John Sheehan wears a razor-wire halo with grace.
ANGIE – John Sheehan wears a razor-wire halo with grace.
He ministers inside the chainlink city that is Rayburn Correctional Center. He also lives in RCC, and unlike others in prison ministry, the recipients of his ministry scrutinize his Christian walk every waking hour.
“When you’re living with a group of men, you see more of the character flaws and issues they are dealing with in their lives,” Sheehan said. “The reverse is also true. I’m not a perfect person and they see the mistakes I make.”
As an inmate chaplain’s orderly, Sheehan is in the full-time ministry. He felt the call of God on his life shortly after accepting Christ as his Savior in a Southern Baptist church in Florida. He was actively involved in lay ministry while seeking to define that call when he was arrested and charged with the death of his wife. She died after his gun discharged while he was cleaning it, he said. What was first treated as an accident eventually resulted in a life sentence.
The new-found hope Sheehan experienced as a child of God was severely tested when he was sentenced to Angola. Despite his circumstances, he refused to descend into the black pit of depression that claimed him before he met Christ. Instead, the peace of God calmed his heart.
“Christ died for me. I determined to live for him,” he said.
Prison helped him to grow up in Christ. Rather than being a negative, incarceration proved a positive as God opened his eyes, Sheehan said.
“He helped me look at people with the eyes of Christ instead of through my human perspective. When I look at people now, I understand that God loves them despite their shortfalls and sins, and He asks me to do the same.”
While Sheehan has responsibilities as an inmate chaplain, his prison ministry does not stop when he leaves the chaplain’s office, as it does for vocational Chaplain Wayne Cook. Instead, Sheehan’s sphere of ministry simply moves down the walk.
Whether in the dormitory, in the hobby craft shop, in the yard working out, or in the chow hall, he is always looking for hurting men in need of a touch of God’s grace.
“God changed me as he taught me about forgiveness,” Sheehan said. “Before I came to him, I would just as soon not be anywhere around a homosexual. I thought they were the worst of the worst. Now, I realize that their sin problem is no different than someone who is a habitual liar. They both have a sin problem and God is trying to bring them out of it.”
Sheehan said he takes seriously the scripture that tells him to forgive others as God has forgiven him. He wants everyone to feel the relief of God’s forgiveness and understand the release it brings.
“My goal is to help people come into a better relationship with God because – from my own experience – when everything else around you falls apart and you lose all your loved ones, God is still there as your protector, your guide, and your comforter.”
Sheehan’s availability has resulted in God using him to do just that.
“He helped me get in touch with my anger and forgive myself for some things I’ve done,” inmate Wesley Ockmand said. “I’m in here for manslaughter.”
When Ockmand arrived at RCC, he discovered another inmate at the prison was the brother of the man for whose death he was responsible. Sheehan had helped that inmate to work through his bitterness toward Ockmand and to forgive him. Originally, Ockmand wanted no part of the supposed forgiveness or the Savior who precipitated it. Over time, though, Sheehan’s witness made a difference, Ockmand said.
“John helped me find the strength to go to him and ask forgiveness,” Ockmand said. “It was like a floodgate opened. I felt relieved, scared, happy and loved all at the same time. Me and him go to worship together and sing and praise God. With my past, I never thought that would be possible.”
While Sheehan could offer such assurances without being an inmate chaplain, the office gives him credibility with security and allows him more freedom to move around and counsel hurting inmates. At night, when the vocational chaplain has left, Sheehan offers a prayer and a shoulder to cry on.
When God first called him, before he was incarcerated, he thought he might one day go to seminary, Sheehan said. When he was sentenced to Angola, he had no idea that God would open an extension of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary there. He was one of the first graduates of the extension center, earning the coveted degree even though behind bars.
God used him at Angola to minister in Camp C, a place where no other ministerial graduate volunteered to live. Sheehan helped to get the inmate chaplain program in the camp running and on a solid footing. From there, God opened the door for him to go as a missionary to RCC, where he has helped Chaplain Cook get new programs started and build the ministry.
Together, Cook and Sheehan expanded the faith-based program to include classes or worship services every night of the week, ministry to those in lockdown, children’s camps, Kairos weekends, and a faith-based dorm.
“John has been a tremendous help,” Cook said. “I am a visionary, but I hate details. John helps implement my visions by taking care of the details necessary to make things happen. Sometimes he even points out the impracticalities of some of my ideas.”
Now that many of Cook’s visions are established programs, will Sheehan move to another prison where his organizational skills are needed? That is in God’s hands.
“The ministry here is well established, so whatever doors God opens for me in the future, they are likely to be doors where a new ministry needs to be established,” Sheehan said.
Until God unlocks the steel gates of RCC and sends Sheehan into other fields that are in need of his God-given talents, he said he is content to minister where he is planted. He lives every day for God, knowing that although locked up, he is free because he is forgiven.