I didn’t know Chuck Colson well, but my interactions with him were memorable. My first encounter came when Popie and I were moving west after four years of living in Kenya followed by six months sponging off relatives. We had all our earthly possessions packed in a Toyota station wagon. Our daughter Katie was two and Popie was extremely pregnant with Chase. For a couple of days we visited friends in Southern California. We were having a little party.
My friend Dean came outside and told me I had a phone call. It was Chuck Colson, whom I had never met. How he found me, I have no idea. Nobody knew where I was. He said he needed me to tidy up a book he was writing; it was urgent that I do it now. The book was due at the publisher in six weeks, if I remember correctly.
I said I had no place to live and nowhere to work and I couldn’t do anything for him until life settled down.
The next thing I knew I was on an airplane headed for Washington, D.C. For some reason, we needed to discuss the book in person. Colson would not take no for an answer.
Someone met me at the airport and handed me a manuscript. At 8:00 the next morning, she said, I would meet Colson and we would discuss it.
I got into my hotel room and stared at the cement-block-sized brick of paper I had been given. The manuscript, as I remember it, was at least 600 pages and a mess. Some chapters made sense, some didn’t. Many were incomplete, just trailing into space. It was more like an assemblage of miscellaneous clippings than a book. It took me most of the night to get through it.
In the morning I met Colson—I have no memory of where—and did not beat around the bush. I told him that the manuscript needed a lot of work and there was no way it could be turned around in six weeks. He could never produce a book to be proud of in that time. It would be far better to put off publication and do it right.
My message did not seem to penetrate. He was not about to put off publication. He believed the manuscript could be completed on time, and he wanted me to do it. Very flattering that was for me, an unknown writer without a real job and no home. I did not change my opinion, but I eventually agreed that I would give it all I had for six weeks, and then we would reevaluate. Looking back, I don’t think Colson was thinking about the meaning of the word “reevaluate” the same way I was.
As for payment, he said he would pay me a per diem and that he would cut me in on the royalties, but he couldn’t yet say how. I would have to trust him.
I worked on my typewriter in my sister’s living room, huddling close to the wood stove to keep warm. Six weeks later I had patched up some parts of the book, editor Judith Markham had smoothed out a lot of the rest, and we had the book known as Loving God. It sold a lot of copies and got some awards.
Chuck cut me in for a portion of the royalties just as he had said, and he was more than fair.
Four years later I helped write portions of Kingdoms in Conflict (now God and Government), which was done in a more orderly fashion. I had a chance to work on several of the storytelling chapters. Again, I was treated in a very business-like and fair manner. I don’t think my mama raised me to work as a gun-for-hire, but if I’m going to do that kind of work, I’d like to do it for somebody like Colson.
He was a take-charge guy. His way of writing a book was like that of a construction foreman: he knew what he wanted to do, he had an overall blueprint, and he chose the best subcontractors he could find to get it done. I guess that’s how presidential speeches get written too.
I think it’s very admirable how he changed his life and dedicated himself to helping prisoners. It was completely sincere, I believe, and from what I’ve seen Prison Fellowship does very good work. Life isn’t lived only in large gestures, though; it’s also how you treat people. I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but Chuck Colson treated me well.