To her neighbors, Michelle's life looked picture perfect. She and her son's father lived in a five-bedroom home on several acres of land. On the weekends, they socialized with their friends, and—depending on the season—zoomed around on their snowmobiles or four-wheelers. Her daughter was off at college and they had a son at home.
But beneath the surface lay horrific memories and deep guilt. A traumatic childhood. An abortion Michelle hadn't wanted. Drug abuse. And now—a long-term relationship that was falling apart.
Like the one she had created, Michelle's family of origin looked good on the outside. But her mother was an alcoholic whose depression overshadowed their home. Michelle's father, whom her mother had divorced when Michelle was 6, was also an alcoholic and frequently violent. Growing up, Michelle endured physical and sexual abuse but did not tell a soul. The message she received was that secrets should be concealed. At 13, she began numbing her pain with alcohol and promiscuity.
"It rooted from wanting to be loved," Michelle explains.
Michelle's hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York, was a favorite destination of many touring musicians, and she loved hanging out with bands like Duran Duran, Air Supply, and KISS. Her adolescence was one of risk-taking and living in the moment. But when she got pregnant at age 19, she decided it was time to settle down.
Michelle took a job doing the books for a local business. In 1988, she married her baby's father, a man 13 years her senior. But he turned out to be much like her own father—angry and abusive. When she unexpectedly became pregnant a second time, he forced her to get an abortion. Michelle became suicidal, and they divorced after 10 painful years together.
Then Michelle became involved with a much younger man. She loved their life of fun and the new son they welcomed into the world. However, they became entangled in drug addiction, and after a while, he became abusive. In 2006, Michelle asked him to leave. Later, she discovered he had been unfaithful with her best friend. She was devastated.
The message she received was that secrets should be concealed. At 13, she began numbing her pain with alcohol and promiscuity.
ONE BRIGHT SPOT?
Michelle's work life was a bright spot amid her painful relationships. A talented accountant, she found it fulfilling to help grow a small business to a multimillion-dollar corporation over 20 years. But the financial practices at work had always been a little shady. The business didn't always track cash payments, and employees were compensated both legally and under the table. Voluntary audits were unheard of.
Around the time Michelle separated from her son's father, her boss directly asked her to help him hide money.
"He'd say things like, 'You need me. You don't have a college degree, so you'll never get another job that pays what you make here. And that guy you live with—he's a loser. But I'll take care of you,'" she recalls. "I helped him break the law. I helped him commit tax fraud and tax evasion. It was our secret."
At the same time, Michelle was determined to hold on to the one thing that seemed stable in her son's life—their home. She started paying personal bills with a company card and taking advances she promised herself she'd repay.
Several years later, the business was audited. Knowing she would likely be indicted, Michelle began to attend church, hoping it might garner favor with a judge. At church, Michelle made a friend named Sue who urged her to come clean. Michelle thought the way Sue talked about God being the answer to her pain sounded crazy. But, exhausted and empty, Michelle did as Sue suggested: She told the truth. She was arrested in August 2010, and the judge gave her two to six years for grand larceny.
'I helped him break the law. ... It was our secret.'
THE WORDS OF A CHILD
Right away, Sue and three other women from church began regularly visiting Michelle and sending her letters. Their church participated in Angel Tree® Christmas, which delivers gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents. Sue made sure Michelle’s 11-year-old son received a gift. Sue also invited Michelle’s son to church, where he heard and responded to the Gospel.
During their weekly calls, Michelle would read to her son from the dictionary, doing her best to keep nurturing his mind. In turn, he shared truths he was learning at Sunday school.
"He started telling me about Jesus," says Michelle. "My son led me to Christ—and it was all due to him receiving that Angel Tree gift."
Michelle's church friends reached out to her family, too. They raked leaves for her elderly mom and enfolded her sisters into their community. Michelle was stunned by their hearts of empathy and selflessness.
"I never met people who loved me that didn't want something from me," she says. "Just to have their friendship with no expectations for me was so freeing."
As Michelle grew in Christ, she started facing the pain that lay beneath her poor choices. She recognized her anger at her mother for leaving her with an abusive father; she grieved the promiscuity that resulted from that abuse.
"When I was in prison, it was the first time that I was allowed to get real with my feelings," she says. "I was able to look at myself as Jesus does, as a child—and to love that child in me and heal the hurts of that child."
'My son led me to Christ—and it was all due to him receiving that Angel Tree gift.'
When Michelle was released in April 2012, the entire church gathered to welcome her home. Her friends took her grocery shopping and introduced her to worship music. At a fundraising dinner for an urban ministry, Michelle heard testimonies for the first time. She wept with awe at God's redemptive power.
