Posts tagged with: prison fellowship ministries

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

Warden Burl Cain (photo by Erin Oswalt)

In the next issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. In September of 2012, I made a trip down to Angola, La. to tour the prison and interview the warden. I authored a commentary in October that touched on some of my experiences visiting the inmates and prison staff.

Cain is the longest serving warden in the history of the penitentiary, a position he has held since 1995. The prison is more commonly known as “Angola.” Cain is the most well known prison official in the country. He is the subject of the book Cain’s Redemption and has been featured in documentaries and numerous television programs.

Cain is well known for his work as reformer of prison culture and his promotion of moral rehabilitation. He serves on the board of Prison Fellowship, a ministry founded by Chuck Colson. Below is an excerpt from the forthcoming interview:
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Angola inmates in the prison auto shop. (Photo by Erin Oswalt for Acton Institute)

In mid-September I ventured down to South Louisiana to visit and tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola Prison. My commentary this week “Angola Prison, Moral Rehabilitation, and the Things Ahead” is based on that visit. Burl Cain, Angola’s warden, will be featured in an upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty. I will be providing more information on Angola and my time down there, but think of this commentary as an introduction of sorts to what I witnessed.

A portion of the upcoming interview with Cain will reflect upon Chuck Colson. That good things are happening at places like Angola are in a large part directly related to Colson and his legacy and work on behalf of Prison Fellowship. I’ll have a lot more to say about Angola, but when you study in-depth the history and mystique of this prison, for it to change like it has, you know God is present.

Mark Tooley has a superb article at FrontPage Magazine addressing Frank Schaeffer’s rant against Chuck Colson. Tooley points out that voices across the political spectrum were gracious enough to give praise to the former Nixon aide, who after his evangelical conversion founded Prison Fellowship. Schaeffer is the notable and sorry exception.

Schaeffer bitterly whined on his blog about Colson, “Wherever Nixon is today he must be welcoming a true son of far right dirty politics to eternity with a ‘Job well done,” Schaeffer said. He went on:

Few men have done more to trade (betray?) the gospel of love for the gospel of empowering corporate America and greed through the misuse of the so-called culture war issues to get lower middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests in the name of ‘family values.’

Tooley’s response is perfect. For more on Frank Schaeffer and the kind of character he is, be sure to read John Couretas’s post “Frank Schaeffer’s Fundamentalist Fakery.”

Speaking of the time he spent in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal, Chuck Colson said: “I couldn’t have made it without Christ in my life, I know that. But I couldn’t have made it if there wasn’t in the back of my mind a belief that God had a purpose for this.”

You’ll hear those words in “Like I Am,” a segment from the Acton Institute’s Our Great Exchange: Discover the Fullness of What it Means to Be God’s Steward small group curriculum scheduled to be released this summer. This September 2011 interview was the last Colson granted before his death on April 21, according to Prison Fellowship Ministries. The “Like I Am” segment was produced by David Michael Phelps in association with Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Gorilla Pictures for Acton Media.

We have also published “Chuck Colson and the Acton Institute,” a web-based resource page where you’ll be able to access “Like I Am” and a lot more of Colson’s Acton-related writings, interviews and media extending back almost 20 years. Of special interest is his concluding keynote address “How Now Shall We Live?” at the October 1998 Acton Institute and Calvin College conference, A Century of Christian Social Teaching: The Legacy of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper.

In his PowerBlog tribute to Colson, Rev. Robert A. Sirico expressed his admiration “for a man whose witness to the reality of Jesus Christ and his redemptive power was an inspiration for me to be a better priest and a better Christian. The authenticity of Chuck Colson’s conversion and the integrity of his life were evident to any honest observer.”

As Prison Fellowship and The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview put it, in a joint statement, “Chuck’s life is a testimony to God’s power to forgive, redeem, and transform.”

Memory Eternal.

One common thought many people have about conversion is that a  person who has undergone the experience is wholly different before and after. Surely this is true in the order of grace, in that a man goes from darkness into light, from sin into being made cleansed. Yet, the personality remains the same even if it becomes reordered and redirected, sometimes astonishingly so.  Such was the case with Peter, and with Paul, with Augustine and more contemporaneously, with my good friend Chuck Colson who slipped into eternity Saturday, April 21, at 3:12 p.m.

Chuck Colson

I first came to know about Chuck Colson in the same way millions of others did: in the role he played as one of the “Watergate Seven” and described as President Nixon’s  ”hard man,” willing to get done what needed to be done.  Shortly after the events surrounding the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, I heard of his conversion to the Christian faith and read his now classic journey in “Born Again.” Never did I think I would come to meet this man, much less to eventually count him as a colleague and good personal friend.

After Kris Mauren and I founded the Acton Institute 1990, I invited Chuck to come to Grand Rapids. He addressed our second annual dinner (the  first dinner speaker was William F. Buckley, Jr. who died in 2008).  I became instant friends with Chuck and with his lovely wife Patty. In taking the podium that evening in downtown Grand Rapids, Chuck expressed his amazement in words that I would hear him use many times over the years. He said that when he received my invitation he was intrigued by the idea of a Catholic priest starting up an institution in the midst of the Protestant Reformed “Vatican” of West Michigan. Some years later I had the great pleasure of inviting Chuck and Patty to visit the real Vatican and speak at a Church-sponsored conference there and meet Pope John Paul II.

Over the years Chuck and I shared many platforms and press conferences, vacations and dinners, and worked closely in causes near and dear to each of our hearts. One of the most memorable was to help with the launch of the Manhattan Declaration in defense of Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.

