In 1983, Melvin approached the doors of a Christian revival, looking to ask the “church people” for money. A large church service at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, campground was not the young man’s usual scene. When he wasn’t working odd jobs in welding and construction, he often spent his afternoons at a local bar, swapping stories with a friend over drinks.
Melvin knew little about the revival when he walked in. He did know he’d been living on the streets. That night, he wasn’t just scraping to pay for another beer. He was hungry.
“I remember going into the big arena, and I felt this electricity in the air, and it just hit me,” Melvin remembers. “I was just like, ‘Wow.’ I didn't understand what this was, and I wanted to get away, but I couldn’t get away.”
He lingered to hear the preacher’s message. When the service ended, a friendly couple took him to dinner. They prayed with Melvin and gave him some Gospel tracts and a Bible. As Melvin began to leave, the husband shook his hand and slipped him a $10 bill.
From there, Melvin headed to the bar. He tossed the Bible and tracts in some bushes along the way. He made it another block and then felt drawn to look back. He says that staring at the bushes, he heard a voice repeating, “Don’t leave me here.”
Melvin ignored the plea and continued down his original path—both to the bar, and further into his addiction.
Eight months later, he sat in a jail cell facing a felony murder charge.
FILLING THE VOID
Before moving to Oklahoma with his family, Melvin grew up in a predominantly Hispanic community near Los Angeles. As a child, he figured he was Hispanic like most of his friends, only to find out later that his family were members of the Muscogee people.
On road trips through Arizona and New Mexico, Melvin would gaze out the backseat window, captivated by signs he saw for small Native American shops and towns. He didn’t realize he belonged to the Muscogee tribe until he was 8 years old.
Melvin associated Native Americans with losing wars in the movies. And back then, Melvin wanted nothing more than to win—to secure a sense of identity, to excel in sports, to earn his parents’ affection. His family met his practical needs, a roof over their heads and food on the table. But showing emotion wasn’t commonplace at home. Melvin doesn’t remember receiving hugs or hearing “I love you.”
Melvin sniffed glue for the first time after seeing his older brother try it. He began smoking cigarettes with his dad and sneaking beers from the fridge, undeterred by the knowledge of his dad’s alcoholism. Later, Melvin tried marijuana.
“I was looking to fill a hole in my life,” says Melvin. “Something was missing not only because of God, but because of the lack of emotional expression in my family. I thought I needed something to fill what they weren’t filling.”
A BROKEN SPIRIT
By his early 20s, Melvin had welcomed a son and a daughter with two different women. But Melvin showed no signs of settling down. At age 23, while drunk and high at a party, he was arrested for his part in a murder. While he didn’t commit the act that night, he didn’t try to stop the incident and was implicated.
When Melvin arrived at county jail, his mother gave him a small Bible. At first, he set it aside, but he tried crying out for Jesus to save him from his crisis. Melvin was convicted and received a life sentence, and he went to prison convinced Jesus had nothing to offer him.
When volunteers and fellow prisoners tried to tell Melvin the Gospel, he wanted no part of it. Sometimes, he physically assaulted the prisoners who tried to share their faith. He spent many years making himself a leader of the native population in his prison and crusading against the Christian faith.
He told his Muscogee brothers, “You can’t become a Christian. You can’t live with Jesus. Why? Because he’s not for us. He’s from other people. He’s not for us.”
Later, Melvin was transferred to Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He dreaded sitting alone in a cell for 23 hours a day. One night, he called on his grandfather in prayer, as was customary in his Native religion. Weary and broken, he pleaded for a new way to live.
Then, he received a clear response from a voice he now believes to be Jesus: “If you really believed in me, you’d believe in Jesus, because I am Jesus.”
'If you really believed in me, you’d believe in Jesus, because I am Jesus.'
AWAKENED TO HOPE
When the sun rose in the morning, Melvin thought about the night before. He leaned over and reached for the small Bible that was collecting dust under his bunk—the same copy his mother had given him. Her parting words took him back to the night he flung a Bible into the bushes: “Don’t leave me. You need this.”
He opened the book and peered out his cell window, making sure no one could see him. Then he began to read John 1: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
There was the still, small voice again.
Because I am Jesus.
“I started realizing right then that God was the one that they called Jesus, that walked this Earth,” says Melvin. “Right then I made the decision, ‘OK, I asked you to put me on a path you want me on. If it’s Jesus, then I’m going with it.’ And I surrendered right then.”
NEW LIFE BEGINS
Melvin spent the next 27 years preaching the Good News to anyone who would listen. He received death threats from opponents of his new faith, but he persevered. When he ran into Aaron, a fellow prisoner and “native brother” he had ridiculed for being a Christian, Melvin cried on his shoulder and apologized for his past behavior.
“I’ve been praying for you, man,” Aaron told Melvin. “I wanted to see it. Now, I get to see it.”
