It was Christmas morning 1982, and my phone would not stop ringing. I snuggled up in my warm bed, willing the phone to hush. But it kept on until finally I gave in, grabbed the receiver, and muttered an irritated, “Hello?”
It was my mother, and she got straight to the point. “Can Charlie stay at your place for a few days? The cops are looking for him. They want to talk to him about some murders that happened last night.”
I was horrified and tried to clear my head. “Murders! What? Oh, Mom, I can’t.”
“Juliana, he didn’t hurt anyone.” She took a drag off her cigarette, but not even the nicotine could hide the shaking of her voice. I agreed to come over and meet with Charlie but committed to nothing more.
This was not my brother’s first brush with the cops. He had already been to prison twice. My gut was telling me which way to lean.
But we did what most families would do—we protected our own. Charlie came to stay with me while my parents arranged to send him away. We didn’t talk about what had happened; we couldn’t. The dark cloud hanging over us was too thick. Nothing would ever be the same again. Dad and I took Charlie to the airport, and he boarded a plane for Dallas. I took a train to the city.
I rode the entire day aimlessly. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I desperately needed to talk to someone. I thought about going to the church we’d attended growing up, but those people had not been part of our lives since Charlie’s first time down. Besides, all they’d do was tell me to pray. Forget that!
But then I remembered Father Baseheart. He had given me my first holy communion at St. Gregory’s Church. I bussed my way to the old neighborhood, walked to the parish, and knocked on the door.
Father Baseheart reached out and welcomed me. He led me to an office, and I sat down. “Now, how may I help you?” he asked gently.
Tears flowed as I passed him a tattered newspaper containing the story of the murders. “My brother did this, and I don’t know what to do.”
Father Baseheart read the article. “We need to pray,” he said.
I left the parish soon after, walked to the nearest bus stop, and rode home. “Pray?!” I yelled internally as the bus bumped along. “Did You not see what happened, God? Why didn’t You stop it? Where were You? Nowhere to be found, that’s where! And now, I’m supposed to pray to You? I don’t think so.”
I was so angry. My family had been falling apart for years, and I had asked God to step in more than once. He didn’t seem to care enough to intervene. And now this? I couldn’t wrap my head around the pain and horror of the murders and the hopeless reality of my life. And so, for the next 16 years, I cut off communication with God.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t hurt anyone. My brother had, and he was family. We were the same. I deliberately set out to escape my reality. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my life, my family, and of what my brother had done. I had no one to talk to.
I tried to blend into society. I didn’t want to be identified as the sister of a murderer, yet I felt such remorse for Charlie’s victims. It was too much to bear, and I stepped into the fast lane. Men. Cash. Coke. Jack. I spun quickly out of control.
When Charlie was given a triple death sentence, I vowed I would never speak to him again. I was done with Charlie and Chicago, and I decided to move.
I set off to live with my older brother in Dallas. There I met his best friend, David. He was another bad boy—but boy, was he cute.
Daily life with David was one big party—until I found out I was pregnant. My maternal instincts kicked in, and I stopped doing drugs. I returned to Chicago. David followed me there, and we got married. Three months later, our daughter Jennifer was born.
We remained in Chicago for the next 13 years. During that time, I didn’t think once about God. I was doing just fine without Him. We had another little girl, Kelly, and set out to give our girls an incredible life.
When our oldest daughter was starting middle school, we decided to move to Phoenix. I was excited about this new adventure and proud of the family David and I had built.
But one day, as I mentally patted myself on the back for the incredible life we had given our girls, God spoke loud and clear. “But you have not given them the most important thing they need—Me!”
You could have heard a pin drop inside my head. I hadn’t spoken to God in decades, but I recognized His voice. Conviction gripped my heart. “You’re right,” I replied. It’s all I could say.
Reluctantly, I promised God I would take the girls to church. But I made it very clear that I wasn’t going. Drop off and pick up, that’s all He was getting from me. Of course, God knew better.
One night as I was preparing to pick the girls up from Wednesday night church, the telephone rang. It was the police. David had been in a head-on collision. He was okay, but they were holding him in custody. The victim, they said, had been hospitalized with injuries.
Custody? Victim? I was bewildered. The officer continued, “Ma’am, it appears Mr. McFadden may have been under the influence at the time of the crash. We need you to pick him up at the station.”
