The expression “thank God” is often uttered as a causal response to a trivial pleasure.
“It’s not raining today. Thank God.” Or “Avocados are on sale. Thank God.”
But these words carry significant weight in the eyes of Mansfield woman Ashley Howell, who believes she wouldn’t still be standing without her faith in the Lord.
A hard upbringing
Howell, 32, grew up in an abusive environment. Her parents divorced when she was a child. She bounced between different homes, staying with her mother, who was in an abusive relationship, and with her father some of the time.
“We had to see a lot of abuse in that (her father’s) home, as well,” she said. “Growing up, it was pretty tough.”
She later lived with her aunt, who played a major role in fostering her love for music.
“I thank God for my aunt because she's the one that really pushed me; she was our choir director back then and she really pushed me to just, you know, let it out and just let God use me,” Howell said.
At 4 years old, Howell started singing in the Sunshine Band at Faith Temple Church of God and then began leading songs in the adult choir at the age of 7. She later got involved in the youth program at Springmill Church of God (now known as Journey Life Center).
“It was just amazing for my life because everything that I was going through at home, it was like a way out,” she said.
She recalled one experience at church when a visiting pastor called her up on stage and prayed for her.
"It felt like a weight had been lifted off of me from everything that I had been carrying,” she said. “That's when I began to get more interested in who God was and why Jesus did what he did. I mean, I was taught my whole life growing up in church, but I was just going by what I was taught, not really going by what I really wanted to know.”
During this time she kept a journal filled with original poems.
“All along God was speaking to me throughout my life, but it was just like, I still wasn't all the way ready for him,” she said.
Around the age of 12, she moved back in with her mom, who was still in an abusive, on-again-off-again relationship.
Between the ages of 7-13 Howell was molested, yet she felt compelled to pretend everything was OK. She was bullied in school and made to feel like an outcast by her peers.
The oldest of four, Howell took on the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings, making sure they were fed, got their homework done and that the house was clean.
Around the age of 15, her mother was arrested, so she moved in her with grandmother.
“Everybody at school was talking about my mom going to jail. It was so embarrassing. I literally wanted to quit school. I wanted to not be around anybody,” she said. “But God still had his hand on me.”
Howell became pregnant at 17. After graduating high school, she got her own place and worked. But it was during this time that her life “started to turn downhill,” she said.
She continued to read the Bible but stopped going to church.
“I didn't want to hear what anybody had to say about God or what path he had for me,” she said. “At this point, I was rebellious and I didn't want to serve him and I felt like I wanted to do my own thing.”
Drugs, guns and alcohol
Howell latched onto one unhealthy habit after another as a way of forgetting and fleeing from her past.
“I was trying to cover up the pain that I was experiencing on the inside and trying to suppress it with drugs and alcohol. But it never went away. It was just something there to help me forget about it at the time,” she said.
She entered into an abusive relationship with her youngest son’s father (she now has three boys). His abuse sent her to the hospital one night, but when the dust settled and he apologized, she allowed him back into her life.
“I just couldn't realize why I did that, but it was like I was in this cycle in my life where I was attracted to negativity,” she said.
While out together at a bar one night, he got into a fight with a group of men and jumped into the car with Howell, who was behind the steering wheel.
As they’re leaving, the men from the bar start shooting at them. Panicked, Howell drives off and heads home. As she turns onto her street, she notices the men from the bar.
“Somehow they found out where I lived, so I kept driving past my house,” she said.
The men start “shooting like crazy,” Howell described. “At this point, I’m on a high-speed chase for my life,” she said. Howell rushes down the roads, reaching 80 miles per hour to get away.
At one point during the pursuit, Howell feels the urge to turn her head to the left.
“At the same exact time my head was moving, a bullet came and went through my hair, hit the rearview mirror and it ricocheted off and fell on the ground,” she said.
“I just thank God so much for that because it was him who was moving my head over because that could have been the last day of my life.”
In the aftermath, Howell hid at her mother’s house for weeks.
"I’m just like Lord, what am I going to do? This is not the lifestyle I want to live,” she said.
Stuck in a negative cycle
“Every time I started to want to do better, I would turn around and fall again,” she said. “I would continue to mess up.”
While celebrating her sister’s birthday at a bar six years ago, Howell got into a fight with a group of girls who ganged up on her and started beating her. Howell managed to free herself, grabbed the gun from her car and started shooting.
The police arrived at the scene and took Howell to the station.
Howell, who said she had blacked out during the fight, was told that she shot the gun 10 times, with one of the bullets hitting the windshield of a car with someone in the passenger’s seat.
“The only thing that stopped it from shooting this man directly in his head was the windshield,” she said.
She was charged with a fifth-degree felony and was placed on house arrest for two months and put on probation for two years (her probation was later dropped to one year).
“I just thank God for allowing me to go through that because if I didn't go through what I went through, I would have never surrendered,” she said.
Enough is enough
“After all of that trouble and everything, I began to wake up. I told myself, ‘Ashley, you’ve got to do better. You have kids. You don't want to lose your kids. You’ve got to do better for your life and their lives,’” she said.
Three years ago she made this commitment to live a healthier life. She quit smoking and drinking.
“I made up my mind and said, ‘God, I’m going to do it, and I need you to help me through it.’ And he did,” she said.
People from her past ask if she’d like to go out for a drink or smoke. Without hesitation, Howell declines.
“And it feels so good to say ‘no,’” she said.
Through her faith in the Lord, she’s been able to forgive those who hurt her and find healing, she said.
“I've gained so much wisdom and knowledge of who Jesus really is and how much his love covered all my sins and how he died specifically for me,” she said.
"He already knew ahead of time that I was going to go through everything that I did, that I was going to make all the wrong choices I did, but he still loved me enough to sacrifice his life so I can live and have life more abundantly."
She strives to “bring glory to God’s name” and bless others, she said. One way she’s been able to do that is through singing.
Currently, she’s the worship leader at her church, Powerhouse Worship Center, and she also sings with a young adult ministry known as Awakening.
Music, she said, has always been her refuge. She has books full of lyrics she’s penned over the years.
"When I sing, it's like a release for me," she said.
"If I'm going through something or if I had a hard day at work, if I begin to sing to God, my whole mood will change, the atmosphere will change, and I'll feel uplifted. He gave me my voice to sing to him as a way out for me because he knew it would help me if I would just sing no matter what I go through."