The two remained close friends, even after Aaron’s release. Later, Melvin learned of a new program launching at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center (LARC), the Prison Fellowship Academy®, where Aaron would be program manager.
Led by trained, compassionate coaches at prisons across the country, the Academy takes men and women through a holistic life transformation. The program helps participants replace criminal thinking and behaviors with renewed purpose and biblically based life principles.
In 2018, Melvin enrolled in the program, where he encountered a rigorous hands-on curriculum and a diverse community of men eager to grow. They shared a living space, attended classes together, and learned to practice the Values of Good Citizenship™: responsibility, integrity, productivity, affirmation, restoration, and community. Melvin even began making peace with the men who once threatened his life, and he ministered to them.
“I enjoyed all the curriculum that was presented,” says Melvin. “It was basically a reminder of who Christ was in my life, the principles of being a godly man, and the life that I should be living while I’m in prison.”
Even if he was never to leave prison, Melvin felt freer than ever before.
After Melvin graduated from the yearlong program, Aaron asked him to stay as a peer mentor for other men in the Academy. Melvin taught lessons from the curriculum and cherished the opportunity to be a positive leader.
“That Academy was so influential in who I am today,” says Melvin. “I knew I had a calling in my life, but I didn’t really know the direction it was going to go. Prison Fellowship® gave me the tools I didn’t have before.”
Due to changes in the legal circumstances surrounding his case, Melvin was eligible for release after nearly 40 years in prison. He walked free in November 2021.
Melvin’s sister drove 100 miles to bring him home on release day. The moment he stepped out the door to embrace her, both joy and anxiety overwhelmed Melvin. Reentry meant freedom, but it also meant facing a world of unknowns.
Melvin lived with his sister. Then, Aaron connected him with a job at a nonprofit in Oklahoma City, and his Muscogee brothers helped provide new clothes. Melvin also found a church community and began to preach on occasion. To this day, every time he shares his testimony, he ends it with an old gospel song his dad taught him: “Thank God I’m Free.”
“The message is freedom in Christ,” says Melvin. “Whether you’re in prison or you’re out of prison, that freedom is there for you. I want people to experience that freedom.”
'There was the still, small voice again.'
'GOD IS MOVING'
Today, Melvin is still close with his old friend Aaron. He describes their relationship as “iron sharpening iron.”
“I said to Aaron not long ago, ‘You’re still my example of who I need to be in Christ. I still look to you. All along, you’ve been my example,’” says Melvin.
“We call each other all the time, teasing one another like we always have and giving updates on our lives,” says Aaron. “Melvin is my friend. I am very proud of him. Working with Natives who are being released from incarceration will be his passion and legacy.”
Recently, Melvin reconnected with another past acquaintance: his high school sweetheart Tammy. After decades of lost contact, they began corresponding a few years before Melvin’s release. The couple married in July 2022, with Aaron officiating the ceremony. Melvin also reestablished relationships with his grown children and enjoys getting to know his grandchildren.
Melvin continues to minister to others, especially his fellow Muscogee tribe members, however he can. Many of his native tribe knew him as a trustworthy advocate for their people in prison, even before he became a Christian. Melvin respects and celebrates their strong heritage and treasures the opportunity to share Christ with them.
“It’s like the Apostle Paul said, ‘I have become all things to all men so that [some] might be saved,’” says Melvin.
Melvin and Tammy founded Native Wings Like an Eagle, a nonprofit ministry serving the Oklahoma City area. He credits the Prison Fellowship Academy for giving him the tools to succeed, from setting goals to budget planning.
WHERE FREEDOM IS FOUND
Not long ago, Melvin was approved to attend a program graduation at LARC. As the prison came into view, his palms grew sweaty. Inside, he recognized some men through the window of the visiting room. They clapped and jumped for joy at the sight of him.
Later, the time came for “count,” when officers ensure all prisoners are present and accounted for. Melvin started to line up with everyone. One of the prisoners stopped him and said, “Buddy, you ain’t got to do that no more.”
Looking back, Melvin remembers, “I was like, ‘Oh yes, that’s right.’ When I was leaving that day, I thought, this is the same old mundane routine that I did for many years. It broke my heart. I started realizing this is what my people felt when they would come to visit me, then have to turn around and leave me here.”
Melvin could never forget the men he left behind. In June 2023, he and his wife received official approval to volunteer at LARC—the very prison where he spent the better part of 38 years in a 6-by-6-foot cell. He looks forward to serving in the same Academy that helped transform his life.
“Sometimes, I just get in the car, fill up the tank, and just drive,” says Melvin. “I’m thinking, ‘This is freedom.’ But really, it’s not freedom—I already had freedom. Freedom is in Christ.”
'It’s like the Apostle Paul said, ‘I have become all things to all men so that [some] might be saved.’'