Have you ever heard of a husband-and-wife prison chaplaincy team? Did you know that such a thing even existed? Well, it does, and I am an eyewitness of one such team that I was blessed to know.
Robby and Karen Burke lived in Harrisonburg, VA. They were both ordained ministers – affiliated with both the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) and with the United Church of Christ (UCC). This couple was inseparable. They even co-pastored a small church together. It was easy to see that they were a ministry TEAM. Robby was “officially” a Prison Chaplain, while Karen was “officially” a Retirement Home Chaplain. But Robby often preached and taught at the nursing home, and Karen often preached and taught at the prison. Their lives and their work were always intertwined.
It was obvious to me the very FIRST time I met this couple that there was something unique about them. I was then the Vice President of GraceInside. One day the then President, Cecil McFarland, and I had it on our calendars to conduct an interview for a Prison Chaplain position (at Coffeewood Correctional Center near Culpeper, VA). We had been told about this “Baptist preacher” named Rev. Robby Burke that lived on the other side of the mountains in Harrisonburg. We searched and searched for this guy, only to find that he was away on a trip to the Holy Land. Well, somehow we got a message to him and he called us – FROM the Holy Land! Oddly enough, he had just been touring the deep, dark cistern/well where John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod. After he came up out of the cistern/prison, he received our message and somehow managed to call us back. Now keep in mind that the thought of doing prison chaplaincy had never even entered Robby’s mind. And yet, as he emerged from this deep, dark prison “cell”, he received this call from us about becoming a Prison Chaplain. Robby instantly KNEW that this was a “God moment” in his life, and that he needed to pursue this odd opportunity.
On the day of the interview, something happened that I had never seen. In came this Chaplain candidate along with his WIFE, and they both sat there and interviewed TOGETHER. You could sense right away that this was more than just a married couple: This man and woman were partners and BEST FRIENDS. Anyway, that is how Robby Burke was hired as the Chaplain for Coffeewood Corr. Ctr., where he served very successfully for a number of years. Early in the game, we learned that Karen (“Mrs. Chaplain”) spoke regularly in services at the prison, taught Bible study classes, etc. The inmates and the staff ADORED her! We soon found out that Robby was also preaching and teaching at the Retirement Home where Karen served as Chaplain, AND that they were pastoring a small church together! I was absolutely blown away by their partnership and “team ministry” approach!
Some years later (when I myself had become President of the ministry), GraceInside had a chaplaincy vacancy open up at Augusta Correctional Center. Out of the blue one day Robby called me and said, “Randy, I think God is calling me to go to Augusta.” I was STUNNED. For one thing, Robby and Karen were so beloved at Coffeewood and had such a positive, fruitful, growing ministry there. The other factor was that Augusta was a “whole different species” of prison. It was much larger, had a HUGE inmate population, literally sat down in a dark mountain “holler”, and had a long history of administrators and staff that were none too friendly to or welcoming of Chaplains. I first asked Robby if he was out of his mind, and after that I kept asking him over and over again, “Are you SURE you want to do this???” Robby was adamant. He said that God was nudging him and that he simply HAD to go to Augusta. And so – with great reluctance – I approved the transfer, and to Augusta CC Chaplain Robby Burke went. I felt a lump in my throat, a knot in my stomach and just generally wanted to cry over sending Robby to Augusta.
It turns out that my faith in God (and in Robby, and in KAREN) was not nearly big enough. Yes, there were challenges in the early days, weeks and months. Some of the administrators at Augusta were skeptical, unfriendly and frankly unsupportive of Robby when he first went there. But it didn’t take long. Within a year, he had won them over. And “Mrs. Chaplain” now and then continued to make the long drives down the Shenandoah Valley to co-minister with Robby, and Karen became just as beloved at Augusta as she had been at Coffeewood. Inmates, staff, volunteers, etc. all came to love and respect “Mr. and Mrs. Chaplain” (Robby and Karen Burke). The ministry at Augusta grew and expanded. Hearts and lives of inmates and staff alike were being changed and transformed by God’s amazing grace and love.
