Faith Life, July 2016

Debi Sharkey: Defining Life by God’s Love

by Susan Brown
Debi Sharkey
Debi Sharkey

There are those who step into difficult places with the calling and conviction that nothing is too hard – and no one too hardened – for God. Those that believe he can bring truth from tragedy, beauty from ashes.

Debi Sharkey never planned to be a prison chaplain. But looking over the sprawling campus of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women on Highway 74 in St. Gabriel, she understands why God sent her here. While she has no illusions about the crimes that brought inmates to the prison, she recognizes the pain of rejection, abuse and broken promises that many have experienced. She’s been there.

A survivor of domestic violence, emotional abuse and sexual trauma, Sharkey was on her own at 17. Her father was a rageaholic, addicted to alcohol and unfaithful to her mother. Her early life and her own relationships left her with misconceptions about love, and a fierce desire to go it alone.

Then God turned her life around and began to teach her about trust—he is the good father whose word is dependable and whose love is unconditional. She soon sensed a clear call to ministry confirmed in Psalm 105, a Scripture passage focused on proclaiming all God has done.

“When the Lord called me into ministry and then said that I needed to go to college and get equipped, I said okay,” she explained. But with no financial support from family and little hope of succeeding in college, she had no desire to go. She had not even taken the ACT college admission exam seriously; her counselor said she must have marked random answers. As a result, her scores were dismal. She told God, “I’ll only go if you get me in and you pay the way. But I’m thinking to myself, ‘ha, ha, I know my scores and I know I don’t have any money.’”

DebiSharkey2She applied for a grant to Palm Beach Atlantic, a faith-based university, but was disqualified because her paycheck as a bank teller barely exceeded the income limit.

“I started crying and said, ‘What kind of God are you? I didn’t want to go to school. You got my hopes up and here I am and now I want to go to school and I can’t get in,’” she said. “And he reminded me, ‘Wait a minute. I thought you said I would pay the way and I would get you in.’” She realized that it was her plan, not God’s plan, to apply for a grant. She could trust Him. At church that night she discovered that her pastor had recommended her for a scholarship.

“I got in on academic probation, but I graduated debt free, in three years and with honors. And that’s the Lord. He calls and he’s going to equip. He provides.” She went on to earn a D.Ed.Min., a doctorate degree in Women’s Ministry, from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

“At the time I was a young college student and I was ready to travel the world and speak,” she said. “Oh, that’s awesome, Lord. I want to talk. And he told me no, it’s going to be at least 20 years because you’ve got to live it first … live the word of God.” That included discovering that her own value did not depend on what she could accomplish.

“Ephesians 2:8 and 9 says, ‘by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves.’ And I knew that I was only saved through grace. But at the same time, I had this drive in me from my sexual trauma and my dad treating us like he did. I knew God loved me but for some reason I was still trying to earn God’s approval.” The Henry Blackaby study, “Experiencing God,” was life-changing. “The Lord showed me that my worth is not in doing but it is in being. And it was so freeing! I realized that I am beautiful and I am special and I am loved because I’m a child of God. End of story.”

Debi with husband Rick and grandson Wesley.
Debi with husband Rick and grandson Wesley.

It also meant listening to God through career changes, Katrina and cancer. After planting two churches in Michigan, she and her pastor-husband Rick moved back to Louisiana for his doctoral studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Both she and her husband served on the ministry staff at Celebration Church in Metairie. She finished her own doctorate in women’s ministry in 2005, typing her bibliography in the car as they evacuated under the threat of Hurricane Katrina.

After Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, they relocated to South Florida for a year. They prayed about returning to New Orleans, but instead followed God’s leading to Texas.

There, she discovered that she had stage three breast cancer. “If I had come back to New Orleans it would have only been 15 months after Katrina. I would not have had insurance. And I may not have even caught it,” she said. “I went through eight rounds of chemo and 13 surgeries, all very expensive. But I had great healthcare – the first time I’d ever had 100 percent insurance coverage. God moved me to Texas to save my life.”

The Sharkey family.
The Sharkey family.

