catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 12 :: 2003.06.06 — 2003.06.19


Models of idealism

Visionary conversion

Of several men living today whose vision and idealism have inspired, motivated, and humbled me, Chuck Colson has been one of the most significant. Though I have only met and spoken with him personally a few times, he is still one of the most significant contemporary influences on my life through the example of his life and his teaching. To me he is a living model of my Biblical hero, the apostle Paul.

Colson was known as the White House "hatchet man" during his four years of service to President Richard Nixon. He was, according to the media of the mid-70s, a person "incapable of humanitarian thought."

Yet Christ claimed his heart. When news of his conversion to Christianity leaked to the press in 1973, the Boston Globe reported, "If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody."

Upon his release from prison, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which, in cooperation with churches of all confessions and denominations, has become the world's largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, crime victims, and their families.

In addition to creating Angel Tree, which ministers to more than 500,000 children of inmates annually on behalf of their incarcerated parents, He launched a daily radio feature in 1991 called "BreakPoint," a unique attempt to provide a distinct Christian worldview on everyday issues and conflicts.

Chuck has written 20 books that challenge the church to transform the culture and become the presence of Christ in the world. In recognition of his work, Colson received the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship.

Though he is one of the Christian community's most sought-after speakers, he has refused to establish a speaking fee and donates all speaking honoraria and book royalties to Prison Fellowship. He accepts the salary of a mid-range ministry executive.

I gratefully follow Chuck as he follows Christ!

Idealism for the Long Haul

We tend to think of idealism as something that everyone holds onto during their heady college years, then when the real world comes along and slaps them in the face with grey area moral dilemmas and family commitments and suburban life, it falls by the wayside along with adolescent dreams, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, and other such nonsense. Or perhaps it is a mid-life phase. A forty-year-old mother of three starts exercising and visiting the health food store and becomes a vegetarian. A middle-aged lawyer decides to step off the corporate treadmill and do pro-bono work—on the weekends. Older couple goes on a mission trip with their church one summer. Of course, the notion of idealism as a fad doesn't really fit with a Christian vision. Transforming the world is something that takes a long, concentrated effort over many years. Christians are supposed to be in it for the long haul.

I married into a rather remarkable family. My wife's parents have been consistently and actively seeking a Christian vision in ways that set them apart for years—yet most of their idealism is not very flashy. They raised six children on a Christian teacher's salary without ever complaining publicly about the tightness of money. They chose to stay in a racially diverse community rather than move out when their kids left the house. They write letters to the editor constantly. Their house has been open to refugees, the emotionally distraught, college students, and anyone who has needed a warm place with the smell of something amazing cooking. They travel every year to help in Cary, Mississippi. My mother-in-law has set a quiet example through her work at her church, prison ministry, and the local fair trade store. She quilts for her grandchildren, serves as deacon for her church, and maintains a beautiful garden for all who drive by. My father-in-law serves on boards for Christian schools, paints widows' houses, shows movies at the local rest home on Tuesday nights, and serves as a taxi service to anyone who needs a ride to the hospital. They care for their children through helping out with babysitting, giving amazing gifts and remarkable meals, and traveling to see those who are far away (Japan and New Zeeland).

They continue to read like crazy, stay in touch with the world, and learn new things like computer programs and how to build houses for bats to eat the garden bugs that they would rather not spray insecticide on. They are vocally against smoking, for government assistance for adoption, and willing to confront parents who don't have car seats for their children. In short, though retired, they continue to live each day as if it were the day the Lord has made. Though they sometimes get tired (as do we all), they show few signs of tiring in the larger sense.

I have seen some amazing examples of idealism in my life. I have known people willing to risk their lives for what they believe in. The guy who lives across the street from me smuggles Bibles into China. I have known those who have striven to be consistent in their principles. My brother feels such an empathy with animals that he has been a faithful vegetarian for many years. I have known those willing to follow a calling from God that puts them at great risk financially. Rob and Kirstin, who founded the organization that runs this website, continue to do that. In truth, though, I have never known anyone whose vision has carried them through their entire life in the way that Vern and Nancy Boerman's has.

A model for personal sacrifice

Never one to be unduly optimistic, Dorothy Day titled her autobiography The Long Loneliness. Appropriately, my first introduction to her amazing life was through a one-woman show called Haunted by God.

Like C.S. Lewis, Day did not convert to Christianity willingly. She simply could not resist any longer the idea that her life couldn't make sense outside of the presence of Christ. But her conversion was soon followed by the anger many of us experience when the body of Christ doesn't reflect true Gospel ideals. A journalist living in New York City in the 1930s, Day could not ignore the poverty and need around her, nor could she ignore the complicity of the Catholic church as they turned a blind eye to social injustices.

In a sense, the path she took to practically addressing these problems was determined for her when the French philosopher/prophet Peter Maurin literally showed up on her doorstep. Maurin challenged her to use her journalistic skills to start The Catholic Worker. Sold for a penny, the paper illuminated social injustices in areas of housing and labor and outlined a new philosophy for Christians who wanted to take action. Day and Maurin also proposed that the Catholic church start "Houses of Hospitality" to help those in need get back on their feet by working together.

But talking was not enough, Day found, when desperate folks started showing up on her doorstep, wanting to know where the House of Hospitality was. Out of necessity, the houses were started, even against the will of the local Catholic authorities. Even as she actively fought for the social rights of the marginalized, Day humbly scrubbed their toilets, cleaned up their vomit and cared for their children.

Day's story is incredible, full of daily miracles and struggles, full of the greatest joy and the gravest sorrow, and I wish I could tell all of it here. She faced harsh reality by upholding the highest principles of pacifism, labor organization, and personal sacrifice. The longevity of her movement testifies that she was on to something: that we as the body of Christ cannot just depend on systems to address needs from above, but we must also get our hands dirty with the poorest of the poor (whether it's financially, socially, spiritually, artistically) and reclaim every part of God's world. And she endured painful loneliness and sorrow to practice what she preached.

To learn more about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, read The Long Loneliness and visit If you are interested in working with the movement, chances are there's a Catholic Worker house in your area where you can volunteer (see for a directory and information).

Discussion topic: Visionaries

Whom would you personally hold up as being visionary or idealistic in a way that is meaningful to you?

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