A Radical Rescue and Redemption
Doctors didn’t expect Julie D. Seals, born with meningocele spina bifida, to survive past infancy. When just 6 months old, she underwent an operation to scrape a tumor off her spinal cord. At that point, a physician told her parents that Julie would never walk and she would be mentally retarded. Both predictions proved wrong.
Julie had more spinal surgery at age 12. She again defied a medical prognosis of permanent paralysis.
Still, as a teenager, Julie endured much physical pain, alleviated by prescription narcotics. Her parents — an electrical aerospace engineer mother and optometrist father — always drank alcohol in the evenings. Julie began to help herself on the sly.
At the age of 19, while working at a Southern California tanning salon, Seals wanted to fit into the cultural image of a tiny-waisted beach blonde. A customer provided her with what she considered the perfect connection to drop 20 pounds.
The naïve Seals met a woman at a Huntington Beach bar to buy methamphetamines, which in 1984 had more of a reputation as a weight loss drug rather than today’s reality as a gateway to addiction and potential death. For Seals, the usage began a 17-year destructive journey dependent on crystal meth.
Seals soon started attending parties and going to nightclubs frequented by cocaine users. She married a guy involved in the lifestyle, but divorced him after repeated physical beatings.
Her descent into a daily pattern of illicit drugs and intoxicating drinks — beer, vodka, rum, tequila, wine and more — rose from a desire to numb both her emotional and physical pain. The latter included amputation of her left leg at the age of 28 due to gangrene, which stemmed from neurological complications from spina bifida.
Because of her drug addiction, Seals lost custody of her 4-year-old son, Tyler. Despondent and a fugitive for a probation violation, she fled to Ensenada, Mexico, where she went days in a stupor without eating.
“I was committing slow suicide with meth and alcohol,” Seals remembers. “I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I felt like scum.”
She agreed to smuggle drugs into the U.S. for traffickers. But when she reached the border, she turned herself in, even though she realized that the four pounds of meth strapped across her waist could result in a life sentence.
In custody, Seals sat on her prison bed and cried for a week.
YIELDING TO CHRIST
Behind bars, Seals received a visit from church women volunteers. They told her that Jesus died on the Cross for her and He loved her very much.
“It was a brand new revelation,” the now cheerful Seals remembers. “I was consumed with guilt and shame. I thought I was worthless trash.”
Seals repented of her sins and gave her life to Jesus in 2001, at the age of 35. She began reading the Bible and, comprehending that God had a purpose for her, began a radical turnaround.
At the same time, Seals faced the amputation of her other leg because of an infection from stepping on a rusty nail months before. A penitentiary doctor told her he would amputate at the first sign of gangrene.
Women prison volunteers joined her in prayer for healing. Seals sensed God would heal her leg. The prison doctor laughed at her faith. Yet gangrene never came. God supernaturally restored her leg.
Although at her arraignment she faced a minimum 17-year sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey T. Miller released her on probation after she served just 22 months. Seals will never forget Miller’s words to her on sentencing day: I see something different in you; I’m going to give you a second chance.
Seals received 20 scholarships at San Diego City College, had a 4.0 grade point average in earning her associate’s degree, and delivered the graduation speech. She went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in health science. Seals wrote a letter to Miller telling of her academic success; the judge remarked that he had never seen such a life change.
Because Pentecostal ministers visited her in prison, Seals began attending a Pentecostal church when released. There she met her current husband, Mike, whose first wife had died of breast cancer. The couple married in 2006 and started attending San Jacinto Assembly of God, then pastored by Gordon and Nonda Houston. Nonda now is national director of AG Women’s Ministries in Springfield, Missouri, and she invites Seals to speak at women’s ministry events.
“Everyone can resonate with some part of Julie’s story: a relationship gone awry, a family member in prison, being on drugs, going through a divorce,” says Houston, 58. “But her story is extreme. Few have encountered everything she has.”