“So, for me it’s always been about obedience. When the Lord tells me to do something – always confirmed through his Word – I have to obey,” she said. “How do I live then with faith and confidence after surviving sexual trauma, Hurricane Katrina, job loss, bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, a hysterectomy, thyroid cancer, and even my daughter’s recent battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at six months pregnant?” Sharkey said she relies on her identity in Christ. “I know God loves me. I know who I am in Christ. You can’t let your circumstances determine your theology. Only the Word of God does.”

Back at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Sharkey was asked in 2010 to teach in the new seminary extension program at the women’s prison just south of Baton Rouge. The program, designed to train inmates as peer ministers, is the first of its kind in the nation for incarcerated women. “And I was like, okay, I’ll pray about it, but I don’t think that’s my thing,” she said. Sensing God’s direction, she obeyed. “From the first time I entered the compound I knew this is where I am supposed to be … I just felt called here, at home here and such a love for these ladies.”

“And then two years later, in March, I was having my quiet time and the Lord told me that I would be having a change in employer and that it would be chaplaincy,” she said. Her husband also became a chaplain, serving at Angola. “The bottom line is that we hear from God — ‘My sheep hear my voice,’ (John 10:27). When we obey, we’re going to be blessed (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). We don’t know the end, and sometimes it’s not an easy road when you obey,” she explained. “But now, here I am in the middle of it all, and I absolutely love it.”

LCIW graduation
LCIW graduation

As chaplain at LCIW, Sharkey believes that equipping inmates to partner in ministry is vital, following the example set by Jesus and his 12 disciples. “I go home after my shift, but the inmates live there. They are accessible,” she said. On May 18, the seminary’s Leavell College awarded bachelor’s degrees to 13 inmate ministers from LCIW.

“What I’m fascinated with – where I see God glorified – is that he doesn’t waste anything,” she said. God wants to use all of our past experiences, even the sins other people committed against us, to shape us and teach us to depend on him, Sharkey explained. “It’s such a great privilege to be used by the Lord. God is at work at LCIW, and I am grateful to have a small part. To God be the glory!”

Cover Story, July 2016

Sid Gautreaux’s Leadership is Rooted in His Faith in the Lord and a Passion for Public Service

by Trapper S. Kinchen

Sheriff 2For nine years, Sid J. Gautreaux III has served East Baton Rouge Parish as the embodiment of law and order. He has – with devotion, humility and resolve – worked to hedge the relentless flow of crime in the metropolitan area.

Under his direction, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office opened its first ever Public Affairs Division, which allows citizens greater access to law enforcement resources on an individual level. His office has also worked toward diversifying its staff in order to better represent the parish populace. Perhaps most importantly, Gautreaux has begun offering optional faith-based initiatives for the members of his staff and prison inmates who are interested in growing their relationship with the Lord.

Gautreaux’s journey from the boisterous son of a Baton Rouge contractor to the parish’s highest-ranking law enforcement official is remarkable. Through principle, guidance and determination, he has learned how to be a successful leader. His life is a keen example of how rewarding personal surrender and absolute faithfulness can be.

The Beginning

“When I was growing up, everybody was your mentor, and everybody was a good mentor,” he said. Gautreaux’s childhood, although stable and loving, was by no means charmed. He was born in Baton Rouge and raised, until fourth grade, on the “poor side” of Park Boulevard. There, in a little house on Olive Street, Gautreaux began to learn about the power of God’s faithfulness.

While still very small, he was stricken with polio. His condition became so severe that his father – serving in the Korean War at the time – was called home. The worst was expected, but young Gautreaux survived, and through his recovery, he discovered the potency of prayer.

His family relocated to Baker when Gautreaux was in fourth grade. Eventually, he graduated from Baker High School and spent a year studying at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.

He described his childhood as being framed like a triangle. “The base of the triangle was my home, one side was my church, and the other was school. No matter where I was in that triangle, I got the same message: do no evil, do the right thing no matter the cost, and I knew I had consequences no matter where I was. But, I also knew I was getting the support I needed,” Gautreaux said.

