Sandy Harrell had been in prison for a few months when a guard told her that her daughter Casey would be there soon.
And not just for a visit.
Harrell’s youngest child was about to join her at Missouri’s Chillicothe Correctional Center.
The chaotic life of using and selling methamphetamine had caught up with them – again.
“I’d been in jail before, but never with my daughter. That’s when reality slapped me in the face,” Harrell said.
“She and I were in our cell one morning and I was drinking coffee and watching her sleep. Soon she woke up and we were sitting there together and she said, ‘Look Mom, isn’t this great? It’s the first time we haven’t fought over a meth pipe even once!’“
Harrell’s heart instantly broke. After her daughter left the cell to take a shower, Harrell remembers crying out to God for help. In that moment she realized that the life of drug abuse is the only life her daughter, now 30, had ever known.
“I remember asking God to help me because I had lived no other life and something had to change,” she said. “I felt His presence and a kind of peacefulness and I remember a warm sensation covering me. I knew He was listening.
“I was raised in a good home; I just wish I could say the same for my own children,” Harrell said.
A single mom of three kids, Harrell started doing meth after having her second son, Chad. She started using it as a way of losing some weight after having a baby, but it turned into years of drug abuse. Harrell said she even used meth while she was pregnant with Casey.
“Because of my drug use with Casey, I didn’t even discover I was pregnant until I was seven months along,” she said. “I didn’t stop using even then. My baby, my youngest child, had never seen me clean.”
Though Harrell always believed in God, she never believed she was worthy of His love. But she knows God saved her at the Chillicothe Correctional Center. But Harrell had no idea how to live a different life than the one she had been living for the previous 34 years.
Then she had to do one of the most difficult things she’s ever done: “I had to leave my daughter in the prison when I was released on July 2, 2014.”
Harrell had only one friend who was “clean” and living a godly life, but was in another town.
At first she stayed with her son, Chad, who miraculously escaped the life of drugs and crime that was normal to the rest of the family. But it wasn’t long before she moved to her own apartment.
Harrell was alone for the first time in her life.
“I was worried,” she said. “I didn’t have a church or any clean friends yet, so I read my Bible and prayed – a lot. I checked out a couple of churches, but I couldn’t find a place where I fit in.”
Then she received a call from her cousin, Barry Agee, who asked if she had being doing any meth since she got out of prison.
“I told him I didn’t want to get high anymore,” Harrell said.
Agee then invited her to a Saturday night gathering at Freeway Ministries, a ministry funded in part by Crossway Baptist Church (CBC) in Springfield, Mo., and founded by a CBC member. Freeway Ministries focuses on assisting the local church with hard-to-reach men and women, setting forth the gospel in a way they can relate to – by people who have been in the same circumstances.
“It was exactly what I was looking for. I loved it,” Harrell said.
She started a 20-week discipleship class at Freeway that answered many of the questions she had about God. She also met women who showed her how to live a life without drug abuse.
“I always went to church with my mom,” Harrell said, “but I never had a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“With Jesus,” she said, “even the worst days I have now are better than the best days of my old life.”
Since first walking through the doors at Freeway more than a year ago, Harrell has been baptized, she has become a member of Crossway and she volunteers at Freeway and at Clarity Recovery and Wellness, a drug addiction treatment center.
“I have been able to get involved and see lives changed every week at Freeway,” Harrell said. “God always shows up on Saturday nights.”
“Sandy is a bright light,” said John Stroup, ministry planter and evangelist for Freeway Ministries. “God has done a great work in her heart and life.”
But there is still pain and consequence to sin. Harrell’s daughter, her oldest son and her husband remain in prison. She prays for them daily and writes letters to them, sharing her newfound faith and knowledge.
And God is working. Recently her husband Gary, who had never read a Bible since Harrell had known him, was saved in prison and has been reading his Bible daily.
“God restores families and I am waiting on that day that we are all together again,” Harrell said. “In the meantime, God has filled the void in my life with an awesome church family.”
And when Harrell thinks back to her past and some of the dark and dangerous situations her choices led her to, she is always reminded of Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV).
“My former chaotic lifestyle led me to houses where there were gunfights and where people were stabbed … when I should have been home with my kids,” Harrell said.
“God protected me through it all; He always provided a way for me to get out; I see that now. I am so excited to see what His plans are for me. I just have to be obedient.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kayla Rinker is a writer in Park Hills, Mo. This article first appeared in The Pathway at mbcpathway.com, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.)