Turns out, David had fallen asleep at the wheel while under the influence of opiates and hit a Mercedes head-on. On May 16, 2000, just a year and a half after moving to our new home in Phoenix, David was charged with aggravated assault and given a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence.
Once again, a man I loved and trusted had turned my world upside down. First Charlie, and now my husband. Really, God? Still, I pressed on and tried to do the right thing. I kept my end of the bargain and kept taking the girls to church. But inside, I was devastated.
Week after week, I dropped them off, went home, and then back again. But I was a single mom now, and I was tired. So I began staying at the church with the girls. I thought it was a matter of convenience, but God knew it was a matter of connection.
One night, my friend Joanne invited me to go with her to hear someone named Anne Graham Lotz. I had no idea Mrs. Lotz was the daughter of the great evangelist Billy Graham until Joanne told me. I agreed to go.
Perhaps, I thought, if I went to the service, God would tell me whether I should stay with my husband or if He would give me the green light to walk away from my marriage. I was hurt, betrayed, exhausted, and emotionally done.
Funny thing, Anne Graham Lotz didn’t say one word about whether I should stay with David, but I still came away from the event with an answer. Can you believe God used a statement on a bookmark inserted in the event program to convey His message? On it were the words: “I have decided to _______.”
At the close of the event, we were each instructed to write down what God was leading us to do based on the evening’s experience. My eyes fell to the blank line, and I thought about my life. It was a mess.
For years I had sought comfort, hope, and peace but had always come up empty. I dropped my head to my hands and cried. I needed Jesus. And I knew it because I had once personally known Him.
I’d accepted Him long ago as my Savior. When I was little, Jesus had been my friend, and I’d loved Him. Then life happened, and I got angry and walked away from Him. But God had never walked away from me. Despite the wreckage of my life, I could feel His presence. He was still here.
I laid down my anger and prayed a true prayer of surrender. This was different. No longer was I acting like a spoiled little girl with arms folded defiantly across her chest. My arms and heart were open. I was ready to go wherever God would lead me. I had no hope without Him.
That night, in the blank spaces of the bookmark, I wrote, “I have decided to surrender my life to God—my will for His will. I commit myself to serve Christ.” This bookmark is still in my Bible today. Like in Joshua 4:21–24, it serves as a stone of remembrance of my commitment to the Lord.
Through spending time with the Lord, I knew I was to remain with David. I did, and God renewed my love for my husband and our marriage. He also led me to serve Him in a place I’d never dreamed—prison. It all happened because of my attending Al-Anon meetings.
Al-Anon provides support to people who have been affected by another person’s alcoholism. I started attending meetings after David was incarcerated. One night, about a year in, there was a request for volunteers to host Al-Anon meetings at Perryville Prison for women in Goodyear, Arizona. God poked my heart and would not relent about this new thing I could do to serve Him.
“But, God,” I protested. “There is no way I’m going to visit anyone in prison, especially people I don’t know!”
God shocked me with His reply. “But you love people who are in prison.”
“Actually,” I said, “I do not.” I hadn’t talked to Charlie in nearly 20 years, and I still wasn’t happy speaking with my incarcerated husband.
“Try it,” He said. “If you don’t like it, you can quit.”
I spent the next five years hosting Al-Anon meetings at Perryville. I loved the ladies and being able to serve God in this way. In Al-Anon, you share your experience, strength, and hope. I wasn’t shy in telling the ladies that I’d found all these things in God alone—the great I Am (Exodus 3:14).
And then, it occurred to me, “How can I love these ladies and not even speak to my brother?” I felt a deep sense of guilt. God was preparing my heart for what was to come.
Not long after that, my younger sister called. “Juliana,” she said, “Charlie tried to commit suicide. He’s been transferred to Statesville.” Charlie’s death sentences had been commuted, but he would spend the rest of his life in prison. I had not seen him in 20 years, and I knew I had to change that. I could not live with myself if he took his life and I had not reconciled with him.
I had just finished reading The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren (Zondervan, 2002). I was particularly inspired by these words, “God wants you to have a Christlike ministry on earth. That means other people are going to find healing in your wounds. Your greatest life messages and your most effective ministry will come out of your deepest hurts” (275).
Charlie needed to know that God had a purpose for his life. I immediately mailed the book to him, asked him to read it, and told him I would visit him in January. I booked a flight to Chicago and contacted the warden at Statesville with a request to allow me extra time with Charlie since I was traveling such a long distance.