After school, he spent some time working for his father’s construction business until joining the EBRSO in 1976. He spent his first year on the force serving at the parish jail. Then, he took to the roads as a patrolman, where he gladly remained for three years.

The Calling

in front of unit“If I had gone in the other direction, I wouldn’t be where I am, today,” he said. In 1980, Gautreaux left the sheriff’s office. He decided to run for Chief of the Baker Police Department. “That was an adventure in and of itself. My wife and I were both 29, we had four little children, and I’d never run for public office before,” he added.

Gautreaux’s first attempt at politics was a leap into the unknown — one that might have had any number of life-altering effects. “We [his wife and he] prayed about it. God said go for it, and we did!” Gautreaux said.

He won and served the City of Baker for 27 years until in 2007, he became the Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish. The rest, of course, is history.

Truthfully, sheriff seems like a thankless job. Gautreaux is forced to make personal sacrifices, his salary will never make him rich, and he shoulders an enormous responsibility for the public good. But, in spite of all that, he loves his work.

“To be able to help somebody through troubled times, that’s the satisfaction you get from this job. It’s about knowing you made a difference. I thank God everyday when I wake up and when I go to bed for putting me in this position,” he said.

The value of a leader is ultimately determined by the quality of the people he leads, and in the case of the EBRSO, that value is clear.

“Being sheriff is just like coaching. If you don’t have good assistants and good players, you don’t win,” Gautreaux said. “I’m blessed in that regard. There are some wonderful men and women who serve in the EBRSO.”

But, productive employees and industrious colleagues do not materialize on their own. Gautreaux carefully vets each applicant in order to see which people will best carry out the public interest.

“I look for three things when I hire somebody: I look at their physical stature, because that tells you how they feel about themselves. I look at their mental capacity, because they have to have that in today’s law enforcement, and I look at their heart. Because, you can have every bit of the first two and none of the heart, but I don’t want that,” he said. “What’s in your heart is your character and motivation, and the only reason to be in law enforcement is to serve. You have to have a servant’s heart and servant mentality. Just treat people the way you’d want them to treat you.”

Not everyone is ordained to lay his life down for the broader social good. It is a calling—one that requires a steely combination of grit and faith.

The Motivation

sid40“My faith is in Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. If it wasn’t for Him, I wouldn’t be where I am, today,” Gautreaux said. The fact that Gautreaux is 67 is mystifying. He possesses the enthusiasm, lightness of step and un-jadedness of a much younger man. Speaking with him is like sitting down with a friend. His charm is genuine, and it would be unlikely for anyone who has met him to doubt his sincerity.

His refreshing personality – although uniquely his own – is influenced by two outside forces: the Lord and his wife, Suzi. His devotion to God is unquestionable. Gautreaux is proud to say, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.”

Then, there is his marriage. He said of the bond he shares with his wife, “It’s a partnership. She’s a great woman, a woman of God, and a strong woman.” Their relationship has been, like all successful ones, about give and take. “When we got married, she made me promise her three things: I wouldn’t hunt, I wouldn’t go into law enforcement, and I would join her at the Presbyterian Church,” he said.

Looking around his office – decorated in animal trophies remarkable enough to make Teddy Roosevelt resentful, and the badge of justice sitting on his desk – the answer is clear, “She got one of the three! I started going with her to a Presbyterian church.”

These days, he and his wife often attend Sunday services with their daughter’s family at St. John’s in Zachary. But, on any given Sunday, Gautreaux is hard to find. He is invited to visit churches across the parish, which he does whenever he can, and he gets the chance to speak to many of our local congregations.

He and Suzi currently live in the extreme north of the parish, where they head a large clan of four grown children, and 10 very much adored grandchildren. “We’re like every other family. We’ve dealt with sickness, abuse, etc., but through the power of prayer and God’s grace, we’re all here,” he said.

Sid's hunting trophies.
Sid’s hunting trophies.

True, he is an exceptionally blessed man, but he has no trouble acknowledging reality. “I’ve had my fair share of adversity,” he said. “But I know what has gotten me through everything and put me here today: God and his grace.”

