“Get back here, young lady!” Startled, my mother tried not to make a scene as I pulled away from her and ran as fast as my little legs would carry me to the front of the church. The preacher had made the altar call, and I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart.

I was only five, but I knew something extraordinary had happened that Sunday morning. God had picked me up in His arms and given me a big hug. At that moment, I was the happiest little girl on earth, and not even the spanking I’d get for disobeying Mom in church could change that.

I spent much time hearing about God in church as a child, but as I grew up, I often wondered where He was in my life. Domestic violence and alcoholism were rampant in my home, and divorce tore our family apart. In that darkness, I was sure God had forgotten about me.

I felt like my father forgot me too, as soon as he left our home. I was Daddy’s girl; his departure left a huge hole in my heart. I could only imagine it was my fault that he had left.

Life with Mom was scary and confusing. I learned later that she was mentally ill, but to little me, her actions didn’t make sense, and life was hard. Right after Dad left, she remarried a raging alcoholic who didn’t like kids. I lived in constant fear of him.

Mom’s struggle with mental illness often left me unsupervised, and I became vulnerable to predators. Evil intruded on my innocence through multiple molestations before third grade. Afraid, I told no one.

Life improved briefly when I moved to Florida to live with Dad, but his new girlfriend wasn’t impressed with the broken child thrust into her life. Her jealousy over Dad’s attention led to severe beatings that often left me unable to walk or sit down. And things only got worse when they got married.

The beatings didn’t hurt as much as the verbal abuse, though. My stepmother’s hate-filled words were like daggers to my heart, especially when I was diagnosed with learning disabilities. “You’re going to be crazy, just like your mom!” Her taunting words reinforced my suspicions that maybe I was marked or flawed somehow.

Life at school wasn’t any easier. I struggled to fit in and make friends and was often bullied. Back then, there weren’t many resources to help kids deal with their emotions, so I was on my own in my struggles and losing the battle.

By the ninth grade, I was fed up with life and tried to commit suicide. When I didn’t die, I felt even more like a loser. You can’t even do that right, I told myself.

Finally, after years of being pushed around, I started fighting back. After ending up on top of a few fights, I realized I had a hidden superpower. I could fight, and I was done letting people get the upper hand. I wouldn’t be the one to start trouble, but I was prepared to finish it. From then on, I never backed down from a fight.

Holding my own felt good, and I liked making people regret messing with me. But one day, I encountered a situation where I couldn’t fight back. A teacher withheld a passing grade I needed to graduate until I let him molest me. I was overcome with the all-too-common feelings of being used, worthless, and dirty.

I graduated high school and grabbed a one-way bus ticket back to my mom. Things’ll be better there, I convinced myself.

Only five days after my arrival, it became clear that Mom’s mental illness and my stepdad’s abuse had only gotten worse. During a psychotic meltdown, Mom kicked me out of the house with only the clothes on my back. I had just started a new job, and thankfully, my new boss came to my rescue and saved me from becoming homeless. That was my dysfunctional entrance into adulthood.

Life was one disaster after another. I felt like a magnet that attracted toxic people, danger, and injustices. In the coming years, I was homeless more than once, was raped multiple times, and was even framed for stealing by a person who pretended to be my friend. I lost my job over that one. I also landed myself in a domestic violence situation much like I’d witnessed growing up.

Finding out I was pregnant saved my life. I didn’t want my child to be raised as I’d been, so I mustered up the courage to leave that relationship and never look back. I would take on the challenges of being a single mom before I allowed my child to be subjected to violence at home.

Needing financial stability, I joined the Florida Department of Corrections. I knew nothing about corrections when I signed up, but at 23, I felt up for the challenge. I’d developed some thick skin over the years.

My first assignment was at a men’s facility with mixed custody levels. I balanced my street smarts with a solid work ethic and jumped the hurdles of being a new officer. I advanced through the ranks and, in 2004, became one of a handful of female captains in my region.

But the trauma, abuse, and rejection I’d endured before joining the department made me a ticking time bomb on the job. I was hard-hearted and unmoving, and I refused to back down from anything or anyone—staff or prisoner.

“Here comes Lucifer,” was the warning that echoed through the compound during my shifts. I was the heavy-handed captain who ran a tight ship and demanded perfection. Nothing and no one moved me. I was completely unfazed and desensitized. I felt nothing except anger.

For years, I struggled to steady myself with one foot in the prison world and one in society as a mother. Seeking safety, I married a man 20 years older than me. Instead of security, I acquired the chaos of his alcohol problem and mental health issues. I wasn’t equipped to cope, and it hit hard when I realized I was subjecting my daughter to the very cycle I’d sworn to protect her from. That marriage didn’t survive.

I continued to work hard and provide for my daughter and me, but I was unraveling daily. By the time I met my second husband, I was a hot mess.

This man of faith was from a stable family with deep roots in the community. He was everything I had once put on my wish list to God. In fact, at first, he seemed too good to be true. But he was the real deal, and I’m so glad he saw something in me worth fighting for. Our marriage of over 26 years is a testament to God’s grace and my husband’s patience.

