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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Power in Forgiveness

By John W. Kennedy
Apr. 28, 2013

Bridget Sheehan endured multiple disadvantages in childhood. Life as an adult didn’t get much better.

Yet in middle age, Sheehan has overcome the limitations and traumas of her past to help hundreds of Milwaukee-area women as an ordained Assemblies of God chaplain.

Her ministry, Garden Life, disciples female offenders via workshops on topics such as learning transitional life skills, adopting new behavior patterns, developing a support system, and addiction recovery training. Garden Life, based on Jeremiah 31:12 (“... their life will be like a watered garden,” NASB), also helps women learn how to study the Bible, manage anger, and cope with grief.

Sheehan, 65, has operated Garden Life for two decades. Much of her time is spent as a volunteer reaching out to women at the County Correctional Facility-South in Franklin, Wis. For the past five years, she has focused on women being released to re-enter society.

“I love the broken women,” Sheehan says. “God gave me a heart for the broken.”

Heartache has been a familiar companion to Sheehan. Her parents didn’t marry until after her birth. At age 5, police took her father to jail and he never returned home. One of Sheehan’s sisters died as a result of domestic violence. Another sister died prematurely because of alcohol and tobacco use. A third sister abused Sheehan, without any intervention from their mother.

Sheehan says her mother flew into rages without provocation, and expressed a desire to put her children in an orphanage because they held her back from a better life.

“I come from a very broken background,” Sheehan says. “The personal things I’ve walked through help me to relate to and have credibility with the women.”

As a child on welfare, and with few friends, Sheehan felt hopeless and helpless. She once ran away from home; no one noticed.

“I now believe the poverty, oppression, rejection, hate and abuse I experienced helped form many of my negative beliefs about myself,” Sheehan says.

At 18, starved for love and attention, she married the first man she dated, a customer she met while a waitress. Her husband drank excessively and wound up in jail repeatedly. Physically abusive, he wouldn’t allow her to drive, or even leave the house without him. Sheehan gave birth to four children by age 28, isolated without friends.

Remembering her mother’s responses to abuse only led to more abuse with various men, Sheehan opted for a different track. She vowed never to divorce, to be a good wife whatever it took.

She worked up the courage to confide in a priest about her abusive husband. The clergyman advised her to return home and be more patient.

“I thought it was really all my fault,” Sheehan remembers. “I thought if I was good enough, my husband would be better. The nicer I tried to be, the angrier he seemed to get.”

She never told her troubles to anyone else the rest of her marriage, which lasted 23 years before her husband filed for divorce.

“As a person of chronic co-dependence and abuse, I had no sense of self,” Sheehan says. “I believed there was a God, but He must have liked other people more than me because of my painful life.”

Suffering from major depression, Sheehan finally sought help, desperate to break out of her destructive family pattern.

At a recovery support group, Susan Neumann started talking to Sheehan about her need for the Lord. Although Sheehan considered herself religious, she didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. In 1990, Neumann gave Sheehan a Bible and started studying with her.

“I started reading it, and it comforted me,” Sheehan recalls. “I had always felt like a failure, but God is a God of miracles. Once I came to the Lord, I had a whole new life.”

Sheehan began helping others by first serving in a homeless shelter. Despite her limited education, God opened doors for her to minister to incarcerated women. Linda Strom of the ministry Discipleship Unlimited in Gatesville, Texas, mentored Sheehan and trained her in prison outreach.

Strom had grown up with a physically abusive alcoholic father and a verbally abusive mother. With Strom, Sheehan began ministering in prisons, including one where her father had been incarcerated.

“Bridget had an anointing on her ministry that comes through brokenness before the Lord,” says Strom, who marvels that Sheehan sold some of her furniture in order to pay for a trip to Texas to minister alongside Strom.

As Sheehan obtained additional education, she developed classes for women on alcohol, drug, and abuse issues — classes recognized by the court system as part of rehabilitative training.

Nine years ago, doctors diagnosed Sheehan with cancer and told her she had a year to live. Instead, Sheehan recovered, and Susan Neumann — who filled in for Sheehan during a six-month absence — works with her while running another ministry, Creative Communications.

Since 2004, Sheehan and Neumann, 56, have been ministering in prison together four times a week. Both are now licensed AG chaplains, and both attend Poplar Creek Church, an AG congregation in New Berlin, Wis.

Tracy Brooks says Sheehan ministered to her at the County Correctional Facility-South in 1999.

“I was making choices that weren’t good, and questioning God,” Brooks recalls. “Bridget helped me through that time. She never judged me. She listened with unconditional love and understanding. She gave me good advice.”

Brooks, 57, now volunteers at a nursing home and with Meals on Wheels. She stays in touch with Sheehan, whom Brooks says helped turn her life around. Listening to Sheehan’s story helped Brooks realize other people had experiences similar to hers.

“She’s such an encouraging person,” Brooks says. “She’s been through so much and never wavered in her faith or felt sorry for herself. When I talk to her, I feel so at peace.”

Ylanda Polk met Sheehan when the chaplain came to teach classes in a correctional center for women. Now that she is in a transitional home, Polk is involved in a weekly Bible study with Sheehan.

“She’s a caring, sensitive, kindhearted woman,” says Polk, 55. “She brings joy to everything she touches.”

Sheehan has been able to model restoration because she doesn’t hold grudges. She forgave all her family members who mistreated her. That attitude is much needed in prison, where many women are from dysfunctional backgrounds. She also forgave the inmate who murdered her sister.

By experiencing healing through forgiveness, Sheehan has been able to alter the course of her family’s trajectory. One by one, all her children started attending Assemblies of God churches. Sheehan’s daughter, Laurie Watter, is a credentialed AG minister who does prison ministry with Discipleship Unlimited and anti-trafficking efforts through Blessed Hope Assembly of Milwaukee. Grandson Zachary Mueller is youth pastor at Poplar Creek Church.

“Her children have such high esteem for her because they have seen the Lord in her,” Strom says. She notes that Watter committed her life to Christ as a result of hearing her mother share her testimony at a Discipleship Unlimited conference.

Sheehan maintains that God’s restoration of her life enables her to care for women behind bars.

“It doesn’t matter what they’ve done,” says Sheehan, citing Psalm 103:3,4. “It’s about the Lord coming into their life and healing and restoring. God has brought me out of darkness into His marvelous light. Now all my past wounds are for the glory of the Lord.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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