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James Watkins

Note: This tribute is a bit belated due to contractual issues. I had to wait until the following appeared in an online magazine before posting it here.

In 1975, impeached President Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Charles Colson, was released from Maxwell Prison after serving seven months of a one-to-three-year sentence for obstruction of justice in what became known as the “Watergate affair.”

Just before his release, fellow inmate, Archie, confronted him. “Hey, Colson! What’re you going to do for us when you get out of here?”

For nearly forty years, the former special counsel to the president, answered the question with Prison Fellowship. The national, nonprofit organization’s mission is “to seek the transformation of prisoners and their reconciliation to God, family, and community through the power and truth of Jesus Christ.”

Colson was originally described by Slate writer, Dave Plotz, as “Richard Nixon’s hard man, the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.” According to Plotz, Colson sought to hire Teamsters thugs to beat up anti-war demonstrators and proposed firebombing the Brookings Institution and stealing politically damaging documents while firefighters put out the fire. His most famous screed claimed he would “walk over his own grandmother” to secure Nixon’s re-election.

In his best-selling memoir, Born Again, Colson explained the dramatic change. As he was facing arrest, a close friend gave him a copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. After reading it, Colson became an evangelical Christian. And while in Maxwell prison, he recounted sensing first-hand the hopelessness and despair that permeated the facility and feeling the call of the Holy Spirit to make a difference in the lives of these prisoners and their families.

While Colson’s conversion was widely ridiculed as a “jail house conversion” to reduce his impending sentence, a Boston Globe editorial admitted, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.” And that was his message for nearly four decades.

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