by Susan Brown
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.’”
She 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.”
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.”
“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.”
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!”