It is a quiet blend of faith and family that pushes Gautreaux forward. His motivation lies in devotion: the love of the Lord, the affection of his wife, and a passion for public service.

The Facts

“I’ve never, through all the trials and tribulations, questioned my decision to serve,” Gautreaux said. Sheriff is a job that does not stop at the end of the business day. It is the sort of work that requires hourly availability to the public. The same is true of all law enforcement. The men and women who serve our parish and our communities make powerful personal, professional and spiritual concessions to accommodate our needs.

Those sacrifices can be incredibly burdensome, but with faith, anything is endurable. “You struggle at times, when you see the pain and anguish and death in this profession. But I still come back to my faith in God. He gets me through it,” Gautreaux said.

Our men and women in uniform should not have to solitarily combat the destructive forces that threaten the parish. Sadly, too often we ignore the problems that face our communities. It is easier to saddle someone else with the responsibility of public welfare.

Gautreaux said that this indifference has to change. “Until the public as a whole comes together and realizes that drugs and crime and these other things are all our problems, things can’t improve,” he said. “I see so much apathy in people. People say, ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ Well, no you can’t if you have that attitude. People have to realize we’re all in this together.”

If anyone knows how best to ebb the escalating tide of crime, it is Gautreaux. In 2014, The Advocate reported that the parish-wide homicide rate had dropped by 20 percent in just two years. This and other similar accomplishments, were due, in large part, to the efforts enacted by the EBRSO to halt offenses before they occur.

We can endorse positive change in our communities by simply reaching out to one another. “Be a mentor. One of the biggest problems I see, today, is a lack of any direction with our youth,” Gautreaux said. “Everybody can be a mentor. It doesn’t take a lot of money or time. It takes all of us working together, on a daily basis, doing whatever we can.”

Sheriff Gautreaux speaking to children as part of the DARE Program.
Sheriff Gautreaux speaking to children as part of the DARE Program.

It is as easy as letting your neighbor know you are available to him when he is in need. Or, telling the kids on your street that they are special and the Lord loves them. An individual gesture of good will and God’s devotion makes an enormous difference in people’s lives.

Gautreaux has seen people mobilize to address our region’s most pressing social dilemmas. “One good thing about Baton Rouge is that there are some people who really care and want to step up to the plate,” he said. Positive change comes when each of us stands up, makes a commitment and begins leading.

We are all responsible for bolstering our local law enforcement. Change comes through a joint effort. Our police force and our communities are most successful when each of us takes initiative.

The Wisdom

“Follow your dreams,” Gautreaux said. It takes effort and perseverance to be an effective leader. Whether you want to encourage positive change in your workplace, community or home, it starts with enthusiasm.

“You have to do two things: be at peace with yourself and be at peace with God’s calling on your life. But, realize there’s good and bad in everything. You just have to put your faith where it needs to be,” he said.

To the parents who have forgotten their purpose, Gautreaux said, “You’ve got to turn it over to God. Be involved with your children and spouse. Be involved with a church. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are, just so long as you’re there. Lead by example.”

No matter your age, remember there is always room to grow. Mimic the people you admire and brush off other people’s bitterness. “There’s good and bad in everything. I’ve tried to emulate people I knew were good men and women,” he said.

The key to success in life and leadership is faith. When you take the time to seek the Lord’s counsel and pay attention to his answers, you are bound to thrive. “When we pray and ask God for guidance, we have to sit back, be quiet, and listen. The times when I didn’t listen to God, I wound up doing the wrong thing,” Gautreaux said.

When Gautreaux thanks the Lord for the many blessings in his life, near the top of the list is his career. “I thank Him everyday for putting me where I am, and allowing me to help people,” he said.

Few people are born leaders. Each of us is responsible for uncovering our unique calling and putting our gifts to good use. It all starts with learning empathy, practicing patience and making the decision to serve.

Our paths will not always be painless. We are all responsible, with the Lord’s help, for conquering the hurdles that box us in. It is much like Gautreaux said, “Life’s not easy. But it’s a lot easier when you have faith in God and trust in Him.”