A Conversation with Emily Colson: Father's Legacy, Son's Autism, and the Power of Redemption

Chuck Colson, the convicted Watergate felon turned Evangelical Christian leader and Prison Fellowship founder, passed away on April 21 at the age of 80 after complications resulting from a brain hemorrhage.

Perhaps the most personal and moving reflection on Colson's life at his memorial service in May came from his daughter, Emily Colson. With passion and resolve, Emily, 53, talked about her dad's conversion to Christianity and challenged others to follow his example and carry on his legacy.

Committed to carrying on her father's legacy, Emily spoke candidly to us about the lessons she has learned along the way. "Above all, my dad taught me the power of Jesus Christ to change a life," she said. "It makes me want to know Jesus more – looking back at his life now, I can see that power at work in His life – I knew him before he became a Christian, and we all knew that his change was the real deal. He was in ministry for 36 years, and truly demonstrated what it means to be a changed person."

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Mr. Colson's example and advice has proven valuable for Emily, who has faced tremendous personal challenges over the years. Her son Max is 21 years old, and she has been a single mom since he was just 18 months old.

"There is probably a moment every single day when I say to myself, 'I don't know if I can do this.' But there are also moments every day when I say, 'Boy, I would never trade this for anything else,'" she shared. Her experiences motivated her to write a book with her father, titled Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free, where she shares her personal battles and heartbreak as a single mother whose only child has autism. "Our book is not a fairy tale with a magical ending," she said. "It's a real life story of grace and second chances and fresh starts in spite of life's hardest problems."

I spoke to Emily Colson about her father, her son and families with autistic children in a recent interview.

What have you found most rewarding about being part of the Colson family? Most challenging? 

Colson: The most rewarding aspect is hearing about all of the great ministry initiatives taking place at the ministries God established through my dad: Prison Fellowship, which serves and equips the Church to fulfill the Great Commission among prisoners and their families, as well as the Colson Center, which helps equip Christians to live out a Christian worldview. My dad's vision was that these two ministries would bring God's peace and truth to a broken world in desperate need. Witnessing my dad's passion to serve has been an inspiration, and the ministry updates are always so exciting!

The most challenging aspect is meeting individuals who cannot get over Watergate. I usually come away feeling sorry for them, because they do not see the beauty that God brought from it and they don't understand my dad's Christian conversion and ministry.
Oddly enough, Boston, my home, was the only place where my dad could walk down the street and not be recognized!

What is one thing you think people would be surprised to learn about your dad? Maybe something people got wrong about him?

Colson: My dad had a wonderful sense of humor – in his desk, there was a manila envelope filled with stories that made him laugh. He loved the absurdity of life and was tickled by the odd things of everyday living.

Also, my dad loved questions. He never shied away from people who questioned him or disagreed with his position, and never became defensive. He was a wonderful listener and welcomed different perspectives. Opposition simply inspired him to dig deeper into seeking the truth.

Can you share insights on Mr. Colson's role as a grandfather to your son Max?

Colson: My dad was such a champion – a defender – in the way he always stood up for my son Max. He talked about how precious Max is and the need to embrace people with autism, and he wanted people to recognize that all individuals are made in the image of God and dearly loved by Him. What my dad did for Max is a picture of what God does for us – God is our advocate; He is our biggest voice.

My dad made me stand taller as a parent; his encouragement gave me confidence in my role as Max's mom, and that has allowed me to encourage others… it has a "spilling over" effect. Family members of autistic children often feel out-of-place and isolated, so when someone opens life's door a little wider, it changes everything.

My dad and Max had a very precious relationship, one that grew over the years. Max simply adored his grandfather, and treasured time with him. In the end, Max taught my dad about selfless love. While it wasn't an easy lesson to learn, I know my dad was very grateful.

What encouragement can you offer parents of autistic children or single parents based on your own experience? 

Colson: Max has taught me so much about myself, about other people, about selfless love. The struggles of autism teach me what it means to "die to self" as the Bible encourages. Not that I have arrived there by any means, but it is important to learn how to set aside our own interests for the good of another. This is a journey I never would have signed up for, but it's been filled with lessons I would never want to trade. Max is a gift. These children are a gift.

I have seen God shining through my son's life – the way Max brings out joy and beauty in others is incredible. As parents we have to go forward, even when things don't make sense, and we must watch for the beauty and for God's hand in our lives. We can only do this with God's help. And fortunately, God is bigger than autism. This knowledge enables me to face the future with confidence, no matter what challenges lie ahead.

What advice can you give families facing challenging dynamics similar to yours?

Colson: My dad had this great expression that always made me smile: "Knees down, chin up!" I want to urge people in my position – please, do not give up – we must finish the race being obedient to what God has called us to do. God has so many surprises in store for us if we will just be faithful and persevere. Finally, as I always say to Max, "We aren't shooting for perfect; we are aiming for joy!"

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