Standing in front of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) Leavell Chapel on graduation day, Tara Garcia looked back with fondness on her undergraduate experience. But unlike the graduates lined up beside her, Garcia earned her degree inside prison walls.
Photo by Boyd Guy
Tara Garcia visits with mentors and professors as close as “family” on graduation day at New Orleans Seminary. Garcia earned her degree through the NOBTS extension center at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. Garcia (left) is pictured with (left to right); Sandy Vandercook, Leavell College professor of English; Rhonda Kelley, wife of NOBTS President Chuck Kelley; and Debi Sharkey, chaplain and director of the NOBTS extension center at the women’s prison.
Garcia completed every class except one prior to her release in January from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel.
“I don’t think you grasp how many lives are changed because of what you have done,” Garcia said she tells her NOBTS professors. “Prison, for me, outside of accepting Christ as my Savior, is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Last year’s graduating class of 13 marked the first conferral of degrees by NOBTS’ extension center at the women’s prison. Soon after, the extensive flooding in Louisiana in August 2016 forced the evacuation of residents to various facilities across the state.
The extenuating circumstances prompted Garcia to ask for a six-month early release, which was denied. In chapel the following Sunday, Garcia faced a moment of truth.
“I asked myself, ‘Who am I doing this for?’” Garcia said regarding her education. “Is it for me? Or is it for the Lord?”
Debi Sharkey, chaplain and director of the NOBTS center at the prison, said Garcia’s testimony that Sunday morning indicated how much she had grown in the Lord. Days before receiving the letter denying early release, Garcia had “mishandled” a different situation and responded at first with grumbling and complaining, then confessed her failure to trust the Lord, Sharkey recounted.
The letter denying early release was “a test the Lord knew she was ready to pass,” Sharkey said.
“Tara gave a testimony in the church service about how she wasn’t happy about the letter that said she would not be released,” Sharkey said. “Then she said, ‘You know what? God is in control and I need to trust God.’”
Three days later, Garcia was released. She beams when telling the story and points to a comparison with the biblical Joseph, saying, “Man says no, but God has the final say.”
Sandra Vandercook, professor of English at the seminary’s Leavell College, knew from Garcia’s first paper that she had potential.
“What I came to know about Tara is that she is exceptional in her desire to do well in all areas of her life,” Vandercook said. “She asked the hard questions, questions that would push her to improve in her writing.”
High grades, mentoring others and a motivation to excel characterized Garcia’s efforts, Vandercook said.
“Most importantly, Tara never wavered in her understanding that her sovereign God had orchestrated her life,” Vandercook said.
Lined up for the graduation processional in the shadow of Leavell Chapel’s 170-foot steeple, Garcia reminisced about a paper she once wrote on the problem of evil and suffering. In the paper, Garcia included how the steeple was the lone light shining for miles around in the early weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005.
Though her first time to step on campus was the day before graduation, Garcia said she feels connected to the heartache and loss the campus suffered.
“People say sometimes God has to take everything away from you to make you realize what you have. [In prison] you lose everything. … You either learn to become dependent on God and figure [out] who you really are and transform into a different person while you’re there or you conform to the society that you’re in.”
Looking back, Garcia sees God’s hand at work. She was permitted to enroll in classes typically reserved for inmates with 10 years or more left to serve. Special permission was granted also for her to take the final course online after the early release came through. While graduation at the four NOBTS prison extension centers is held within prison walls, Garcia is the only graduate from a prison-based program to walk across the Leavell Chapel stage to receive her degree.
A retired deputy warden, a chaplain and volunteer chaplains from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women were present to celebrate Garcia’s achievement. They are “family,” she said.
Asked about God’s faithfulness, Garcia grew thoughtful. “Had He not been faithful, I would not be able to count prison as a blessing.” With a new job and a future she hopes someday includes a master’s degree, Garcia said she is intent on sharing her journey and her Savior with those around her.
“God continues to bless me every day,” she said. “And I’m just so thankful.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Marilyn Stewart is assistant director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)