And because Seals has overcome so much and retained her joy and enthusiasm, Houston says it impacts women who are going through trying circumstances.
“She is a mature disciple who is a hope dealer now,” Houston says. “People realize that if Julie — who has one leg, is an ex-junkie, an ex-drug dealer, and an ex-convict — can be restored, then God can do anything.”
Houston says Julie and Mike read the Bible and pray together every morning because they are aware of spiritual warfare around them. Houston says Seals is ever mindful that demons knew her name.
Julie and Mike, who now are both ordained AG ministers, moved to Florida and immediately became involved in prison ministry. Even though she is an ex-felon, Julie regularly volunteers at Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala.
“I tell inmates there is hope, they can change,” Julie says. Mike, a U.S. Navy senior chief who had no idea what he would do upon retiring after 25 years of service, is now a full-time senior chaplain with the Florida Department of Corrections at Hamilton Correctional Institution.
The perky Julie also speaks at many women’s ministries conferences, where she frequently encounters mothers and grandmothers with wayward children. She also is able to offer hope to women not necessarily in a physical prison, but who are nevertheless bound by depression, grief, or addiction.
Seals is writing her first book, with the working title of Overcoming Every Obstacle, which she hopes will be widely distributed in correctional institutions and Adult & Teen Challenge facilities.
In part because of her past, Seals has an empathy for inmates that other ministry-minded Christians may lack.
“No little girl wants to grow to be a drug addict, a murderer, a drug smuggler,” Seals says. “But people go down the wrong path.”
In addition to prison ministry, she offers encouragement to those in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and recovery homes. It thrills Seals to see burly, tattoo-covered men crying on their knees at an altar, men who have hope for the first time in years because they have accepted Jesus.
Mike, 58, and Julie, 56, attend Greenhouse Church in Gainesville. A decade ago, Seals reunited with her son Tyler, who is now 28.
SOBRIETY BREAKFAST CLUB
One of Julie’s newer ministry efforts is a “breakfast club” for women in recovery, started six months ago in Lake City. The group now has nine regular participants.
While eating at a restaurant, Mike and Julie engaged server Aquria Faciane in conversation. Faciane, who had just moved to the area, revealed that day marked her one-year anniversary for sobriety. As the discussion ensued, Julie realized that Faciane could slip back into addiction because she had no support system: her husband is in prison and she is raising two daughters alone. Thus, the breakfast club idea formed. And Seals became Faciane’s friend.
Faciane appreciates that Seals is available to help her.
“I’ve called her at 3 in the morning when I’m having a rough time,” says Faciane, 31. “Julie made sure I had groceries when I was sick. She calls to pray and sends me text messages. I’ve never met anyone like her.”
Most importantly, Seals has helped restore Faciane’s faith in God and the Church. Although raised a Christian, Faciane stopped attending church because she says she felt judged and unwelcome.
Faciane’s troubles intensified in 2016 after she received an opiates prescription when going through ovarian cancer treatment. Although she recovered from cancer, a doctor authorized an unlimited number of morphine refills. Faciane became addicted, and her drug habit escalated to methamphetamines, heroin, and cocaine.
“I did everything under the sun to obtain drugs,” Faciane recalls. “I smuggled drugs into jails to make money and I became a prostitute on the streets.” She temporary lost custody of her children.
By the grace of God, she drove back to her home state of Florida from where she had been living in California, arriving with just $20 to her name. When she met Seals less than two weeks later, the two instantly bonded.
Julie and Mike also helped Faciane find a better-paying work-from-home job as a customer service caller. The couple raised funds to help Faciane obtain a computer and monitor needed for the position.
“Before I had a tendency to disappear when things go wrong,” Faciane says. “But Julie makes sure I keep communicating. Without her, I would have relapsed, been homeless, and unemployed.”
Bottom photo: Amber Lashley (left) and Aquiria Faciane (right) are part of the breakfast club started by Julie Seals.