules you live by in prison don’t hold up on the streets. You might be among the most respected men in the joint, but once outside, you become a meaningless pebble amongst many other meaningless pebbles.
I cannot tell you how I came to have so many correspondents on my writing list, but I had many. Not all were women, but plenty of them was. I refused to allow any relationships beyond platonic to develop. In most cases, I would only see some of them. But I enjoyed the conversations. They could be another prisoner’s sister, a friend of a friend, or many ways to encounter them. One young lady was Joanie Burgener from the Apple Seed ministries in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joanie and I had written well past the two years that normally spelled out how long a correspondent would last with me and fade. While writing Joanie, I learned that Honeytree was coming to Springfield to perform at Evangel College. I don’t remember; did I know Joanie was Honeytree’s secretary before I wrote Honeytree and asked her to come to the Federal Medical Center or after? Ken Jackson, whom I previously mentioned, is from Fort Wayne and had a daughter who attended Adam’s Apple coffee house there. Between Ken’s daughter and Joanie and my persistence, Honeytree agreed to come to the Medical Center. She had gone to Pendleton Correctional Prison in Indiana and, in her words, had a not-so-pleasant experience there and wasn’t too thrilled at the thought of returning to another prison. But she had a few days during her visit to Springfield, Mo., and felt led by God to accept the invitation. We had a blessed time, with the Holy Spirit evident throughout her mini-concert.
I wouldn’t be done with Fort Wayne, Indiana, just yet.
One thought on “Prison Fellowship”
Wow! Good writing, I enjoyed thoroughly!