I was 21 years old the first time I recall hearing my mother say she loved me.

She was sitting across from me in a visitation room at a North Carolina jail. “Boy, when are you going to straighten up and do right?” she said, shaking her head. Then she added, “I love you.”

Her words caught me so off guard that I got up from my chair and asked the officers to take me back to my cell. I had to get out of that room. The thought that my mother loved me shook me up. I had never felt loved by her.

She and my stepfather were heavy drinkers who neglected and abused my younger brother and me. We behaved the best we knew how, but we were still the targets of their abuse.

My stepfather made it clear he hated me. He reminded me often with his words and fists that I was a burden to him. My biological father had moved away to New York years before and refused to own me. It was terrible to be unwanted.

Like many children living in poverty and abusive homes, I often went to bed hungry. My stepfather’s only concern was finding his next drink, and he often sold our food for liquor, not caring for the needs of his household. I would lie in bed, hungry and frightened. My brother and I never knew when he would next burst into our room and take out his frustrations on us.

I couldn’t understand why my life situation was so different from the other kids. Why didn’t I have a family that cared for me or have food and proper clothing? Why couldn’t I go to school and learn?

During the day, my brother and I worked in the local cotton fields; we couldn’t attend school. Our parents took the little money we made and used it for alcohol. When I was around 9, I decided I’d had enough. I ran away and went to the streets. I felt more protected and better cared for there than in my own home.

It wasn’t long before I was in trouble. A judge sent me to the Martin Training School for young black boys in Rockingham, NC. I was there for two years, and then was sent back home. They put me in school, but the kids there made fun of me for being so poor and uneducated. I started playing hooky, but the attendance officers always found me and took me back. This cycle continued until I was 16, and then I quit school altogether.

I moved back to the streets, where I was arrested many times and labeled a violent offender. Alcohol was always involved. After my final arrest, my mother came to visit me. That’s when she told me she loved me. Despite all the pain she had caused, her words tore at my heart.

When I returned to my cell, the guys asked if I wanted to resume the card game we’d been playing before her visit. I told them no and went straight to my bed.

I started thinking about the Christians who often came and shared God’s love with me and the other inmates. These strangers had cared enough about us to tell us about God’s love. They were more concerned for me than my own family was. As I remembered their kindness, the Scriptures they’d shared suddenly came to mind.

I got down on my knees and prayed. “God, I don’t know You that well. And I don’t know how to know You, either. Teach me who You are.” I told the Lord how sorry I was for all the wrong I had done. And I asked Him to help me do right and to help others. God heard my prayer, and from that day forward, my life was changed.

A month later, carrying two five-year prison sentences, I was sent to Butner Penitentiary. I learned so much about God there. He showed me that there isn’t one door that He can’t open, including a prison door. In less than two years, I was set to be released on parole. No county in North Carolina wanted to receive me, though, due to my violent background. Then, the parole board in Pitt County called and said they would take me. I was released and moved to Greenville, North Carolina.

I was a young man, full of God’s Spirit, and excited for a new life when I arrived. A local vocational program helped me find work in welding, but I still lacked the godly relationships and support I knew I needed. So I started attending some local churches. I thought for sure I’d find help there.

But I was rejected. Several people even told me not to come back to the church because they didn’t want someone like me around. They couldn’t look past the man I had been, to see the man of God I wanted to become.

I felt shamed and rejected by those who called themselves Christians. I would later learn that not everyone who calls themselves Christian are true followers of Jesus Christ. John 13:35 says we can identify a true believer by their love for others.

I became discouraged and soon went back to the streets, where I knew I was welcome. Not long after, I started drinking again. Thankfully, God sent someone to help me before I traveled too far down that old, familiar path.

I was standing in front of a local diner called Sam and Dave’s when a man about my age walked over and asked if I needed a job. He had a large piece of property and needed some help maintaining it. I accepted his offer; I needed the work.

I had never met anyone like this man, Parker Overton. He said and did such strange things. He was kind, generous—he made me feel like a human being even before he really knew me. I worked for him for some time and then asked if he could help me get my driver’s license back. I had lost it due to past DUIs. He said, “Frank, I would like to help you get your license back, but I can’t. You’re still drinking, and if I help you get back on the road, you might kill my family.”

His words stuck with me, and I stopped drinking. Soon after, I stopped smoking too. It turned out that Boss, as I like to call him, couldn’t stand the smell of cigarettes. He didn’t even want to see a cigarette butt on his grounds. I thought to myself, what kind of man is this here? But I was drawn to his character and the way he did things. I knew I could trust him.

One day, Boss said to me, “Frank, if you’ll stay and help me, I’ll be there for you. I’ll help you and look out for you.”

From that day on, I’ve made good on my promise to stay with him and help him as he’s needed, and he has kept his promise to me. He has never denied me.

It’s a funny feeling to be cared for by someone who owes you nothing. Boss and his wife, Becky, have invited me into their home, let me sit at their table, and fed me many meals. They’ve helped me in ways I can never repay. God gave me a daddy in Boss that I never had.

In the 35 years since we met at that diner, I’ve cut thousands of miles of grass. And all the while, I’ve thanked God for His merciful intervention. I’ve cried, sang, and shouted out from that tractor seat, lifting my voice to God in gratitude as well as bringing Him all my concerns. I know He has heard every word and seen every tear, because I feel His presence daily. One time, a neighbor asked me who in the world I was talking to out on that tractor. “I’m talking to God,” I said. I didn’t care how I looked to others.

Today, because of God, my life is entirely different from how it started. No, my family never treated me right, but God has never forsaken me. He sent people into my life to love, support, and believe in me. He helped me make good choices, do right by people, and build and pastor a church.

And when I’ve faced difficult times, He has strengthened and comforted me. Like when I lost my wife, Delois, of nearly 30 years in 2014, and my brother, Otis, in 2004. He was walking his dog when some teenagers drove by and shot him for fun. They didn’t even know him. God has even helped me make decisions for my elderly stepfather’s medical care. With our past, that wouldn’t be possible apart from God.

God is ready to help you, too. He’s just waiting for you to get on your knees and cry out to Him. When you desire Him, God will change your life in ways you can’t even imagine. Trust Him. He will always be good to you, even when people and situations are not.