"Chuck Colson has become a Christian – really!"
"Yeah, and I'm ready to buy the Brooklyn Bridge," I replied.
I had worked as a junior aide in the Nixon White House. I knew Colson. It simply wasn't possible. God is omnipotent, but that omnipotent? The mutual friend who had just phoned me from Washington with news of Colson's conversion insisted it was true. The weeks and months ahead proved it.
I had left the White House in 1973. Months after departing Washington, I sensed a renewal of a call to preach I had first felt as a teen. I had rejected that initial call, gone into journalism, and eventually the political world and White House. When God's call was renewed in 1973, my wife and I agreed that this time I should follow through. A few months later I became pastor of a small church in Spanish Fort, Alabama, across the bay from Mobile.
The little church building sat in a grove of Alabama pine. I now spent my days in a small office, usually alone. I often mused over the contrasts between where I was and where I had been just a year before.
Then on a sleepy afternoon in 1974, as I worked in the church office, my Washington friend called again. "Colson will be sentenced to Maxwell Air Force Base federal prison camp," he said. I had followed Chuck's Watergate ordeal, and knew he had been found guilty of crimes associated with the scandal. "You're close to Maxwell," my friend continued. "Can you go see Colson when he gets there?"
Maxwell was three hours from Spanish Fort. Of course I would go. "How will I get in to see him?" I asked. "They might not want another ex-Nixon aide visiting Chuck."
"Don't worry about it," the caller said. "Just phone the warden at Maxwell, and he'll arrange for you to visit."
Three days after Chuck's arrival at Maxwell, I was pulling up to the front entrance. Inside, a receptionist summoned the warden. After a brief chat, he gave an order for Colson to be brought to the lobby area.
I was stunned when I saw Chuck. I had known him in the White House garbed in expensive lawyer-type, elegantly tailored pinstriped suits. Now Chuck was dressed in prison garb, the pants and shirtsleeves too-short. They smelled of the prison laundry, where Chuck had been put to work folding clothes.
When we were together in meetings in the White House Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office, Chuck, a senior staffer, had been at the big table in the middle of the room. I was a low-grade aide who sat around the periphery. The unofficial protocol dictated that those not at the table were to be silent, take good notes, and not bother the big people.
But on that first encounter at Maxwell, the protocols were gone. As a guard escorted Chuck into the lobby, he rushed to me. He grabbed me with a rib-compressing hug.
At the White House I had no problem believing the myth that Chuck would "walk over his grandmother to re-elect Nixon" in 1972. His demeanor was always stern. I had become friends with Cal Thomas, then of NBC, but was afraid of someone like Colson knowing I occasionally had lunch with Cal, a big media reporter. Through the Washington prayer movement, I had developed love and respect for Iowa Senator Harold Hughes, a Democrat and strong Christian. I wondered what would happen to me if Haldeman, or Erlichman, or Colson knew I was trafficking in Christian fellowship with the "enemy."
And now the tough guy who, purportedly, might leave his grandma in the dust for Nixon was hugging me and weeping. Both Cal Thomas and Harold Hughes would later become close Colson friends.
To our amazement, the prison warden said he had reserved a conference room where Chuck and I could talk privately. Later we would discover the room was apparently bugged in the hopes we would discuss Watergate tidbits that could be used in the ongoing congressional investigations and trials.
Mostly what they heard was Chuck telling me how he had come to faith in Christ, and the prayers we said. The first time I heard Chuck pray any doubts about the genuineness of his conversion were blown away. He spoke to Jesus like a man in fellowship with Him.
One day, in that same room, I did ask Chuck about Watergate. "How on earth did that happen?"
Chuck pondered a moment. "We just didn't take time to reflect… all we ever did was act… but we didn't reflect."
But in that prison Chuck began to reflect a great deal. After his release, he invited me to join a group of his friends in Washington. For the first time, he laid out the full vision for what became Prison Fellowship. Each of us was assigned federal prisons to visit, to introduce the vision to wardens, and seek their support.
Out of Chuck's reflections came a ministry that now spans the world. And those reflections also produced literature that will endure as classics.
Chuck is gone, but not his impact. Not the fruit of his reflections.