Trulear: Prison Ministry after Chuck Colson

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear

As a pastor, a scholar, and an ex-prisoner, Harold Dean Trulear has earned the right to talk about prison ministry from the outside in and from the inside out.  I last saw Dr. Trulear in Washington DC when we were both part of a convening of faith leaders interested in ending mass incarceration.  Pat Nolan of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship also attended that gathering.  Like Trulear, Nolan has seen both sides of the prison wall and we had some good, frank conversation about the future of reform.  In this honest appraisal written for the Center for Public Justice, Dr. Trulear evaluates the mixed legacy of Nolan’s old boss, Charles Colson, and points the way to a viable relationship between Prison Fellowship and the Black Church.

Prison Ministry in the Post-Colson Era

By Harold Dean Trulear

The recent passing of Chuck Colson brings opportunity to reflect on the important legacy of his ministry and the ways in which Prison Fellowship participated in a resurgence of interest in prison ministry. Christian faith significantly influenced early forms of incarceration in this country, from the philosophy of repentance institutionalized in the penitentiary movement to the role of chaplains as singular service providers for inmates prior to the era of “corrections” and “rehabilitation.” Unfortunately, in recent decades prisons have been more punitive and controlling than redemptive.

Chuck Colson, for many (but not all) Americans, humanized the inmate. He created an organization that pressed for a recovery of transformation, rehabilitation and real “corrections,” initially through evangelism and later through initiatives that pressed for reform in prison conditions, sentencing issues and criminal justice policy. For many Americans, Colson’s work provided opportunity for a renewed commitment to a population whose treatment Jesus included in matters of judgment in Matthew 25.

In spite of the work of Colson and others, many people are still trapped in what T. Richard Snyder called “the spirit of punishment,” in which revenge—often euphemized as “seeking justice”—trumps grace and forgiveness, which are central to our justification before God through the atonement. Many Christians continue to reflect the broader cultural consensus of revenge, which is a sad by-product of our failure to develop a critique of modern and post-modern culture beyond issues such as sexuality, authority and family.

African American churches constitute another group for whom Colson’s leadership must be qualified. The historic, disproportionate confinement of people of color connected many Black congregations to jails and prisons prior to the emergence of Colson’s Prison Fellowship—both through personal networks and through a sense of serving the marginalized. And while Colson led the charge for federal criminal justice policy reform for white Evangelicals and political conservatives, African American Congressman Danny Davis (D.-Ill.) and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference provided the leadership for African Americans.

Chuck Colson, as a national figure, and Prison Fellowship, as a national organization, have exercised faithful stewardship of their resources in the implementation of their national ministry and its local incarnations. Yet, the relationship between Prison Fellowship and local congregations—particularly Black churches—has been uneasy. In 2008, a partnership developed between Prison Fellowship and the historically Black denomination, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, signaling what Colson himself called “a perfect storm” around criminal justice issues. Yet, tensions emerged surrounding the need for Black congregations to access resources to expand their prison ministry presence in a manner that reflected a true partnership, rather than a paternalistic engagement placing the national organization at the forefront and the local congregation in the background. Prison Fellowship staff were charged with the task of providing training and certification for Black congregations to minister to their own community members. This sense of paternalism—and the resentment it created—was exacerbated by the ability of Prison Fellowship to attract significantly more financial resources than local organizations and congregations.

So whither the future? First, in addition to continued evangelism, prison ministry must continue to expand into matters of discipleship and policy. The presence of the church in the jail cannot simply be a matter of “soul-winning.” Secondly, prison ministry must view its work as a fundamental province of local congregations. With 1.6 million adults in state and federal prisons, and up to 7 million more rotating annually through the county jail system, it is difficult to imagine a congregation in America whose relationships do not stretch directly into some prison or jail. Churches must act on their responsibility to minister to the prisoners within their own community. National organizations like Prison Fellowship must also redouble efforts to partner with local congregations to empower them to be indigenous stations of reconciliation that can supply far more social capital than any parachurch/volunteer network. Third, there must be real reconciliation between white Evangelicals who control parachurch operations and African American congregations whose family and community members are the targets of these parachurch efforts.

All of this amounts to a real balkanization of power from centralized control of ministry (that’s right, just like political federalism) into the type of local investment that flourishes when properly capitalized in both human and financial resources. Colson saw this need personally, and these shifts would honor his legacy in terms as great as the work he accomplished during his lifetime.

—Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing CommunitiesPrison Ministry and Reentry Project of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, DC, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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