Debbie Verrelli is among an army of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers who help survivors reclaim their lives and restore their homes after natural disasters strike.
It’s one of the ways the 33-year-old Jonesboro, Georgia, resident serves the Lord who delivered her from a life of drugs, witchcraft and satanism.
“I had been through 16 years of addiction, and I came out with a clean bill of health and able-bodied,” Verrelli said. “I was stronger than I had ever been. I thought, what better way to give back than to use my able body for good.”
Verrelli’s testimony is one of radical transformation from a woman who “never met a drug she didn’t like” to an enthusiastic Christian totally sold out to Jesus.
“The first time I met Debbie was at our OneWay ministry,” said Richie Howard, minister of local ministries & missions at First Baptist Church Jonesboro. “She had dark makeup, dark hair, dark nails and satanic tattoos on her hands.”
After becoming a follower of Christ, Verrelli underwent an unmistakable change — on the outside and the inside.
“Each time I saw Debbie after that she was blossoming as a new creation in Christ,” Howard recalled. “Someone even helped her get the tattoos removed. Today she is a co-laborer for Christ with myself and my wife Melissa. She faithfully serves daily in full-time ministry, helping women just like she was, and going on mission to wherever God leads.”
After a tornado in Griffin late last year, Verrelli saw Georgia Baptist volunteers swoop in to help with cleanup. She was so impressed, she went through Disaster Relief training the following weekend so she could be part of the ministry that brings help, hope and healing to people hit by nature’s fury.
“It’s just an honor to be able to be part of this work,” Verrelli said.
She also is a counselor in the same First Baptist Jonesboro ministry that helped her get her life on track.
Ricky Thrasher, who oversees chaplaincy training for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, called Verrelli’s life change a testament to the saving power of Jesus.
‘No one is beyond His reach’
“No one is beyond His reach,” Thrasher said. “Hers is an amazing story.”
Verrelli began using drugs at 14, starting with cocaine and Ecstasy and moving on to opioids, meth and heroin by the time she got clean at age 29.
“I didn’t grow up in church,” she noted. “I had always just been very sad and very dark. I had felt drawn to the occult, and I started self-harming at a young age.”
At 15, living a life of rebellion, Verrelli left home and got involved in witchcraft and satanism. As things spiraled downward, she admitted she truly wanted to die.
“My mind was really deteriorating,” she said. “I was making a lot of bad decisions.”
‘I was not a victim’
Verrelli ended up all alone, living on the streets. At her lowest, she said she didn’t even own a pair of shoes.
“I thought, I’m almost 30, what am I doing with my life,” she recalled. “Up until this point, I never believed in God. I knew the dark spiritual things of this world were real because I had encountered them, but I had never encountered God. I was just really lost and confused.”
With no place to live, Verrelli surrendered to police on outstanding warrants and went to jail. She was put in solitary confinement where she took inventory of her life.
“It was like I had this major epiphany that my life was the sum total of every single choice I had ever made,” she related. “I had never been arrested for anything I didn’t do. I was not a victim. I was making all these choices. It was my fault. That just really humbled me.”
Verrelli asked to go to a worship service in the jail, not because she was interested in church but because she was desperate to escape the boredom of solitary, if only briefly.
“This woman starts singing this song that said, ‘Lord, break these chains,’” Verrelli remembered. “I began to just sob. I really didn’t understand why I was crying, but I could not stop. Everybody is just staring at me. This voice was saying you should get saved, but I didn’t even know what that meant. This woman leading this worship service gives me a hug and tells me that one day I’ll thank God every day that I’m alive. I said, ‘Every day?’ She said, ‘Every day.’”
In solitary, Verrelli wasn’t allowed to have any possessions except a Bible.
“So I asked for a Bible, and they gave it to me.”
Verrelli said she was amazed to find answers to her deepest questions in that Bible.
‘Nothing has been the same’
When she was released from jail she got involved with a discipleship class, even though she still had doubts about God. The woman who led the group helped guide her journey to Christ.
“I told her my soul was tired, that I was willing to try anything at this point, because I had tried everything else,” Verrelli recalled. “Sure enough, God started revealing Himself to me. I started asking Him to give me a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.”
After much prayer and Bible study, Verrelli knew she finally was open.
“I understood that I had a sin problem and that Jesus was the solution to that problem,” she said. “I gave my life to Jesus, and nothing has been the same since.”