I rolled over on my jail cell mattress and looked through the dingy window for a glimpse of the world of freedom. My thin bedding crackled as I stretched to see better, but the one-foot-tall window didn’t offer much of a view. My eyes fell to the tract in my hand, and the sight of it made me shudder.
The flames on the cover taunted me, filling me with dread. The knowledge it was only a picture did nothing to diminish my distress. Although not able to physically burn, the flames held the power to emotionally disturb. Tears blurred the words as I pondered the question:
If I died today, would I go to heaven or hell?
Face the Fires of hell or an eternity of freedom in heaven?
With trembling fingers, I stroked the image of man’s version of hell.
Is this my fate?
I was religious—sort of. My mother did her best. She had her four children christened as babies and made sure we completed Sacramental Preparation classes so we could receive First Communion. We made it to Mass at least a couple of times each year, usually around Christmas and Easter.
Although I didn’t understand the things I’d heard in church and class, I felt I’d done enough to call myself a Catholic—especially since I wore a gold crucifix around my neck.
As a rebellious teenager, I heard a joke about different religious beliefs. “Catholics,” the comic said, “have the most fun because they have the freedom to do whatever they want—as long as they confess it.”
I’d found a new motto. Though I never actually made official confessions, I did confess my abundant sins to friends—usually when we were high and giggling about our dastardly deeds.
Growing up, I never felt good enough. A void left me feeling empty inside. I wanted nothing more than to feel worthy and loved. In an effort to fill the vacancy, I immersed myself in the “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” mentality, doing anything and everything to find acceptance and meaning.
With each foolish decision and every misguided deed, the black hole around me expanded and grew darker. Things I thought would fulfill me only left me feeling even more shameful and repulsive.
From Love to Obsession
Then I met Vincent, and my world changed. His love and attention filled the vacancy in my heart and made me feel priceless. I’d finally found happiness. Sixteen months into our marriage, life became even better when I gave birth to our son.
A year after that, however, he became pathologically obsessive. I had no freedom. He controlled my every move and isolated me from all my friends and family. His jealousy mutated and twisted into monstrous anger. Alone, afraid, and abused, the hole in my heart returned. I was a prisoner resigned to do whatever needed to be done to keep my once-loving husband from turning on me.
“If you leave me,” he roared through clenched teeth, “I’ll hunt you down. If I can’t find you, I’ll figure out a way to make you come back—you’d come back for your sister’s funeral, wouldn’t you?”
Frightened for my family, I stayed.
“Don’t even think about having me arrested,” he threatened. “You know I have friends who’ll take care of you for me if I’m unable to.”
I’d met those friends and knew it was true.
Paralyzed from fear, I stayed—even when his anger evolved into terrorizing me with daily threats on my life that included a knife to my throat while he sat on my chest or held me against the wall.
Then, the threat that changed everything: “If you hurt me, I’ll bring more pain than you could ever imagine. I’ll kill your son.”
My son? He’s our son.
When I looked into his eyes, I saw he meant it. That’s when I knew I had to do something—but what? Not knowing where to turn or who to trust, I got a gun. Although I never intended to use the ammunition that came with it, I believed holding the weapon in my hand would allow me to be in charge for once.
One Horrifying Night
Then it happened. The night his anger turned truly homicidal. Slash after slash, his knife cut me, filling me with horror I’d never known. Covered in my own blood from his torturous blade and in shock from his threats to kill our son while I watched, I rushed to the nursery.
Terrified for our lives, I forced myself to ignore my son’s cries and reached for the weapon I’d hidden high in the closet. The cold steel reassured me and gave me the confidence to face my husband.
But instead of yielding control when he saw the gun, my husband taunted me. “You don’t have the guts. It isn’t even real.”
To prove my determination, I fired a warning shot at the wall.
The Moment that Changed It All
And then it happened. He came at me to get the gun. As we fought over it, the gun went off. Then went off again.
In what seemed like the same moment, he ran away and out the front door.
In the confusion, I dropped the gun and ran to lock the front door. Next, I ran to the nursery to calm my screaming baby. As I rocked him and his wailing quieted, I heard my husband’s voice through the nursery window.
