Chaplain Robby W. Burke
Robby Burke, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has served as an Army chaplain and as the pastor for various churches (Baptist, Church of the Brethren, and United Church of Christ). A survivor of a violent crime himself, Robby says he long resisted the call to prison chaplaincy, but it became unmistakable as he stood in a deep, underground prison cell under the ancient house of the High Priest in Jerusalem and thought, “This may have been Jesus’ prison cell!”
For Chaplain Robby Burke, this work is personal. “All throughout the years, when I felt an urge to do this kind of ministry, I explained to God, in case He’d forgotten, that I’d been a victim of a violent crime in 1991, and I didn’t want to do this kind of ministry. He’s amazingly tolerant.”
While out of town at a family wedding, Chaplain Burke and his brother were attacked by three men. Chaplain Burke was shot. Years passed. “While I was gone to Israel, I visited the place where Jesus was imprisoned the night before he was crucified. There is a church on the top of this hole…and all us ministerial types went down there to think about what it would have been like for Jesus.” While in Israel, back home in the United States a call had come in to his wife asking if Chaplain Burke would consider being a chaplain to Coffeewood Correctional Center.
Having served as an Army chaplain, in active duty for 3 years and in reserve for 7, Chaplain Burke knew chaplaincy. He had served as a hospital and nursing home chaplain, too, but prison was a different ball game. “God doesn’t play fair. My first thought was ‘EWWWWW!’ But in that hole, I thought I would have gone there to minister to Jesus…so I can’t back out of this other thing… We were convinced this was God’s hand.” Chaplain Burke began at Coffeewood on April 1, 2009.
“I am the preacher in prison for the people who can’t get out and go to church. All through my ministry I have strongly believed in the importance of going to people where they are in need. Jesus goes where the people are so that is what I should do, too. There is a picture on the wall up behind me – it is Jesus calling the disciples from their fishing boat. Because he is going to where they are. I’ve actually been there – on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.” That is grace.
When not serving Coffeewood’s incarcerated, since November of 2013, Chaplain Burke is a co-pastor of Antioch United Church of Christ, alongside his wife, Karen. Karen, an RN, has volunteered alongside Chaplain Burke at Coffeewood and found her own call to chaplaincy. She is now in seminary in Harrisonburg where they live with two adult daughters and four grandbabies.
When not working, Chaplain Burke loves to travel – in spite of the three hour round trip each day. Thankful for many things, he says, “I love to hang out with my wife – we are largely inseparable – and we love to be with the grandkids.”