“Transformation,” by Jan Collins

Jan Collins, assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coaltion (MPAC), brought the message at Durham Friends Meeting on April 7, 2024

Greetings and welcome.

Thank you for inviting me to your house of worship and into your lives. The topic of my message is transformation. Before I begin, I would like each of us to take just a moment to reflect on our own transformation. You may have changed slowly, or as the result of an event, often a trial by fire or a time of great suffering. As a result of that tribulation you became a different person. Try to recall how you were before and how you changed. How did your thinking change?

I chose “Amazing Grace” as our first hymn because of its tale of transformation. The song was written in 1772 by a former captain of a slave ship, John Newton who, by his own words, labelled his young life as depraved; filled with greed, violence and debauchery.

On March 2, 1748 at age 22, his ship the Greyhound was caught in a violent storm and was about to sink. He watched shipmates wash overboard. When he took the helm he began to pray for God’s mercy. He remained at the ships wheel for 11 hours while his crew attempted to staunch leaks in the hull. Gradually the storm eased and the ship survived.

He began changes to his life immediately, but they were gradual. He left his life aboard ship in 1754, began studying Hebrew, Greek, scripture and the ministry. He was ordained in the Church of England and was appointed to a church in Olney, England where he wrote Amazing Grace for a Sunday service to compliment his scriptural reading of first Chronicles 17:16-17 in which King David looks back on his life and asks, “Who am I that God hast brought me here?”

”Amazing Grace” is about redemption, the joy of receiving God’s grace, even when you have done terrible things. John Newton wrote the song at age 47. He had already been a pastor for 18 years, yet he reflected daily on his previous life of wretchedness and the path before him.

But how do we get from a life of complacency to one of transformation?

I decided to Google it. Although Google is a fount of information, it is lacking in wisdom.

According to several articles, you can achieve transformation in seven easy steps… or six… or five, depending on which site you consult.

If you follow “7 Steps to Transformation: How to Radically Change Your Life …” You must – “identify your goals; visualize your future; create an action plan; take small steps; overcome challenges; celebrate success; and live a transformed life”. Sounds simple.

Certainly some of those steps apply to John Newton’s life, take small steps, overcome challenges, live a transformed life, but there are essential ingredients missing in this recipe.I have found that transformation chooses us, not the other way around. John Newton did not choose to be in a life threatening storm, or to watch his shipmate be washed overboard never to be seen again. When faced with his and his crews mortality he became keenly aware of his own powerlessness and the fragility of life.

That awareness and the pain that accompanied it provided an opening, a hole for grace to slip in.

The process of transformation is as much about giving up things that no longer serve us as it is about learning new things.

It can be extremely painful to give up those things, those beliefs that may have insulated us from pain or given us great comfort. A person seeking sobriety, must give up the comfort of addiction…a good friend that protected them from deep pain.

When we give up racism or sexism, we must give up the comfort of believing that we are somehow superior to those around us and instead accept the humanity of others.

I spent most of the first decades of my life believing that I could erase the pain of my early childhood and my father’s incarceration by being a great student and a hard worker. I avoided people who were troubled or trouble makers. When my husband and I adopted three children ages 7, 8, and 9 from foster care, we truly believed that our love could make up for the years of abuse they had suffered in there biological home and the trauma of being in 5 foster homes in 5 years.

But at age 21, my son was arrested for a terrible crime and sentenced to 20 years in prison. I felt like I was on a sinking ship.That experience opened up a hole in me, a terrible pain that allowed grace to step in. I stopped running, stopped building protective walls.

I learned several lessons –

1. Good people can do terrible things. John Newton could participate in the violent, inhumane and heartless slave trade. My son could commit a violent crime.

2. The answer to violence is not more violence, and the answer to inhumanity is not more inhumanity. It is love.

3. We are all capable of transformation. We are all capable of redemption.

4. An environment of support and nurturance encourages transformation. A trauma filled environment stifles it. John Newton found his support in the friends he found in the church and in slavery’s abolition. I in the community of folks affected by incarceration.

In his transformation John Newton eventually became instrumental in the f ight to end slavery in England, a fight that was achieved just months before his death.

For my part, I am fighting to end our system of mass incarceration in Maine and the US. I recognize that it does more harm than good, that it is a war against the poor, the sick and the black, and that it perpetuates the very harms that John Newton saw in slavery.

The parallels are uncanny. Both an enslaved person and an incarcerated person lose everything, including their family. The state may take their children and give them to someone else. Others will lose family members to death, never having the opportunity to say goodbye. In prison you are expected to work for free or next to nothing, Your clothing will be of the poorest quality, as will your food and your medical care. Punishment will be your daily lot with very little support for real change in your life. It is no wonder so few succeed upon release and almost 700 individuals have died in Maine in the last 10 years while on probation.

Just as abolition of slavery was the cause of the nineteenth century, abolition of the carceral system should be the cause of this century. The thirteenth amendment of the US constitution, ended slavery in the United States except for those who are incarcerated. Now it is time to end incarceration.

I would ask you to join me in recognizing that fight. We heal in community, not in isolation.

In closing, it is not enough for to us believe in our own ability to transform, our own redemption: we must also believe in the transformation and redemption of others.

Thank you for believing in the humanity of those in prison and their ability to change. Please join me in making the abolition of prisons a reality. It is not an easy task, but it is a just one that our faith demands of us.

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share