“Help me, Leigh Ann…“
At first, I believed he was trying to trick me into opening the door. But as his pleas for help grew weaker, I began to wonder if there really was something wrong. Finally, I put my son down and went to look out the peephole.
The sight of my husband lying in the front yard convinced me to open the door. I yelled, “I’ve called the cops! You better run!”
He didn’t move.
So, I went out to him, to try to get him to get up and run.
He still didn’t move.
His breathing sounded funny as he groaned and whispered my name.
When I realized he’d been shot, I called 9-1-1 and performed CPR.
My efforts to save his life proved once again, I was a failure.
Open to Something New
Jailed and charged with murder, anger and bitterness took over.
I’m the victim here—doesn’t anyone get that?
Then, a cellmate invited me to church.
“We can go to church here?”
She shook her head. “No, they come to us. Every Tuesday night, the church ladies come sit at our bars to sing and teach us about God.”
In search of relief, I accepted her invitation. When the ladies arrived, Alisha took my hand and led me to the bars. From the other side, two volunteers welcomed me with warm smiles and gentle eyes. They sang songs I didn’t know and said words I’d never heard. At the conclusion, they gave me a tract.
That night, as I lay in my bunk and read the tract, thoughts of going to hell for my sins brought even more anguish to my already devastated soul. It told me a simple prayer could save me from the eternal fires.
I stared at the prayer, which included words like sin, repent, and Jesus. They seemed familiar. I can do this.
Saying the required words aloud, I waited for something to change, but nothing felt different.
A New Book
“Why don’t you try reading a Bible?” Alisha asked.
A Bible? “Why?”
She smiled. “Because that’s what you do when you’re a Christian.”
“I’ve never held a Bible, let alone read one.”
Laughing, she handed me hers. “The Bible is God’s Word. It’s His way of communicating with us. Just try it.”
Desperately wanting to hear from God, I agreed. Although I tried my best, none of the words made sense.
I requested and received a Bible of my own and read it every day, but continued to find it frustrating and vague. Refusing to give up, I ordered a Bible study through the mail. While this helped with some of the verses, it continued to be a challenge.
Then, I found a “Christian book” on the library cart and began reading it.
On October 4, 1995, at 4 a.m., while everyone else in my cell slept, I read something that made me laugh out loud. The man in the book told me to thank God in all situations, no matter how burdensome. He said if I could thank God in the midst of my troubles, He would bring me peace.
“Sure.” I scoffed at the book. “Like that’s gonna happen. No one could expect me to thank God for everything I was going through. It was too much. How could anyone be thankful for losing everything?
I listed off the things I’d lost: my son, my husband, my freedom, my family, my job, my house, my nursing license, my money, my sanity, and most likely, my future.
How could I have a future if I received life in prison?
Out of nowhere, yet seeming to come from everywhere, I received an answer. Not an audible voice, but as understandable as if it came from someone whispering in my ear.
“Yes,” the Voice said. “Thank Me. Not for the things you have lost, which are nothing compared to what I have in store for you, but for what you can gain. Accept your situation and thank Me, and I will restore you and give you peace.”
At last, I understood. The prayer wasn’t meant to be fire insurance set to words, but a change of heart and understanding. A relinquishing of myself to the Lord.
Peace, Hope, and Love
Goosebumps covered my body. Tears filled my eyes. A lump the size of a fist filled my throat, making it hard to breathe. My lips quivered, and I fell to my knees. “Thank you.” The words came out as a whimper. “Thank you.” The trembling moved through my body, and sobs came out in gulps. “Thank you.”
A warm sensation flooded me. The feeling evolved into something indescribable—like electric currents flowing through my veins. Overwhelmed, I tried to figure out what it was.
Without understanding, I somehow knew. Peace, hope, and love. The void inside was finally filled—more than I could’ve ever imagined. With each breath, I inhaled His joy and exhaled my despair.
Then, another realization hit me—although locked up behind bars, for the first time in my life, I was no longer a prisoner.
Freedom for the First Time
God had changed my heart as I knelt on the concrete floor of the jail, and I knew, even if my trial resulted in life in prison, His truth had set me free.