BROTHERS IN REDEMPTION: Chuck Colson (right) hugs an ex-inmate and graduate of Colson's Prison Fellowship program. Founded in 1976, PF is aimed at rehabilitating incarcerated men and women through faith-based education, job training, and aftercare. (Photo: Shawn Thew/Newscom)
The passing of Chuck Colson over the weekend brought to mind the issue of stewardship in ministry. Many of the headlines remembered him as Nixon’s “evil genius” in the Watergate scandal, but for many of us he was even better known for what he did after leaving prison.
Colson, as the founder of Prison Fellowship, lived his post-prison, post-conversion life as a champion for the evangelization and discipleship of incarcerated men and women. His gradual expansion of PF to an organization that included work in the area of public policy and criminal justice reform took the group beyond the norms of many predominantly white evangelical organizations. His mobilization of and influence on theological and political conservatives around issues such as the Second Chance Act, prison conditions, and prison rape showed his commitment to both rescuing fish and cleaning the fishbowl. Countless numbers of people, both those incarcerated and those impacted by incarceration (such as victims of crime, former prisoners, and family members of the incarcerated) have been helped, saved, blessed, and reconciled as God used Brother Colson in providing leadership in this area.
But I am mostly drawn to his sense of stewardship in this hour, because it had everything to do with Prison Fellowship’s ascendancy and the challenge of the organization’s future. Stewardship, because Brother Colson had a public visibility prior to his conversion that God was able to use to strengthen the organization itself and give more visibility to prison ministry as a critical component of the witness of the church. With all that Brother Colson could have done with his visibility, committing it to the service of men and women Jesus identified as “the least of these” rings nobly. This is especially significant in light of the historic tension between white evangelical organizations and indigenous African American congregations and ministries, where the competition for scarce resources often gives advantage to the former while the latter struggles in relative obscurity.
I remember once having breakfast with an NFL quarterback who had just made a five-figure donation to an urban youth ministry organization in Philadelphia. He talked about the great needs there, and the fact that this organization was “on the front lines.” I countered that they were indeed, but that there were countless African American and Latino congregations in that city that could use support — they just don’t have leadership with the visibility and clout of some in the white evangelical community. Colson chose to use his clout to answer Christ’s call to remember the prisoner.
Of course, one alternative to white paternalism in urban ministry is for white evangelicals to take all their marbles and go home — leave the places of pain where, as Bible scholar Dennis Kinlaw has reminded us, “God always gets there first.” And so the fact that organizations like Prison Fellowship continue to witness to a holistic gospel in this era of mass incarceration is important. And Brother Colson took good care of his name as a steward of the visibility he gained from his days at the White House, involvement with Watergate, trial and incarceration, conversion and release. He lived as a vibrant example of a life redeemed — a man of influence, thoughtfulness, and compassion.
FROM 'EVIL GENIUS' TO GOD'S SERVANT: A White House special counsel during the Nixon administration, Colson was a key player in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian in 1974 before serving a prison sentence.
Like many organizations before it, Prison Fellowship will now face the so-called “founder’s dilemma” in staying the course without Colson’s critical stewardship. But there are other obstacles as well: notably the downturn in the economy, which has affected the bottom line of all non-profits, and PF’s continued search for a way to strengthen its work with indigenous African American and Latino congregations. During one of his Breakpoint broadcasts in 2009, Colson lauded the prisoner-reentry partnership which had been developed between Prison Fellowship and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the historic African American denomination that counted Martin Luther King Jr. as one of its founding members. Colson’s attempts to bridge this gap between conservative and progressive Christians reflected his sincerity, even if the organization’s infrastructure continued to struggle with how to give this vision legs.
As a sociologist who studies congregations, I have seen such infrastructural challenges from Richard Niebuhr’s original documentations in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, through case studies, to my mentors Bill Pannell and Tom Skinner warning us that your ministry can grow into a monster. Whether it’s a large company or big congregation, infrastructure can outgrow mission both in the size of the organization and the attention of its leadership and staff. But even as PF wrestled with these dilemmas, Chuck Colson worked as a steward of his visibility — championing Angel Tree ministries for the children of the incarcerated, advocating compassion for inmates in overcrowded and inhumane conditions, and demonstrating a dogged commitment not only to the evangelization of inmates but to their discipleship as well (no small feat when the predominant mode of prison preaching follows the script: “You messed up, you got caught, you need Jesus”).
Indeed, there is an irony in saying that Chuck Colson has gone to “be with the Lord.” After all, if we take Matthew 25 seriously, Chuck had already been “with Him” more than most.
I was one of those people who couldn’t quite believe that rapper Mason Betha (a.k.a. Murda Ma$e) might be a serious Christian minister. Then I visited his church.
Yes, I spent a Sunday with Mase. But it wasn’t listening to his greatest hits album in the comforts of my home or attending a concert where he performed any of said greatest hits. No, I went to church with Mase — his church, El Elyon International in Atlanta, Georgia, to be exact. Now I am going to ask you to un-furrow your brow. Yes, I know it is furrowed because there is no one who I have told about going to El Elyon that didn’t have a furrowed brow. The reactions varied from, “Really?” to “So you didn’t get any God today?” To tell the truth, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I approached the opportunity to attend El Elyon with some hesitancy.
