Twenty years ago, May 11, 2001, Melissa Downing was assaulted, raped, kidnapped and robbed by a man dubbed “the Lyndon rapist.”

It’s hard to take in the evil that unfolded that night.

Fear stalked the Lyndon community after two women were assaulted and robbed by a man later identified as Cedric Thompson. Police warned women to lock their doors and watch their backs.

At 10:58 p.m., Downing cracked open her patio door to put out the trash before heading to bed. Her 3-year-old son, Matthew, was sick, watching cartoons in her bedroom.

She had no idea Thompson waited in the shadows. In a second, he had her in a chokehold with a gun to her head. Downing begged him to leave and pleaded for her son’s safety.

Throughout the five-hour assault, Downing heard Matthew sobbing behind the closed bedroom door.

At one point, Thompson forced Downing to her knees while he aimed the gun at her head and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired.

Thompson forced Downing to leave Matthew alone in the apartment to withdraw money from two ATMs. Before she left, she cradled Matthew in her arms, told him to stay in her bed and look at pictures of their Florida vacation.

“I wanted those memories to be the last ones he had of us instead of the evil in our midst,” Downing said. “I wanted my love to override his terror.”

But she wasn’t sure she’d ever be back and prayed that God would care for him and her family.

Once Thompson had the cash, he told Downing to run, warning he would shoot her. She ran for her life through streets and parking lots, disoriented until she ran toward parking lot lights. There was no one to ask for help in the middle of the night.

When she finally reached her apartment, she found Matthew huddled in a comforter and shaking in the doorway. He was hoarse from crying. He told her he went out on the street to find her and called “Mommy,” “Mommy,” but went back inside when she didn’t answer.

And in those moments, you wonder if life will ever be the same.

The answer unfolded in the following years.

“The woman who existed at 10:58 p.m. no longer existed at 10:59,” Downing said. “I lost innocence and trust, a sense of security and joy.”

Thompson was caught seven days after the attack, convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison.

After sentencing, Downing set about the difficult task of healing. She had to work through the pain to find purpose and learn to live again.

It’s been a long road.

Downing had no idea how she could survive the trauma let alone how God could use it. She sobbed through the first meeting of her trauma recovery group.

“In one moment, I was living a life I loved with people I adored,” she said. “I felt loved. Then suddenly and without warning, everything changed and nothing felt safe anymore. Everything and everyone was a threat. How do you heal from the deepest wounds?”

She had come to Southeast in 1999, two years before the attack, and learned about a kind God who restores and redeems. Her counselor encouraged her to see God as her Father, to picture herself as a child sitting in His lap. That comforted her on her hardest days.

“I had to understand where God was in all this,” Downing said. “When you go through trauma, you don’t process what happened right away. But as I worked through it, I believe God never left me. When Thompson kidnapped me to go to the ATM, my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t get the key in the ignition. When I turned the key, a Southeast worship CD began to play, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.’ I heard the words, ‘The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still.’ I knew it was going to be OK no matter what happened. I didn’t know if I would live or die, but I remember a sense of peace about that.”

Downing married in 2002. Doctors said she would never be able to have another baby, but in 2004, she had a baby girl named Lauren Grace. That was healing, but there was still a lot to sort out.

Matthew’s recovery gave Downing strength and hope. When she told Matthew he was so brave for hiding under the comforter, he said, “I did what God told me to do.”

Matthew grew up and enlisted in the Marines. He is married, works with special-needs children and is getting a degree in social work. Downing said he remains her hero.

Thompson is eligible for parole May 3. Downing will give her victim statement at the hearing. In the last 20 years, she saw Thompson once at the trial. She remembers the sound of shackles as he shuffled. What she will say is far different than what she would have said years ago.

“I believe my offender has value,” Downing said. “He matters to God. I never imagined I’d be at this place to look at my rapist through the lens of grace and forgiveness. I loathed and cursed what happened for so many years. It changed me as I held on to God to survive and recover. Now I can tell people that no matter what they face, God heals and restores if we ask.”

Downing recently talked to retired Southeast Senior Minister Bob Russell, who helped her family after the attack.

“I really admire Melissa,” Russell said. “Her willingness to forgive is only possible by the Holy Spirit’s power. The wound was severe and scars remain, but she has been determined to extend grace and mercy. Over time, she has gained victory. She wisely perceives there’s a difference between forgiveness and trust. It is the task of the government to administer justice and protect citizens. It is the assignment of believers to release bitterness and forgive. Melissa has found it in her heart to forgive. If she can forgive her attacker, surely we can forgive those who have wounded us.”

Downing volunteers on the Care Team at Southeast’s La Grange Campus and hopes to be paired with others who seek healing from trauma.

After the hearing, she will address the Kentucky Legislature about Matt’s Law, a proposed law that enlarges charges for endangering the welfare of a minor.

Downing’s favorite Bible verse is Romans 5:3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

“Today I can rejoice in my suffering because God is there,” Downing said. “He breathes into those paces with the kind of hope that only comes from Him, and that is joy.”