How Linda Barkman Turned Her Time Incarcerated Into Her First Pulpit

The valedictorian of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies had been incarcerated longer than many of her fellow graduates had been alive. “I got a standing ovation at graduation,” said Linda Barkman, who graduated last year at the age of 65 and was imprisoned for 30 of those years. “I was shocked. It was not what I expected from my past.”

In 1979, Barkman’s live-in boyfriend murdered her two-year-old daughter. Barkman was found guilty of felony child endangerment—for living with her violent boyfriend—as well as second-degree murder. When the California Supreme Court set that verdict aside and she was retried, the prosecution successfully argued for “implied malice,” meaning she should have known what the boyfriend could do to her toddler.

“There was no battered woman syndrome defense,” said Barkman. “I was a 26-year-old, really confused, scared woman who made some really bad decisions. It cost my two-year-old her life.”

Barkman lost custody of her other daughter and then began her decades’ long sentence. While incarcerated, she rekindled her faith in Christ, began ministering to her fellow inmates, earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, and left prison just five credits short of a masters in theology. Today, she has her PhD in intercultural studies. Her dissertation explores the gap in communication between women in prison and the volunteers who minister to them.

Barkman spoke recently with Christianity Today about the trauma of losing her daughter, what makes prison a “pretty good seminary,” and the women who inspired her while she was incarcerated.

Tell us about your faith background.

I grew up unchurched. I came to Christ when my oldest daughter was a babe in arms, but it didn’t work very well. I was going to a church where, when they found out that I was living with a man I wasn’t married to, I was told by the associate pastor’s wife that she could no longer teach Bible study in my home because she couldn’t enter the home of a sinner. That pushed me away. I was already pregnant with my second child at that point. I ended up leaving him because he was an abusive alcoholic and drug abuser, but I found somebody worse than him.

One day, I asked God to do whatever he needed to do to make things right in my life, because I just knew how wrong everything was and how miserable I was. At the end of that day, the man I was living with beat my two-year-old daughter to death.

Not only did you lose your daughter, but you were also suddenly going to prison. How did you handle all of the trauma hitting you at the same time?

I wanted to die, and God said, No, you’re not allowed to die. I was so angry at God. I remember screaming out to him, “You say you can make a new creation out of me, so you have to turn me into somebody I can live with. I don’t know what part is good, what part is not. All I know is everybody who has ever loved me or been loved by me is now hurt, and I just don’t know what to do.”

After that, God started showing me that he could use me if I would let him, if I would stop fighting. It took a long time. I began to see Jesus and his love and mercy in the day-by-day things. Not long after I got to prison, I started helping with church services in the psychiatric unit. For 28 of the 30 years I was incarcerated, I was the lay pastor for that prison unit.

Prison is a pretty good seminary in a lot of ways. One of the women I interviewed for my dissertation told me, “I had a 27-year retreat. People don’t understand it, but you do. Jesus was with me every single day of those 27 years.”

How did you find your first Christian community while incarcerated?

The very first time you go to church, it might be just to get out of your cell. But oh my gosh, it is the place where you’re accepted. At the California Institute for Women, or CIW, if you want to spend your life in the prison’s church, if you’re new and vulnerable, the old-timers that have been there will take you under their wing and disciple you. I’ve met women who were released on parole but then came back to CIW. They weren’t happy to come back to prison, but they were so excited to come back to our church. There’s a strong sense of community, a sisterhood.

In prison church, services are seven days a week, two or three times a day. There’s always someone within 100 feet who understands all of your issues and problems and is willing to pray with you.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee