Attention Christmas Shoppers: Angel Tree Needs You!

Attention Christmas Shoppers: Angel Tree Needs You!

Did you know that right here in our country 1.7 million children have a mother or father serving time in prison? Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree is the largest national ministry to reach out to the children of inmates and their families with the love of Christ. By connecting incarcerated parents with their children through the delivery of gifts at Christmas, Angel Tree helps brighten the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. The ministry depends on volunteer and donor support, and this year the need his great, as more than 14,000 children on the Angel Tree list are in need of people to step in to donate the funds necessary to provide gifts for these kids. See the list below for a breakdown of the top 25 counties and states that are still in crucial need of donor help.

Think about it: If all of UrbanFaith’s reader’s were to make a small donation of $12.58 on the day after Thanksgiving as part of their “Black Friday” shopping spree, we could wipe out a large portion of the numbers below. Help us share the the true meaning of Christmas with these kids and their parents by making a donation.

For more information, visit or call 1-800-206-9764.

Angel Tree Top 25 Counties of Need


Chuck Colson: A Faithful Steward of the Second Chance

Chuck Colson: A Faithful Steward of the Second Chance

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.

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.

I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.

By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.

To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.

This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.

During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.

I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.

Why did Christians commit genocide?

It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?

I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.

Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.

NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)

The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.

Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.

This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.

How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?

When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?

In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).

As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.

“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”

Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty.  Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.

Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.

More God, Less Crime?

More God, Less Crime?

In a recent Wall Street Journal review of Baylor University sociologist Byron R. Johnson‘s new book, More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More, James Q. Wilson questions Johnson’s assertion that religion reduces crime.

Johnson looked at every study conducted between 1944 and 2010 that measured the possible effect of religion on crime. In 273 such studies, he found that “even though their authors used different methods and assessed different groups of people, 90% of these studies found that more religiosity resulted in less crime,” writes Wilson, who then assesses what he alleges are the weaknesses of Johnson’s approach. The key weakness he identifies is the lack of control groups in the cited studies. Nonetheless, Wilson concedes that the sheer number of studies show “a religious effect.”

Dr. Harold Dean Trulear is an associate professor of applied theology at Howard University’s School of Divinity, as well as the director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project in Philadelphia. He’s also a longtime colleague of Johnson’s. In an email response to UrbanFaith, Trulear said he thinks the Wall Street Journal review is “honest and fair.” He added that, as a fellow social scientist, he has “found it best to … use data to be suggestive, but not conclusive.”

“I use Johnson’s work, my own research in religion and social behavior, and the work of others to point academics, researchers, and policy makers toward religion and religious institutions as valuable contributors to our common good.  But I always stop short of saying ‘religion works,’ precisely because it is God — not human religious activity — that has true efficacy,” Trulear wrote.

“As a person of faith, my ultimate allegiance is to Christ and His Kingdom, and my sociological training is but a tool for His use. That said, I do not rely on sociology to ‘prove’ the effectiveness of religion or Christianity,” he added. “The whole idea of Christian ‘proofs’ is a late phenomenon in Christian history, coinciding with the scientific age, and the faith’s unfortunate sense that it needed to be scientific to have validity. I use social science to point in the direction of religion’s efficacy concering crime reduction, but strict cause-and-effect language is inconsistent with Christian faith, whether in social science or in prosperity ‘name it and claim it’ theology.”

Wilson’s review mentions Prison Fellowship as the largest effort to increase the religiosity of “convicted offenders.” The Christian organization utilizes a three-stage approach that includes Bible study, community service, and commitment to a church and mentors upon release.

“Johnson looked at the program’s effectiveness in Texas and found that those who completed all three phases were much less likely to be arrested or incarcerated for a new crime than those who dropped out. The key question is whether the inmates who go through all three phases differ in other ways from those who never join the program or drop out early,” writes Wilson. He concludes that in an earlier study Johnson found “no difference between Fellowship and non-Fellowship groups over an eight-year period except for those members of the program who worked hard at Bible studies” and then “the effect lasted for only two or three years after prisoners’ release.”

Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson responded to Wilson’s review in a Breakpoint commentary that praised Johnson’s work.

“What Johnson’s book More God, Less Crime shows so clearly, is that we’ve been right all along: The Gospel changes lives, and it’s the best hope for keeping men and women out of prison,” wrote Colson.

But Trulear would temper any enthusiasm about the book with this caution: “As valuable as Johnson’s work is — and it is extremely valuable in pointing us to religious institutions and behavior as available loci in the fight against crime — people of faith must remember that their ultimate allegiance is not to what works, but to what is best and right. The answers to these two questions will not always coincide.”

