I am not sure what prevented me from committing suicide. I had traveled a long, lonely road. I let circumstances from my childhood and young adult life boil inside me, until I felt angry at the whole world. I had thought that if I helped everyone around me and did everything they asked of me, they would like me, and I would find the happiness I craved. Instead, my preoccupation with pleasing others almost drove me off a cliff.
I began embezzling money from my employer so that I could meet the expectations I felt my family, co-workers, and friends had of me. I lived a lie, and it didn’t make me feel more liked and loved by those closest to me. Instead, I felt lonely and cold, trapped by the web of my own deceit. Deeply depressed, I thought about taking my own life. Instead, I walked into my boss’s office and told him the ugly truth.
They say the truth sets you free, and it does, but first I had to go prison. Under a plea agreement, I was sentenced to a year of incarceration. From the county jail, I was sent to the Valley State Prison for Women – in central California – just days before Thanksgiving 2004. I had never been to prison before. On my first night, my cellmate was sent to the hospital with a sudden illness. Then someone down the hall tried to light a cigarette and blew a circuit. The entire unit sat in the dark while rain poured down outside. I sat in my unlit room for six long days and nights. I was alone, except for the rat that scurried in and out.
The only things in my room were a Bible and a Prison Fellowship pamphlet explaining God’s plan of redemption. I picked them up and began to read. As I read, I struggled through difficult passages of Scripture. My internal conflict built. I wanted to know God. I felt Him calling me to be His servant, but I had questions and reservations.
On the sixth night, I called out to God. I cried and yelled, asking Him to save me from the life I was leading and take me as His child. I prayed that He would make the lights come back on, and that the rat would disappear.
The next day, the lights finally came back on, and I never saw the rat again. It was then that I knew that the Lord had heard my cries, and I would never be the same person.
Upon my release in October 2005, I went home to my husband, Jeff, who had also found the Lord during my time away. I made a promise to him that, as his wife, I would submit to him as the head of the household. We started attending church and Bible studies together. We distributed food to the needy once a month, and we served with Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program at our local church in Fresno.
While I was in prison, Jeff visited me regularly. Whenever he sat in the prison room, he was moved with compassion for the other women, most of whom never received visitors. “Someone has to go to them,” he said, so after I was released, he got involved with Prison Fellowship’s in-prison ministry, volunteering on Friday nights at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Corcoran, California. But me? I wanted nothing to do with the prison environment, even though deep down, I knew that God was calling me to go back into the prisons.
In March 2007, Jeff was transferred to Los Angeles for his job, and I came with him, continuing to work for the same commercial real estate broker who had employed me during the work-release phase of my incarceration.
Upon our move, we started attending Saddleback Church, where we are still members. We got involved with many ministries, but we always came back to Angel Tree, helping in any way we could. We did a study by Kay Warren on surrendering to God’s calling. I knew that the same God who heard my cries in the dark prison cell was calling me to go back and bring light to others, but the thought of going back into prison made me feel physically ill. I resisted as long as I could.
In December 2008, Jeff and I delivered an Angel Tree gift and talked with the children’s caregivers. Though I had always hesitated to share my own prison experiences, I knew that I had to comfort them. My story seemed to come pouring out of me. As I experienced God’s grace allowing me to share my story, I knew I had to surrender totally.
As we pulled away from the curb and drove down the street, I asked Jeff, “Are you ready?”
“For what?” he said.
“For how God is going to move us this coming year,” I replied.
“I don’t want to move – I like it here,” my confused spouse responded.
“Not physically!” I said. “Spiritually. God is calling us to do prison ministry together.”
Jeff used to be a race car driver, and he tends to drive quickly, but he was so excited that he stopped the car in the middle of the road and shouted, “Alleluia!” Then he turned to me and said, “Look where we are.”
We were right in front of the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a prison for men.
After going through orientation with Prison Fellowship, Jeff and I began to go into prison together in 2009. We volunteered for The Urban Ministry Institute (also known as Prisoners to Pastors), a four-year, seminary-level program that equips prisoners to become Christian leaders behind bars and back in their communities after they are released. The growth of TUMI at California Rehabilitation Center allowed for another class to open, and Jeff and I began facilitating our own class in November of 2009.
In March of 2012, with the expansion of TUMI to every prison in California, I applied for and received a full-time position with Prison Fellowship as a TUMI program specialist. Though I once resisted God’s will for me, now I spend all my time helping prisoners find the same hope that I have found. God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams. I have a marriage made in heaven and a job that allows me to be a servant of the Lord.
At the end of every TUMI class, I tell the students, “Bless somebody, but more importantly, forgive somebody.” I believe that to be true. As I accepted Christ’s forgiveness and learned to forgive myself, I stopped looking to other people to make me feel loved and valued. Instead, God’s love has enabled me to truly start focusing on others and what I can do for them. As Jeff and I serve together, every blessing we pour out comes back to us one-hundred-fold.