While life was spiritually fruitful, finding work was challenging. Michelle was open to any legal employment that would allow her to pay rent and regain custody of her son. But because her charges were money-related, any job with access to a cash register was not an option.
Michelle's church hired her to clean the building. Then a church member referred her to a wealthy friend with a large finished basement. When she started this cleaning job, Michelle was honest from the get-go.
"Listen, I need to tell you that I'm on parole," she said nervously. "I was convicted of grand larceny. I can tell you I'm not going to steal from you, but you have a right to know because I'm in your home."
"Well, young lady," he grinned, "come here." He walked Michelle to a corner that was lined with bookshelves. "If you're going to steal anything, take as many of these (books) as you want."
Then he invited Michelle and her son to stay for a cookout. He eventually became a mentor to Michelle's son, and Michelle grew significantly in her faith through the Christian materials he shared.
Michelle is grateful that this man and her church were willing to give her a second chance.
"I was trustworthy, but I wouldn't have trusted me," she says. "But these people did. With the proper boundaries, you have to give people the opportunity to become better. How would I have moved forward had someone not let me clean their house?"
'With the proper boundaries, you have to give people the opportunity to become better. How would I have moved forward had someone not let me clean their house?'
While in prison, Michelle helped others sign up for Angel Tree Christmas. Once out, she wanted to continue that mission. In 2013, she became a Prison Fellowship Angel Tree™ coordinator at her church, a role that blossomed into her own ministry, Beacon of Light.
Through Beacon of Light, Michelle ministers to Angel Tree caregivers through friendship, practical help, and discipleship. Michelle partners with local churches to take moms on retreats. She connects families to Angel Tree camping and provides backpacks, sleeping bags, and transportation to camp.
Remembering the challenges of reentry, Michelle also supports returning citizens, helping them find housing, furniture, and jobs. Beacon of Light provides rent assistance for three months to participating families. They also offer rides to and from parole meetings.
"What is love?" Michelle asks. "It's remembering that everybody is made in the image of God, and when you love them like they are and provide accountability to them and a second chance, the possibilities are endless."
Out of her passion for second chances, Michelle recently spoke at her church during Second Chance® Month, a nationwide campaign to unlock second chances for the tens of millions of Americans with criminal records who have paid their debt to society. Michelle encouraged her fellow church members to help returning citizens and to educate themselves about policies that stand in the way of flourishing.
"As believers who have experienced the ultimate second chance by receiving God's forgiveness into our hearts, we are compelled to act and advocate for justice reform that provides full restoration," she said.
After she spoke, Michelle received several emails and calls from business owners willing to hire formerly incarcerated people. Someone else called with furniture to donate. Michelle is planning a walk/run this spring to raise even more awareness of the need for second chances.
'What is love? It's remembering that everybody is made in the image of God, and when you love them like they are and provide accountability to them and a second chance, the possibilities are endless.'
In 2017, a dream Michelle had since she was incarcerated came true—she was hired by Prison Fellowship®. Her first role was as an Angel Tree program specialist, providing support and help to Angel Tree coordinators. After that, she served in several engagement roles, attending conferences to spread the word about Angel Tree and register interested churches. Michelle was blessed by the way Angel Tree helped her stay connected with her son and was thrilled bring this opportunity to more families and churches.
In March 2021, Michelle shifted to become a church partnership manager on Prison Fellowship's church mobilization team. She now works with large churches that are making—or have the potential to make—a significant ministry impact. Michelle says her interaction with big-name musicians in her youth uniquely prepared her for this role. She is not intimidated by celebrity and relates to well-known churches and leaders with ease. Her message is one of friendship.
"We're here to try to partner with you to further God's Kingdom," she tells them. "Prison Fellowship is the world's largest prison ministry, and you're a big church in a powerful community where we could partner together. But in the meantime, people in your church are just as susceptible (to stumbling as anyone). How can I pray for you?"
'We're here to try to partner with you to further God's Kingdom.'
LIVING IN THE LIGHT
Since her release, Michelle has repaid all the money she owed, including back taxes to the IRS and New York state. She owns her own home, and she is passionate about financial transparency. She has required her son to file tax returns since he started mowing lawns at age 14. Beacon of Light is audited yearly. In Michelle's mind, in the light is the only place to be.
In recent years, Michelle has learned more family secrets: addiction and abuse that go back generations.
"It's amazing how history repeats itself until you talk about it," she says. "It's like you're in a cold, dark, damp place, and mold grows. But then when you shine light on it and bring warmth to it, all that dysfunction dies."
Though she could have chosen to keep her incarceration story a secret, Michelle has followed the opposite path—living in the light, offering help and hope. And as a result, children, families, and churches are being transformed, to the glory of God.
'When you shine light on it and bring warmth to it, all that dysfunction dies.'