Miracles in Rwanda

Catherine Devota

Catherine Claire Larson with Devota, a Rwandan woman whose story is told in Larson's book, As We Forgive. Devota survived machete wounds to her neck and body, as well as fire burns, yet she found strength to forgive her attackers.

Usually it’s the book that inspires the movie, but in the case of author Catherine Claire Larson’s As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, it was the other way around. The book, a gripping exploration of the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the miracle of forgiveness, is a literary extension of Laura Waters Hinson’s award-winning 2008 documentary of the same name.

Last month marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan massacre. By the time the one hundred days of horror had passed, nearly a million people were dead. Then, in 2003, President Paul Kagame announced that 40,000 perpetrators of the genocide would be released back into the communities they had ravaged, due to overcrowding in the prisons. The survivors braced themselves for the inevitable. There would be no way of avoiding their one-time attackers in a country as small as Rwanda. Forty thousand criminals would be there to remind them of the trauma each day, drawing water from the same wells, going to the same markets, working in nearby sorghum fields. But something unexpected has happened since the prisoners’ release.

Today, Rwandan wounds are still deep. But there, amid the pain, small miracles are taking place. Survivors are forgiving those who killed their families. Perpetrators are truly repenting and doing practical acts of reconciliation to demonstrate their remorse, like building homes for those whose families they killed. Says Larson, “If forgiveness can happen in that country after such unthinkable crimes, surely it can also happen in the comparatively smaller rifts we face.”

She adds: “In their hope, we can find hope.”

Larson spoke to UrbanFaith about the journey of writing As We Forgive and the lessons it offers us about true reconciliation.

URBANFAITH: What led you to write this book?

LARSON: For the past five years I’ve worked for Prison Fellowship as a writer and editor. Prison Fellowship is the largest prison ministry in the world. We come alongside prisoners through in-prison programs, mentoring, aftercare, and outreaches aimed at helping prisoners’ children. Prison Fellowship International is in 110 countries around the world, doing similar work, and sometimes also working with crime victims.

When I came to Prison Fellowship, the very first story I was assigned was to cover what was happening in Rwanda with our work there with prisoners, in this case former participants in genocide, and with survivors. What I heard as a result of those interviews really blew my mind and just never left me. Now fast-forward a few years later, when a friend of mine, Laura Waters Hinson, decided to travel to Rwanda to film a documentary about forgiveness occurring there. Because of my previous exposure to what was going on in Rwanda, I really wanted to help her promote her film. Originally, I thought I’d write a few articles. But the more I researched it, the more it became apparent to me that no one was really examining what is going on in Rwanda today through reconciliation efforts. All the focus was on the genocide itself. And yet, it seemed there was a tremendous phenomenon occurring in this post-conflict society, a phenomenon which I thought deserved further probing. That’s when I bought my plane ticket.

Many of us have read the history and seen films like Hotel Rwanda about the genocide. But, based on your research and personal experience with this topic, what have we missed about this human tragedy?

I think a lot of Americans when they heard about the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994 chalked it up to tribal warfare. In their mind’s eye, they imagined people from a primitive culture acting out in primitive ways against one another and dismissed it as something that could not happen in a civilized society. While they may have felt fleeting sorrow for the dead bodies they saw on the nightly news, the whole issue was really far removed.

The truth of the matter is quite different, however. Historically, the difference between Hutu and Tutsi was more like a class difference than it was a race difference. You could move between the two groups, for instance, by acquiring a certain number of cattle. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when the Belgian colonizers decided to solidify these differences and attach their own racism to the distinctions, that the real animosity began. The colonizers theorized that people with longer and straighter noses, the ones they called the Tutsi, had descended from Davidic ancestry. The ones with flatter noses and shorter stature were, they thought, descendants of Ham, and therefore should serve the others. They issued identity cards, and gave Tutsi political and economic advantages which they denied the Hutu. Even after Rwanda gained its independence, these animosities had become so built-in that the groups were increasingly polarized.

I find it fascinating that the diseased and sinful philosophies of the West would eventually work themselves out into one of the worst genocides in the past century. Far from being the problem of some so-called “primitive” society, Rwanda’s problems were a grotesque display of Western racist ideologies carried to their extreme conclusions.

What role did the Rwandan church play in this tragic history, and what can the church as a whole learn from it?

This is one of the saddest parts of Rwandan history, in my opinion. At the time of the genocide, Rwanda was nearly 80 percent Christian. It was held up as a model of evangelization. And yet, people left their churches on Easter Sunday in April of 1994 and went out and killed others who proclaimed the name of Christ. It is unbelievable. As Emmanuel Katongole explains in his chilling book, Mirror to the Church, a certain story within their culture had more power over these Rwandans than their own Christian identity. This should make us look hard at ourselves. Katongole suggests that the Rwandan genocide should be a mirror to the church in the West. What stories do we cling to more tightly than our Christian identities? Where in our experience, he asks, does the blood of tribalism run deeper than the waters of baptism?