God granted me much favor. I was allowed to visit two days in a row, two hours per visit. My heart leaped when I saw him. All I could think was that he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but think that that is how Jesus sees us, no matter what we’ve done. We are beautiful and precious in His eyes, and His heart is full of love for us. (See John 3:16.)
Charlie and I hugged each other tightly. Neither of us wanted to let go. Afterward, we stared at each other with tear-filled eyes. We had so much to catch up on. I asked Charlie to forgive me for abandoning him for so long. I told him I loved him and begged him never to hurt himself again. He accepted my apology and jokingly apologized for beating me up when we were kids. We both had a good laugh.
On our second day’s visit, I asked Charlie if he had read the book I had sent. He was halfway through it. I encouraged him to keep reading. “Juliana, you don’t understand,” Charlie interjected, “I don’t have a purpose. I’m in prison. There is nothing here for me.”
“God gives everyone a purpose, no matter where they are or what they’ve done,” I told him. “God has a purpose for your life even in here.” He looked confused.
“You are an OG, Charlie, and God wants to use you. Imagine if some OG on your first time down had befriended you and taught you about Jesus. Think about how different things would be. Instead of wanting to fit in with a gang, you would have been a disciple for Christ. But you can do that for someone else now. You might be sentenced to prison for life, but that doesn’t prevent God from using you. Don’t cheat yourself, Charlie. Keep reading the book. God has a plan, and you’re about to discover it!”
Not long after, Charlie rededicated his life to Christ. He remembered the God of his youth just as I had done. And in March 2006, he was baptized. It’s been more than 16 years since that visit. Charlie has persistently pursued a relationship with Jesus, just like Jesus pursued him—with his life.
Charlie’s thirst for learning about Jesus has been unquenchable, and his heart is on fire. Though incarcerated, he has completed multiple Bible courses, three college degrees, and earned a doctorate in theology.
Through the power of Jesus in him, Charlie has turned his deepest hurt into his Christlike ministry on earth. Once low and despised, he submitted to Jesus, and as promised in 1 Corinthians 1:26–28, God has used what the world would call weak and foolish to teach righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
Just days after my initial visit with Charlie, God brought a new friendship into my life. Cheryl lived in Tucson and hosted a weekly Bible study called SISTER (Spiritually in Step to Encourage Restoration) Connection, for women recently released from prison. I was intrigued for many reasons by this unique ministry.
First, I knew that if Charlie had had a Christian friend come alongside him the first time he was released from prison, he might have surrendered his life to Jesus sooner and experienced a different life outcome. And his victims would still be alive. Second, I realized that, while many programs existed behind prison walls, few existed that were willing to help formerly incarcerated people upon their release and in subsequent years. Interested to learn more, I visited Cheryl and observed her ministry in action.
Not long after, God opened doors for me to mirror Cheryl’s SISTER Connection in Phoenix. My friend graciously mentored me for nearly five years. In April 2012, I incorporated SISTER Ministries, Inc. as a 501(c)3 nonprofit outreach to formerly incarcerated women.
In addition to its weekly Bible study and support meetings, SISTER Ministries maintains a pen-pal ministry for currently incarcerated women and a gatekeeper program to assist with transportation upon release. In November 2022, SISTER Ministries celebrated 16 years of serving formerly incarcerated women.
I recently asked Charlie, “What did you feel when I told you that God has a purpose for your life?” He told me he was shocked. But then, I was surprised God had a purpose for my life, too. No, I hadn’t murdered anyone, but I had rebelled against God and rejected His love. There’s no difference.
How thankful we are that God is rich in mercy, and He pursued us. His goodness brought us to surrender (Romans 2:4). God loves to shock us with exceedingly more than we could ever hope or ask (Ephesians 3:14–20).
Does God really have a purpose for your life? Yes, He does.
God has a purpose, no matter what you’ve done or where you are. Don’t think that you’ve messed up God’s plans for a minute. You’re not that big. Surrender your life to Him—His will, His way. Jesus Christ is a restorer of hope. He gives purpose to anyone who will lay down their lives to Him.
Friend, what He did for me and for my brother Charlie, He can do for you, too.
Juliana McFadden lives out her life passion daily by ministering to formerly incarcerated women. To learn more about how she serves, go to sisterministries.org.