The following is adapted from a commencement address delivered to 13 University of Maine at Augusta graduates who earned bachelor’s and associate’s degrees while incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren. The commencement ceremony took place Nov. 4, 2013. The inmates’ education costs were paid for by the Sunshine Lady Foundation, run by Doris Buffett.
How many of you dream about getting out of here? About starting over? Can this be a real commencement, a new beginning, when you’re still behind bars?
In biblical times, the oldest son automatically inherited his father’s wealth. As the younger of two brothers, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and deceived his blind and dying father into conveying the wealth and privileges of the older son to him.
When Jacob’s brother discovered the deception, he threatened to kill him. So Jacob ran away and, although he enjoyed his wealth for many years, he was also racked with guilt and fear, wondering whether his past would catch up with him.
After many years, Jacob decided to try to make things right with his brother. The night before their intended meeting, he dreamed that he wrestled with a man all night. At daybreak, Jacob audaciously refused to let the man go until he blessed him.
Although he had lied and stolen, his foe blessed him, saying, “You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.” And then he gave him a new name.
It was just a dream, but it was life-changing. It gave him a second chance and a new name.
Many of you know about that kind of dream. You, too, would like to clear up the past and make a new start.
You have shown your resolve. Like Jacob, you’ve wrestled: with your wrongdoing, with daunting academic demands, with some inmates seeking to lure you into old habits, with those who define you only by your past, with an identity that has been reduced to a number. But you have not let go of your dream. You have prevailed. That is why you are here today. I salute you. Today is your commencement — a new beginning.
But have you wrestled against the most insidious force you will encounter — defining yourself essentially by your past? Have you internalized a new name and a new identity?
It won’t be easy. I remember an inmate at Sing Sing Prison in New York who felt as if the word “felon” was stamped on his forehead. Even if it were to be erased, it would remain indelibly stamped on the inside. He would always consider himself a felon. I hope he was wrong.
Today, as a result of your wrestling, you will leave here with a degree, and others will have a chance to see that you have moved beyond your past. Now, the daunting challenge before you is to be freed internally — to affirm your worth as a person.
With your new identity comes the realization that you have something to offer. You’ve been blessed in order to be a blessing. Wherever life takes you, use the knowledge you have gained, the experiences that have brought you to this moment, and everything you are and have to serve others and make the world better.
When the celebrated octogenarian Maggie Kuhn needed to be carried from room to room, she said, “I may not be able to butter my toast, but I can still work to make the world a better place.”
It’s true that you are still incarcerated, and it may be years before you are released. But you can work to make the world better where you are, if you claim the new identity that offers you a second chance. You need not be imprisoned by the identity of “felon” but rather claim your identity as a full human being possessing dignity and worth who can be a blessing to others.
Congratulations on a job well done. But don’t stop dreaming. Today is your commencement — your new beginning.
You’ve been wrestling all night. You’ve known the dark night of the soul. Now it is daybreak.
The Rev. T. Richard Snyder of Camden is chair of the board of the Restorative Justice Institute of Maine, founder and a board member of the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast and professor emeritus and former academic dean of New York Theological Seminary. He recently served for two years as academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary. He is the author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Punishment.”