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but what could the Rwandan church have done differently to bring a more positive result?

Bishop John Rucyahana of Rwanda says that the church in Rwanda failed in its prophetic role before the genocide. By that, he doesn’t mean seeing into the future, but rather the role of the church to preach — to speak out against injustices that are evident in society. It isn’t enough to simply preach about the love of God and neglect the church’s role of admonition. I think this is also an important point for us.

We live in a society where you are not supposed to believe in truth, much less bring words of rebuke or reproof to someone. But look back through the prophets of the Old Testament or Jesus’ own words to the Pharisess. So many of these are calls to repentance, calls to change. The Rwandan genocide should be a warning to us of what happens when Christians fail to speak out against evils within the walls of their churches — and within their society at large.

What can American Christians learn about reconciliation from the lives of the Rwandans that we meet in your book?

A couple of things came clearly into focus for me as I wrote the book and over the past several months as I’ve been speaking about it. First and foremost, I honestly believe after hearing survivors of some of the worst crimes imaginable share their journeys to forgive, that if forgiveness is possible in these situations, then, by the grace of God, it is possible in whatever situation we find ourselves in. That gives me extraordinary hope.

I want people to be confronted with that hope and with that challenge through these stories. But I also want people to consider forgiveness in a way that I think we’ve lost sight of somehow in our modern American context. I think most Christians today “get” the aspect of forgiveness in which we release something to God. It’s very similar to the popular conception of forgiveness that you find talk show hosts like Dr. Phil espousing: “Forgiveness is a choice you make to release yourself from pain, anger, and bitterness.” But this definition misses the mark in some really fundamental ways. Forgiveness is fundamentally a social action. It is meant to, whenever possible, restore the possibility for a continued or renewed relationship. It isn’t meant to be just an internal act, or just something that happens between a believer and God. What is so vivid in the stories that I share from the Rwandan context is how that internal choice to forgive is translating into external restoration and renewal of relationships in some cases.

Miraculous Embrace: In her book, Larson tells the story of Claude (right), whose grandmother was murdered by his neighbor Innocent (left). Claude forgave Innocent and the men have now reconciled.

Forgiveness is at the core of loving our neighbor, and of our salvation through Christ. But it often seems a lot easier to say we forgive than to actually do it.

That’s because, in our modern therapeutic approach to forgiveness, I think Christians have cheapened forgiveness. We’ve made it all about us. When forgiveness is seen as primarily a choice to release oneself from pain, bitterness, and anger, it misses the point that forgiveness is one of the most sacrificial of all human actions. I’m echoing Miroslav Volf’s explanation of Bonhoeffer when I say that when we suffer a wrong, that is a passive form of suffering; it is a suffering that happens to us. But when we forgive a wrong, we are choosing an active form of suffering. We are offering a gift to the person in our lives who perhaps least deserves it. And in so doing we have one of the best opportunities to mirror the power, the grace, and the glory of the Gospel.

After reading your book, what would you like people to do with the experience? As Christians, what should be the “next step” for us in terms of responding to these stories?

I hope that the next steps will happen on two levels. First, I hope people will wrestle with the issues brought up by this book and seriously ask themselves where God may be calling them to take steps of confession, of forgiveness and reconciliation. If they don’t do that on some level, I’ve failed my job.

The other level at which I hope this book provokes involvement is simply in helping Rwandans in their ongoing work of reconciliation. Each story in the book ends up highlighting various organizations involved in this restoration work in Rwanda. I list several of those amazing groups in the back of the book and on my website, these are groups like Prison Fellowship International, CARSA, the Sonrise Orphanage, the Living Bricks Campaign, Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, and many others. If these stories have moved readers, I hope they will consider how they might help see this healing continue to spread by reading up on these groups and picking one or more to support prayerfully and financially.

How has the experience of writing this book changed you?

You can’t write about stories like these without being personally affected. For me, writing this book has been an experience of entering into the pain and hope of others. It has taught me a lot about seeing Christ not simply as my sin-bearer, but also as my pain-bearer. It has also been an encouragement when old wounds resurface to remember that forgiveness is an ongoing commitment, not just a one-time act. I think I’m not only more acutely aware of our own capacity for astonishing evil, but also more breathlessly expectant about God’s ability to redeem even the darkest of situations for His glory.

What’s next for you?

I hope to continue promoting the work of reconciliation in Rwanda, bringing help to those God has allowed me to meet. I also hope to continue writing the true stories of God’s work in the world today in a way that is winsome and accessible to all kinds of people, particularly those who may need a glimpse of the one true God in a way they’ve never experienced Him before.

For more information about Catherine Claire Larson and her book, visit