“Choose life or choose death. But choose life.”
Allan Cowburn has been Senior Pastor at New Life Centre Mundubbera for nine years. But 30 years ago, he was imprisoned for manslaughter. It was in prison that Allan gave his life back to God and found true redemption and freedom.
Making the 4 hour drive back from Brisbane to Mundubbera, a small town in eastern Queensland, is a regular ritual for Allan. Restocking the Life Care Community Food Pantry, which sells discounted groceries to those in need in the community, happens about once a week.
It’s on this drive that Allan gives me a call. “I can remember what my dad was wearing when he left,” he says.
He was only 3 years old, but Allan will never forget the day that his dad moved out of the family home. After his mother remarried and had three daughters, Allan always felt like he was an outsider in the family. “I saw that I was treated differently, which affected my relationship with my mum.” He found school difficult and had no outlet for his thoughts and emotions.
As a teenager, Allan was “mixed up” emotionally. He would date in the hope of receiving the love he needed, but when each relationship didn’t work out, it only served to fuel the anger already kindling inside him.
He dropped out of school and joined the army reserves. “I wanted to learn how to kill people,” he explains. “Watching violent television fed that desire in my heart for violence. There was one day I said out loud, ‘One day I’m going to kill someone just to see what it feels like.’”
A few years later when his mate suggested they kill his drug-dealer roommate, whom he often argued with, Allan said, “Yeah, why not?” He explains, “I had no reason to take his life, but I had made the decision to kill someone a long time ago.”
“I was originally charged with murder, but it was dropped to manslaughter because the jury couldn’t agree on the murder charge. It was by the grace of God I didn’t get murder. I was sentenced to 12 years with parole after 8 years.”
Allan’s journey with God started a long time ago. “I gave my life to the Lord at age 9, but I turned away when I was 11. After being prophesied over and told I was going to be pastor, I walked out of church and said to God, ‘I don’t want what you’ve got for me. I want to do what I want to do.’”
“But by the grace of God, after six years of avoiding the prison chaplains because I felt so guilty, sinning profusely and turning away from God, I was sitting in a young guy’s prison cell when he asked if he could read me a poem. He was a Christian trying to get his life right. I said, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”
“He read it to me, and I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me, ‘Allan, you’re at a crossroad again. Choose life or choose death. But choose life.’ And at that moment I said, ‘I’m so sorry, God,’ and I repented and gave my life back to the Lord.”
He was then invited to join a Bible study in the prison, where he met fellow inmate Graham. “I’ve just given my life back to the Lord,” he told Graham, “But I still want to kill people. Can you help me out? And Graham said, ‘Yeah for sure.’”
“He counselled me seven days a week for another 22 months. And when Graham was released, we found out that his prison time had been illegally extended through falsified psych reports, meaning he had been able to disciple me for all of that time. I believe that’s simply because I said ‘Yes’ to God. If you choose to accept it, God’s grace is far more abundant than anything we’ve done wrong.”
“Three weeks after Graham was released, I was released by the grace of God. I got out at 1:49pm on July 12, 2000. That’s when I crossed the prison property threshold as a free man. Free in Christ and free from prison.”
“My mum and step dad picked me up. We drove out of the prison. We pulled up under a tree around the corner and we just prayed. I said, ‘God I forgive the system, I forgive the prisoners, I forgive everyone, and I ask that you would guide me.’ That was a special moment.”
After a few years moving between Bible college and different jobs, Allan moved to Brisbane and started attending Garden City Church.
“That’s where I met my wife-to-be!” Very early on Allan and Marissa realised that God had been saying to both of them, ‘This is the person you will marry.’ “We met on Sunday, talked about marriage on Thursday, and by Friday morning I was giving her my testimony. At the end of my testimony she said, with tears in her eyes, ‘It doesn’t change a thing.’ That was God’s grace, that was God’s blessing.”
“Marissa and I met on the 16 March 2003, and we got married on 13 September 2003. No mucking around,” he laughs.
But what was it like to give your life back to God, I ask? “It was scary. I had no vision of my future, but God slowly built me back up again. He’s really done a work in me.”
“Graham helped me deal with my anger and my own unforgiveness of myself. He helped me see Jesus as he was. I knew God saw me as His son, but that took a while to really sink in.”
“It’s been a long journey of revelation. In jail when Graham was counselling me, he would say things like, ‘You need to forgive your mum and dad,’ and I would walk out of the room. But I would always come back because I knew that was where I needed to be. He was my spiritual dad.”
“God’s redeemed me from a path that I didn’t really want to go down. Now He’s given me a different path which gives me so much more satisfaction and completeness than any other path I could have taken. He’s redeemed me from those paths that are empty and fruitless.”
But it’s not always easy. Allan explains, “I have to stay connected with God, go to church and hang out with believers. I have to accept the redemptive plan that God has given me. And that’s a daily journey – ‘I’m not going to the pub today, I’m not going there today.’ In prison, Graham prophesied over me and said that I had already failed and that I wouldn’t fail again. I know what it’s like to be in jail, and I’m not going back there. I just stay on my knees. I tried to do things in my own strength and it just didn’t work. It’s been a bit of a journey.”
He may have taken the longer route, but Allan is now a pastor and he loves it! “I went to Bible college, and did a Bachelor of Ministry. In my second year, God was telling me to plant a church. I ended up getting the chance to be the pastor at New Life Centre Mundubbera, which happened to be the town my dad grew up in. Out of 8 churches that needed pastors in Queensland, I ended up there. I’ve been there for 9 years.”
What about the future, I ask? “God’s called us to Mundubbera – we’re staying there. We’re building more buildings, which will become a hub with a New Life Centre and Life Care Centre. I’m training people to become preachers. We’ve got plans to just go and go and go. God is good, and I’ve just got to keep trusting Him.”