Others will write extensive biographies of Chuck Colson delineating his numerous accomplishments, and deservedly so. I simply would like to express my admiration for a man whose witness to the reality of Jesus Christ and his redemptive power was an inspiration for me to be a better priest and a better Christian. The authenticity of Chuck Colson’s conversion and the integrity of his life were evident to any honest observer. One fact stands out, to my mind, namely that notwithstanding the profundity of Chuck’s spiritual transformation, the core of who he was remained and was purified and redirected. Chuck became God’s “hard man,” seeing to it that things got done that needed doing. Prison Fellowship is evidence of that, as is Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the Manhattan Declaration – and the numerous other activities Chuck initiated, inspired or so generously supported over the years.

At one event Chuck began his remarks with some words he borrowed from the author of Amazing Grace, John Newton: “… I am a great sinner and Christ is a great savior.” And now, may that loving Savior receive into his eternal embrace the soul of that sinner he so cleansed and redeemed with so great a love. The world is a better place, and I am a better person, for the life of Chuck Colson.

For more information, visit Acton Institute’s resource page on Chuck Colson.

Friends and supporters of the Acton Institute will want to know that our dear friend and collaborator Chuck Colson, Prison Fellowship Ministries founder, is recovering well from a surgery that removed a blood clot from his brain Saturday morning. I recently spoke with Rev. Jim Liske, CEO of Prison Fellowship, and he asks for our prayers.

Please join me and the staff of the Acton Institute in offering earnest prayer for Chuck’s well-being and full recovery and also that the comfort of the Holy Spirit would surround his wife Patty and the entire ministry of Prison Fellowship in this time of difficulty. That this should occur during the very week most of the Christian world commemorates our Lord’s own passion for our redemption is not without meaning, and is an assurance that God remains, as always, in control.

It is with a sense of great pride and joy that I join with thousands around the nation in congratulating Chuck Colson on his reception of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal presented to Chuck at the Oval Office today by President Bush.

It is important to remember that the ministry that Chuck founded some 35 years ago is noteworthy not only because it has assisted in countless men and women to transform their lives through the power of a right relationship with Christ, or that this ministry is staff by a veritable army of volunteers who visit prisons and in other ways help to mend broken families with God’s love.

What is most noteworthy is that all of this came from one man’s surrender to the call of Christ to turn from his sins and accept the Gospel of redemption. Through that encounter with grace, Chuck Colson’s life has been on ongoing testimony to grace which has inspired all of us to reflect more deeply on the invitation to forgiveness and restoration offered by the One who will shortly come to us as a babe in Bethlehem.

I salute my friend Chuck Colson on this and thank him for placing his life at the disposal of heaven.

Here’s some of what Chuck had to say on the Prison Fellowship site:

“Whatever good I may have done is because God saw fit to reach into the depths of Watergate and convert a broken sinner,” said Colson. “Everything that has been accomplished these past 35 years has been by God’s grace and sovereign design.”

In responding to the award, Colson directed the praise and accolades back toward the ministry of Prison Fellowship, the ministry he founded in 1976.

“I do not treat this medal as mine,” he said. “It is, like in the military, a unit citation. The staff of Prison Fellowship, the thousands of volunteers and the hundreds of thousands of donors have made this possible. So while I am overwhelmed in gratitude to God, I am grateful to all those associated in this movement called Prison Fellowship.”

Read the White House statement on Chuck and the other honorees.

The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.

In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.

Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.

In this week’s Acton commentary, I reflect on the past year’s developments for InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a ministry of Prison Fellowship. In June a federal judge in Iowa ruled against IFI’s work at Iowa’s Newton facility. In his ruling (PDF here), the judge wrote that the responsibility for combating recidivism is “traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state.” This means that since reducing recidivism is a “state function,” anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a “state actor.”

Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

I contrast the judge’s perspective with that of IFI and other advocates of the importance of civil society, using the theories of utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to highlight their differences. Bentham too thought that reform was the task of the government. He argued for the construction of prisons along the model of his “panopticon,” literally meaning “all seeing,” where the extreme use of constant surveillance and individual sequestration would break down the anti-social behaviors of convicted criminals. It was a rather unintuitive program, to say the least, but an influential one nonetheless.

Bentham thought so little of religious practice in fact, that he thought communal worship would destroy his isolationist agenda. In other types of prison facilities prisoner solitude would necessarily be disturbed when prisoners were given “the benefits of attendance on Divine service.”

Under Bentham’s plan, however, prisoners “might receive these benefits, in every circumstance, without stirring from their cells. No thronging nor jostling in the way between the scene of work and the scene destined to devotion; no quarellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.” The communal aspects of worship could thus be entirely dispensed with while placating the necessities of religious adherence.

All of these events effecting IFI’s work occurred in a year that saw a sharp increase in violent crime. For more on the broader picture of the year’s legal developments for faith-based work, see this year’s “The State of the Law 2006: Legal Developments Affecting Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Organizations” from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy. The report includes a section devoted to IFI’s case.

And as a recent article in the NYT magazine observes, there is a growing political coalition on the topic of prison reform. Chris Suellentrop writes with regard to a specific piece of legislation that almost passed in the last congressional session, but may be brought up again in the future, “If the Second Chance Act fails to pass, it will not be because the two parties cannot agree on the importance of rehabilitation programs in prisons. But it may be because they disagree on the role religious organizations should play in rehabilitation.” (HT: Mirror of Justice)

Read the entire commentary here.