When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were afraid of him. They didn’t believe he was really a disciple. - Acts 9:26 (CEB)
Until he was charged with burglary, Don was the director of the soup kitchen that serves delicious meals in my church three times a week. As I sat with him outside his jail cell, he revealed he had previously served 19 years for armed robbery.
By the time Don’s case came to trial, he had been behind bars another 11 months and the county had reduced its case to “accepting stolen property.” Still, despite strong evidence of Don’s innocence and powerful testimony to his changed life, the prosecutor argued for conviction, telling jurors that “a leopard can’t change its spots.”
First-century Christians had every reason to fear Saul; he had been the church’s chief persecutor. But when they heard his dramatic conversion story, they decided to trust God and give Saul a chance.
Don was acquitted of all charges—and then sent directly to state prison, because in Massachusetts, simply being accused of a crime is a violation of parole. It would take a national advocacy campaign and 18 months before Don was released.
Paul (formerly Saul) went on to spread the gospel throughout the world and write a good chunk of the New Testament. Don is back in the community, working for judicial reform. And every day addicts get clean and sober, dropouts earn degrees, and struggling people turn their lives around.
Humans are not leopards, and hearts are not spots. We all lose when we refuse to acknowledge the holy transformation of others.
Great Agent of Change, give us hearts to see new life in our midst, and systemic change that brings true justice and racial equality.
Vicki Kemper is the Pastor of First Congregational, UCC, of Amherst, Massachusetts.