Preaching to the convicted

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 October, 1993, 12:00am

EVERYONE knows Hong Kong is materialistic. But you don't expect Richard Nixon's former hatchet man, the White House lawyer who once said he would run down his grandmother to get his leader re-elected, to announce: 'I've never seen so many people living on pretenses in all my life.' But then you don't expect him to say 'Satan must be defeated' either.

Obviously something strange has happened to Charles 'Chuck' Colson since he did his jail stretch for Watergate. Back in those days of Deep Throat, buggings, break-ins and political intrigue, Mr Colson was the president's man who got things fixed. 'He has the balls of a brass monkey,' was Mr Nixon's approving comment.

Those metal appendages are undoubtedly still there. But today they are to be found behind the pulpit rather than the rostrum - clanking to the tune of Amazing Grace. America's Mr Bad Guy has signed with God.

There is no wimp factor to Mr Colson's Christianity. Butch and uncompromising as he was in the White House, he does his searching for lost souls in society's trash can. 'Converted murderers make wonderful disciples,' he said in Hong Kong last week.

Since his release from jail in 1975, after a seven-month stint for smearing Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon papers, Mr Colson has met and converted hundreds of murderers. Prisoner's Fellowship, the foundation he started, has spread all over the world, including the territory, where the Hong Kong Christian Kun Sun Association joined the network in 1983.

As its chairman he has visited more than 600 jails in 35 countries. During his visit here he spoke at several church meetings and met the Governor of Macau, General Vasco Rocha Vieira, to discuss prison policy in the enclave.

Mr Colson is unlikely to have filled silences at the Governor's villa with embarrassing shouts of 'Praise the Lord, Yeeessirrr, Praise Him'. His style is much too suave and sophisticated for that. His dress is conservative lawyer and he quotes the words ofAlexander Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis and Pascal as often as he quotes the words of Jesus.

Scratch the surface of his faith, however, and it is as right-wing as his politics. For Mr Colson, 'the Bible is historically correct'. Fire and brimstone exist, and if you are a practising homosexual or abortionist or have sex outside marriage and are notreally, really sorry, you will roast in hell for eternity.

Almost as remarkable as his transformation from hit-man to holy man has been Mr Colson's social rehabilitation. Earlier this year he was chosen to receive the Templeton Prize for his 'advancement of the world's understanding of God'. Previous winners include Mother Teresa and Billy Graham, and the US$1 million (HK$7.73 million) cash that goes with the award is far greater than any Nobel Prize.

It was presented to Mr Colson by the Duke of Edinburgh and marked the culmination of an astonishing re-ascent of society for a man who was once among America's most reviled. Post-Watergate, not even Mr Nixon has managed to wrangle an invitation to the Palace.

But has Charles Colson changed? Or has blind loyalty to Mr Nixon simply been transmuted into blind loyalty to Jesus Christ? In the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Mr Colson explained what led him to open his heart to God.

'It was back in 1973 - just before Watergate blew up. I had everything then: money, power, limousines, a happy marriage, prestige ... but I still wasn't happy. This is probably unfathomable to most people living in Hong Kong, but with all these material successes there was something missing.' Then, one summer's night, soon after meeting an old friend who had been converted at a Billy Graham crusade, he broke down. The friend had invited him to pray with him but he had been unable to do so.

'In the car on the way home, I just felt these tears welling up.' He parked the car on the side of the road and sat in the darkness. 'I forgot about machismo, about pretenses, about fears of being weak, and cried and cried and cried. And as I did so, I began to feel a wonderful sense of being released ... the water was not only running down my cheeks but surging through my whole body as well, cooling and cleansing as it went.

'And then I prayed my first real prayer: 'God, I don't know how I'm going to find you, but I'm going to try. I'm not much the way I am now, but somehow I am going to give myself to you'.' According to Mr Colson, it was the experience of finding God that led him to go to jail for smearing Mr Ellsberg. 'If it had not been for my conversion I would not have pleaded guilty. But I wanted to put my old life behind me and not have people think I had feigned my turn to God in order to get a lighter sentence.' After he was sentenced Mr Colson testified 44 times in order, he says, to fully clear up his part in the Watergate scandal. He is proud of the fact that in all those testimonies he was never once charged with perjury.

In prison Mr Colson started a Bible study group. 'There were three convicted burglars, a car thief, a stock swindler and me, the former special counsel to the president of the United States. It was a time of great soul searching.' After his release, he went full-time into prison preaching. 'Jail taught me that it is people, not politics, who change the world. Every day, when I was with Mr Nixon, senior aides would assemble round one table and Henry Kissinger would walk in with briefing books under his arms and a worried look on his face. He would say: 'Mr President, the decisions we make today will change the course of human history'.

'Every day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. But I look back on Mr Nixon's four years in office and realise that we didn't change anything. That power is invested in the human heart.' On his travels around the world Mr Colson discovered intriguing differences between the prisons of different cultures. 'In Britain the prisoners whinge a lot; they all say they were set up,' he said. 'In Hong Kong they are very open to the gospels. Most Chinese people are not familiar with the concept of religious forgiveness and are very receptive to it.' A lot more receptive, it would seem, than those at the other end of Hong Kong's social scale. 'I went to one of your big clubs for Sunday lunch. I have never seen so many people living on pretenses in my life - all of them living through their jobs and titles.

'I spoke about my faith and people looked at me like I was mad. But I know that deep down they feel there is something missing in their lives ... There is a hole in every human heart, and the problem is Hong Kong people try filling it with the wrong things: money, power, sex, prestige.

'But these things will never satisfy, because that hole in the human heart is a God-shaped hole.'