For many years, I’d felt no joy, no pain, nothing. I was completely disconnected and severely depressed. I couldn’t engage in meaningful conversations with anyone unless it involved work. Every day, I pushed through the void, putting on what I thought was a good face in the community. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as good an actress as I thought. People thought I was a snob, but I was just a shell of a person without any capacity to feel.

The traumas I had endured in my personal life and the horrors I had witnessed behind bars, plus the havoc I’d caused in other people’s lives, were now causing my body to physically, emotionally, and mentally break down.

My health declined because of obesity, anxiety, insomnia, and a heart condition for which treatments were failing. My doctor was distressed. “Melissa, if you don’t make some drastic changes, you’ll be dead in five years.” I shrugged off his advice as if I were invincible.

One day, as I walked across the compound at work, I heard a voice I knew could only be God. “If you don’t get out now, you’ll lose everything, including your life.” I knew that ignoring that voice would be my demise. My 27-year career with the FLDOC was over—I retired in April 2017.

You’d think that would be good, but I had no idea how to live apart from the corrections world. I was not imprisoned, but I  had become institutionalized, unable to function outside of prison fences.

Then, in the middle of my identity crisis, God provided a new job for me—selling insurance. I had to talk to people in a world I knew nothing about—the outside world. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, I sat in my car in a grocery store parking lot and sobbed. I felt alone, overwhelmed, and afraid.

“All right, Lord,” I cried. “Here I am. I did what You said. I quit my job. Now what?”

God responded by opening my eyes to the real problem—me. My bitter heart was dark with pride, self-righteousness, unforgiveness, and judgment against others.

I had spent decades keeping society safe from those I judged as the worst of humanity. All the while, I’d been ignorant of the truth that the sacrifice Jesus made was for every soul—those behind bars, those who had hurt me, and yes, His sacrifice was even for me.

I recalled the many things I’d done in my youth against God’s will, any of which could have easily landed me in prison had I been caught. I was no different than those I had looked down upon. This revelation brought me to my knees in sorrowful repentance (Romans 2:4).

Stirring inside of me was the desire to be well. Like the disabled man by the pool of Bethesda, I was ready to roll up my mat and walk toward a new life with Jesus (John 5:6–9). To do that, I’d have to rise up out of the pew. I’d been sitting in church for a long time, but that hadn’t made me a Christian.

I knew in my head that Jesus had died for my sins and I believed it, but I had no relationship with Him. I’d lived half a century missing how desperately I needed His mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

At 52, I surrendered myself to Christ and began walking with Him. With each step, I have discovered hope and joy, and my soul has found wholeness—my mind, will, and emotions are no longer in chains.

Early in my healing, I ran into a former colleague who knew the old me. She was amazed at the change. We cried as I shared with her my journey with the Lord. She was excited to hear my desire to serve and share the gospel. “I’ll go wherever God leads me,” I told her.

My obedience was tested when my friend introduced me to a passionate, on-fire-for-Jesus woman named Nicole Dyson. (You can read Nicole’s story in Issue 2023-3 of VL.) Nicole invited me to a Bible study, and there I came face to face with a woman who had served time during my years with Florida DOC. She stiffened when she saw me, expecting me to reject or belittle her. Resisting the urge to run away, I embraced her. We hugged and cried, and I asked for her forgiveness.

God used that pivotal moment to show me that my brokenness had caused harm to another one of God’s children.

Nicole invited me to volunteer with her organization, The Jesus Infusion, a prison ministry inside the Florida Women’s Reception Center. I politely smiled at her invitation and told her I would pray about it. But my conversation with God was much more animated. Are you serious, God?! There’s no way You’re asking me to do this!

Going back behind bars wasn’t on my agenda, but I soon discovered it was on God’s. So, in 2021, three years after I’d retired from corrections, I headed back into prison as an official volunteer to minister to the incarcerated. My past and my healing and transformation journey helped me relate to those women in so many ways.

Recently, God opened the door for me to return to a women’s facility where I’d worked for eight years. The response to my presence has been mixed. Many people remember “Lucifer,” that cold-hearted, unyielding person I was, and they aren’t sure what to make of this new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17).

I’ve received bewildered looks and unkind comments, and there’ve been plenty of uncomfortable situations. But it’s okay. Watching God move makes it worth it. I’ve witnessed the power of Jesus Christ radically transform lives and have had the privilege of baptizing hundreds of women. The joy I experience in sharing the hope of Jesus is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

God has shown me that every season of my life—good, bad, and ugly—has been preparation for this moment on this mission field (Esther 4:14). And every day, I’m prepared to give an answer to the hope that lives inside me (1 Peter 3:15) and tell how God revived me from the dead.

I was once dead in my sin, and that resulted in me being dead emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. Then Jesus made me alive (Ephesians 2:4–10) to Himself, and He returned to me the life He created me to have—a life the enemy, others, and even I had tried to destroy (Genesis 50:20). It’s a life of purpose and connection. It’s a life fully worth living.


MELISSA LOTT is a warrior for Christ who combats the world’s ugliness with the gospel. Jesus has restored her heart, giving her the ability to feel, forgive, and see goodness in people. She enjoys joyful sunshine, being courageous in darkness, and being a whole bunch of trouble for Satan.