I was a fan of Mase’s music back in the days when he and Diddy were wearing matching shiny suits and singing about being bad boys. I remember when I heard about him leaving the rap game to go into ministry. I remember when he left ministry to go back into the rap game as Murda Ma$e. And I remember when he left the rap game again to go back to ministry. It is that schizophrenia that leads most people to stay away from his ministry and his music. But, the more I thought about it I realized that Mase is no different from any of us who keep on backsliding into the world — save for the fact that our backslides are not caught on camera for the world to see.
Bad Boy Days: Mase with Diddy (then Puff Daddy) in the 1997 video for Biggie Smalls' posthumously released song "Mo Money, Mo Problems."
So I figured I’d give Mase … I mean, Pastor Mason Betha of El Elyon … a chance.
I went into my El Elyon experience with many different expectations. I expected the church to be huge, like a standard Atlanta megachurch, which looks more like a college campus than it does a sanctuary. El Elyon is no megachurch. It’s located on a non-descript street in the midst of warehouses. In fact, it is in a warehouse. It is a humble space. I expected that the majority of the cars parked in front of the church were going to be of the “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” variety. There were barely any Beamers, Benzes or Bentleys in front of El Elyon. It was more like a “Nissan, Honda, Chevy” affair. With each opening door of these domestic cars came young African American adults, some middle-aged families, and the occasional white man or woman.
As I was getting over some of my misconceptions about the external trappings of the church, I walked inside to be met by not one but several greeters who sensed my newness but didn’t treat me like I was new. I explained to them I’d be meeting some friends who hadn’t arrived yet, and they showed me to a seat in the lobby. Many who walked passed me as I sat there waiting treated me like an old friend. One of the members of the ministerial staff even greeted me in earnest, asking for my name, expressing his gratitude that I could join them for worship, and directing me to the sanctuary. In all honesty that last encounter was a little jarring because I had become use to seeing ministers decked out in full apparel who would only speak to the ones they knew and offer a weak smile and lukewarm greeting to those they didn’t. For a church I had only been in for about 15 minutes, I felt as if I’d been there 15 years.
I missed the praise-and-worship portion of the service waiting for my friends, but I could hear the spirited music — a lot of Israel Houghton and other urban praise tunes — from my spot in the lobby. I finally entered the service just as Pastor Mason Betha stepped onstage to deliver his sermon. It was a sparsely decorated sanctuary with a pulpit at the center of an elevated stage. The space held about 300 people and it was easily filled to capacity. The seats weren’t pews but high-backed chairs like you’d find in a banquet hall. When the ushers accompanied us to our seats, they encouraged us to squeeze in as close together as possible to make room for other late-arriving churchgoers.
Pastor Betha’s sermon was titled “Stay at His Feet.” He began by petitioning his members to start a purity fast so that they can abstain from anything that isn’t edifying. He used the analogy of dirt and water in a jar to describe why this purity fast is so desperately needed, remarking that as Christians we read the Bible or hear a sermon then we get into our cars and turn on secular music, watch movies about vampires, or participate in other sordid activities. In Pastor Betha’s view, the secular music, the vampires, and other things are the dirt that clouds up the water that is supposed to purify our lives. He surmises that cutting those things out will help us to become more accessible to God and powerful for the kingdom. All of this before his actual sermon went forth and my preconceived notions were already being blown out of the water.
So, let’s talk about my expectations of Pastor Mason Betha. What can I say? Yes, I wondered what a former “Bad Boy for Life” could say behind a sacred podium. I wondered if he would preach with the same slow drawl that made him famous as a rapper. I wondered what, if anything, he said was going to touch me. I had the words of many in my mind — the people who were shocked that I would go to his church; the people, who similar to Nathaniel asking if anything good could come out of Nazareth, asked if anything good could come out of a seemingly confused rapper whose relapse into the secular world wasn’t too long ago. Well, the answer to the question is plenty good can come out of him once we stop defining him by who he was and look at who God is shaping him to be.
For 90 minutes I listened to Pastor Mason Betha teach the word of God in what I believe was a pretty sound manner. He didn’t tell many stories — though he cracked a few jokes — he just let the Word of God speak. Though it was only the 10:00 service and there was yet one more for him to preach at noon, he was not constrained by time. He preached long and hard, making sure that we had as many scriptures as he could possibly give us so that we would be motivated to continue the study on our own.
By the end of that sermon — actually I’d prefer to call it a study — I had seven pages of notes and a new respect for Mason Betha. All because I took the time to step past what I thought I knew.
As a young seminarian, I’ve been told that most of my ministry will be in my interruptions. Interestingly enough, my interrupting my preconceived notions of a man and his ministry was when I was ministered to, and I suspect that the interruption of the rapper Mase led to the ministry of Pastor Mason Betha. And that’s an interruption I’m praying many will benefit from.
Over the years, there have been rumors about Pastor Betha and whether he’s really walking with God — that he never fully broke off from the rap business. Musically speaking, with the exception of a few guest spots here and there, he’s been silent since his 2004 album due to contractual issues with Diddy’s Bad Boy label. But the latest buzz suggests another full-fledged comeback may be imminent. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s true.
If Mase does return to rap music, I hope he remembers his analogy of dirt and water in a jar.