During his developmental years in Rochester, New Hampshire, Josh Colwell fell into alcoholism, crystal methamphetamine addiction, and gang life, which involved more than a decade as a member of a motorcycle club.
“We called it a club, but it wasn’t exacted like the Kiwanis,” says Colwell, 38. “I was involved in a lot of criminal activity, which finally caught up to me. I did a lot of drugs, I sold a lot of drugs.”
Federal authorities arrested him and he went to jail for dealing. When released in the fall of 2018, officials warned him to avoid drugs and alcohol, unless he wanted to end up behind bars again.
So Colwell became a part of the SOS Recovery Community Organization in Dover, New Hampshire. There he interacted with Michelle R. Gagne, who began working at the facility in February 2019 in family recovery support. Michelle repeatedly invited Colwell to church. Her husband, Nate J. Gagne, is lead pastor at Restoration Church, which has campuses in Plymouth, Dover, and Milton, New Hampshire. Michelle preaches on occasion.
Colwell rejected the offers, and derided Michelle for her faith.
“He was still in rough shape, definitely uninterested in talking about God,” recalls Michelle, 32. Yet the Holy Spirit prompted a change of heart in Colwell one Sunday morning in June 2019.
At 10:45 a.m. Michelle received a Facebook message asking her what time the service started. Michelle again thought Colwell wanted to tease her. But then he asked if he could attend and what he should wear. Michelle told him the service started in half an hour and he could wear the T-shirt and shorts he had on.
Colwell felt at ease immediately once inside the sanctuary, even though he knew no one except Michelle. He plopped himself in the front row at the Dover campus and
listened to assistant pastor Andrew Zemianek preach a sermon about the Prodigal Son. Colwell identified as the black sheep who walked away from his churchgoing family to seek worldly pleasures.
In the narthex afterward, Michelle, the mother of four sons, found the burly Colwell sobbing.
“I just don’t understand how God could still love me,” he confessed.
The Gagnes have been helping him figure that out the past 17 months.
“I felt God that day,” Colwell remembers. “It was the most powerful and amazing experience I’ve ever had. I thought I was a lost cause.”
Colwell became evangelistic in telling others the good news that he received. He began inviting other residents of the sober house to church. The burly, gravelly voiced Colwell is an imposing presence in a room. He stands 6 feet, 3 inches tall.
“The Prodigal Son was the perfect story to hear that day to let me know that no matter what mistakes I had committed in the past, I was always welcome in the house of God,” Colwell says.
Of course some changes didn’t happen overnight.
“At the beginning when introducing me to other people and telling about his transformation, all his conversations were filled with expletives,” remembers Nate, 39. “He then began to soften, and I saw a transition from a street life to a Spirit-filled life.”
Nate also convinced Colwell to use the name of Jesus rather than the generic “higher power” customarily invoked in his 12-step recovery program.
Colwell was baptized at the church in July 2019. His mother, Betty Burke, ran up and gave him a giant hug as he emerged from the water.
Nate notes that several Restoration Church adherents attend because of Colwell’s influence.
“Josh has brought a lot of people to church who knew him when he was so rough,” says Nate, who also is Assemblies of God Northern New England District assistant superintendent. “People see the transformation in Josh and it breaks down walls in their lives.” Nate baptized nine people at the church last November, all of whom came to salvation as a result of contact with Colwell or Michelle.
One of the major changes in Colwell’s life involved shedding his white supremacist views, although real progress didn’t happen until the spring of this year.
“I was really racist and still had racist thoughts in recovery,” Colwell admits. “But within the last six months, my thought process has changed completely.” He has sought out people of color in an effort to be educated on how not to be offensive in any way. Part of the process is trying to gain understanding of what it would be like to have Black skin.
“I’ve never had to worry about being pulled over by cops and fear about being hurt,” Colwell says. “We’re all equal in God’s eyes. If a group of people is struggling, we all should come together to help them. We need to show love when there is fear.”
Colwell, sober from alcohol and illicit drugs for over two years, in February 2020 began working at SOS Recovery Community Organization in Dover, the same place as Michelle. He is a criminal justice peer recovery specialist, connecting with those on parole, probation, in drug court, and just out of prison. His role includes helping them obtain resources such as a driver’s license or housing, making sure they attend recovery meetings, and meeting with them one-on-one to review goals.
Those who knew Colwell during his drug-dealing days find his metamorphosis unbelievable.
“Josh is a complete polar opposite from just two years ago,” says Michelle, who now is operations manager at SOS.
“I know God moves in people’s hearts because he moved in mine,” Colwell says. “I couldn’t have made these changes on my own.”
Photo: Josh Colwell (right) has been discipled by Michelle (left) and Nate Gagne.