By overcoming addiction and violence, she set out to start her own ministry dedicated to helping the incarcerated.
Posted in , Aug 6, 2019
There’s no way of justifying what I did that terrible evening in June 1982, but at the time I felt I had hit an all-time low. I had been rejected time after time. I had lost my job, then my townhouse. I had been forced to go on food stamps and to move in with my boyfriend to give my three children a roof over their heads. Then it got worse. My boyfriend was selling drugs, and I soon became addicted to cocaine. All of his money went for drugs; all I had for my family were food stamps.
When it happened, I was down to my last $10 food stamp, and I couldn’t get any more for two weeks. For several days I had been feeding the kids macaroni and cheese, but the meals were getting smaller and smaller. That night after dinner I hit bottom when my five-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, I’m hungry,” and I had nothing to feed her—nothing.
So I took that $10 food stamp, got into my car and, with tears rolling down my cheeks, drove to a nearby convenience store. I figured I’d at least buy my kids some cereal and bananas. But when I arrived in the parking lot, I couldn’t stop crying. That’s when it hit me: There was no way I could feed my kids for two more weeks on $10. I backed out of the lot and drove aimlessly while I tried to figure out what to do.
Aimless—that was the story of my life. Nobody cared about me, really. My mother had allowed my father to take me from her as an infant. Before I was a year old my father ended up in jail. I was pushed from one family member to another, and physically, verbally and sexually abused—until I ended up in an orphanage. Through it all I had held on to the dream that marriage was the answer. But far from being perfect, my marriage too had ended in abuse. Even now my boyfriend was abusing me.
Tears blurred my vision so that I could hardly see to drive. But then I noticed a service station. That’s when the thought hit me: There’s a gun under the front seat. I parked and put the gun in my purse. That gas station represented a chance to feed and clothe my children. Maybe it would also get me out of the abusive situation I was in. And I could get cocaine, the only thing that made me feel good anymore.
Just as I was getting out of the car, the most beautiful voice I had ever heard spoke my name: “Sandra. Take the bullets out of the gun.” No one was in sight, but maybe because the voice was so compelling, I obeyed. It’s a miracle I didn’t shoot myself as I tried to figure out how to unload the gun. Then I headed to the gas station. The attendant, a young man with red hair and a thick neck and body, was alone. I couldn’t bring myself to pull out the gun, so I said, “Sir, my car broke down back there. Do you have a phone I could use?”
“There’s one outside,” he said, pointing to a pay phone near the road. I pretended to make a quick call, then went back into the gas station, trying to bolster my confidence by telling myself I really wasn’t going to hurt anybody. The attendant was still standing behind the counter. I asked, “Do you mind if I wait here for my boyfriend?”
“Not at all.”
Every time I opened my mouth to tell the attendant this was a holdup, my courage failed me. I was about to leave when he reached under the counter and brought up three white bags full of money. He emptied them to count the day’s receipts. There it is, I told myself. That’s what I came for! I yanked the gun out of my purse.
“This is a holdup!” I shouted.
The man behind the counter gasped, “You’re kidding!”
I thought if I explained why I needed the money, he’d understand. After all, it wasn’t his money. He was just working for a corporation. But he didn’t understand; so I ordered him into the back room and told him to sit there. While I was getting the money, he yelled, “Hey, you. Come back here!”
He called me back twice more before it dawned on me: “You’re calling me back so you’ll be able to identify me to the police.” My mouth went dry with fear. I grabbed an electrical cord to try to tie him up. As I stood behind him, I thought, Maybe if I hit him real hard on the head, he’ll get amnesia like they do on television. Shuddering, I hit him with the gun butt. He fell to the floor, saying, “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
I ran to him saying, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you!” He was faking. He jumped up, overpowered me and took the gun. He kicked and stomped on me, dragging me through the double glass doors at the front of the station. I kept screaming, “Stop, I didn’t hurt you! Please stop!”
During the struggle, the glass in one of the doors broke. Blood spurted from a deep gash in my left leg. When he got me outside, he put his foot on my neck, pointed the gun at my temple, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Cursing, he screamed. “There are no bullets in this gun!”
“You tried to kill me!” I screamed back. “Why did you try to kill me?”
The attendant raised his hand as if to strike me with the pistol, but just then the lights of a police car hit us. It turned out an off-duty policeman had been driving by and had called in an alarm. I was arrested, taken to the hospital for stitches, then locked up in the county jail.
A friend I used to work with raised bail money. I got a job in a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. But while awaiting trial, I fell back into the same old patterns. By August I was high on coke, had no money for food, and was trying to digest the information from my attorney that I would probably have to serve mandatory jail time for the gun charge.
You wouldn’t think a person in that situation would try to do the same thing again, but I did. I found a tear-gas gun that my boyfriend had and in broad daylight drove to the local meat market. There I walked around drinking a soda, trying to get up my courage. Finally I set the can down at the checkout counter, pulled the gun out and demanded all the money in the cash register.
That night about 2:00 A.M. the phone rang. When I picked it up, I heard a policeman say, “Come on out, Sandra. We’re waiting outside.” They had found my fingerprints on the soda can at the checkout counter. I was sentenced to five to ten years in prison; my children ended up in foster homes.
During the five months before my sentencing I was moved to five different jails. In each one the women kept inviting me to Bible studies, but I didn’t want to hear it. I had a real chip on my shoulder, and tried to avoid those women. After all, I didn’t figure that God cared a whole lot about me. But the women were persistent and when they told me I could get some extra time outside my cell by attending the Bible studies, I decided to go. It was better than being cooped up.
At one of the Bible studies, a guest speaker, Chris, was telling us about an automobile accident she had had. “Five minutes before the accident,” she said, “the Lord told me to fasten my seat belt. It saved my life.” I remembered the night I had tried to rob the gas station. What about the voice that had told me to take the bullets out of the gun?
“Chris,” I asked, “does God talk to people?”
“Yes, Sandra,” Chris said, “God talks to people.”
I told her about my experience, and she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord, Sandra! You’re alive today because of divine intervention!”
At first, I was angry. I went back to my cell, laid down the Bible they had given me, and looked up at the ceiling and said, “God, what do you want? Why did you spare me? All I’ve been doing is trying to kill myself.” Then I looked down at my open Bible, and my eyes fell on Ephesians 2:8: “… by grace are ye saved …” That day I gave myself to Christ, and my whole life changed.
I spent nearly five years in prison, but I studied God’s Word and witnessed to other inmates. I held Bible studies in my cell. And I decided that when I got out, I would start a ministry, which I would call Inside, Outside Prison Ministry. Since then God’s grace has prevailed, and doors began to open for me to develop my ministry. I am a member of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ Incarcerated Women’s Advisory Committee, and I have developed a Bible study curriculum for inmates.
It’s been 12 years since God called me by name and told me to take the bullets out of the gun. Today I continue my ministry. All three of my children have accepted Christ. I can testify that far from being rejected, I’m living proof of God’s grace, which has been sufficient for me in every situation. And I believe it is sufficient for all who will trust him.
This story first appeared in the August 1995 issue of Guideposts magazine.