Let me pause for just a moment to describe how very different/opposite Robby’s and Karen’s personalities were. Robby was truly “unique” – quite a character. You sometimes just didn’t know how to take him or what to make of him. He was best known for his very dry sense of humor. He could look at you straight-faced and seriously and tell you a bizarre tale that you were absolutely convinced was TRUE, but it was utterly fictional, and it would make you feel like a complete idiot. He could tell the BEST jokes about working in the DOC prison environment and about prison chaplaincy that you EVER heard. Sometimes it was so real and so on target that it bordered on being harsh. But at our Annual Fall Chaplains Training Retreats, Robby could have the ENTIRE group of Chaplains and Staff in stitches, laughing until they were crying and about to fall out of their seats. But he was also profoundly intellectual, and he could just as easily stun the group with a deep theological truth or perspective that we might never have thought about. And then there was that most surprising trait of all – the one that he only let us see on rare occasions: the deeply emotional side of Robby. He could tell a serious story about an inmate he had worked with. As he spoke, great big tears would well up in his eyes and begin to run down his cheeks. And within moments, the whole meeting room was filled with sniffles and crying. This Brother in Christ was truly “a walking contradiction.” There were just so many sides to him!
On the other hand, Karen is the sweet, soft-spoken lady that was everyone’s mother, aunt or grandmother. She has a caring look, a smile and loving, twinkling eyes that can make you “feel” her loving embrace even from across a room. She is generally very quiet – not at all the talkative, outgoing comedian that Robby was. If she becomes emotional or cries, it is always quiet and guarded. She’s the kind of person that you can’t IMAGINE would go into a prison, much less preach, teach, encourage and counsel male inmates. Yet she has done all of that and more with finesse.
Well, along came COVID-19, interrupting everyone’s life and stopping the world. Our Chaplains were shut out of the state prisons for 16 months, instead doing their ministry through “telework.” They picked up sacks of paper mail and dropped off paper “answers” at the front gate of the prison twice a week. They were allowed to do something previously unheard of: The DOC let our Chaplains actually send encouragement emails to the inmates at their assigned facilities over a closed/monitored email system, and the Chaplains were able to issue a code for a free return email so the inmate could report on how he/she was doing, list any prayer requests, etc. And in the case of emergencies like the death of a loved one, Wardens were authorized to take inmates to a private space and to CALL the Chaplains at home and put the inmates on the phone for pastoral/crisis counseling. Also, a closed-circuit religious video channel was set up on which inmates could watch religious programs on DVD during the pandemic.
This past December, as part of our Christmas fundraising campaign, we decided to feature a story about (and picture of) Robby and Karen Burke (as our first “seasonal story”). Robby had shared a couple of emails he had received from inmates at Augusta. They basically expressed extreme gratitude to him and to “Mrs. Chaplain” for taking the time to write hundreds of emails to check on the inmates during COVID. An inmate described how inmates would sit around and read the emails out loud and how entire groups of grown men would simply cry out of gratitude. And these men were Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, etc. One man said in his email: “Please, Mr. & Mrs. Chaplain, don’t stop writing us. You are literally saving lives!” I just had to share about that.
Well, right about at the time we ran the story online as an e-blast and Facebook post, I got a call from Robby saying that he would be going to the hospital in December (almost right at Christmas) for a simple, outpatient heart test. He said not to worry – that Karen was taking him and that he should be in and out before lunchtime and hopefully back at the prison facility the next day. But that’s not what happened. The test showed that Robby actually had a major heart valve blockage. He would need quadruple bypass heart surgery immediately. The hospital didn’t even let him go home. It turned out that Robby and Karen were taken to the ER – where no beds/rooms were available and where they waited for most of the day and night in a hallway to see what the plan would be. This particular hospital also didn’t have operating rooms or proper staffing to be able to perform the surgery. So it was determined that Robby would be airlifted to another hospital in another part of the state (with Karen driving to get there) and that surgery would be done the next day. I was on and off of the phone with Karen throughout that day/night and into the next day (during the surgery).
Well, we all breathed a sigh of relief when we got the news that the surgery had been 100% successful and that Robby should have a swift and full recovery. Hallelujah! So for a day or two things sounded good. And then it all CHANGED. In my phone conversations with Karen, I began to get alarming reports. While his heart was recovering just fine, Robby’s other systems for some reason were failing (kidneys, respiratory, etc.). Needless to say, this was a major shock. Why was this happening? There were no answers. So from Christmas almost through to New Year’s, Robby’s health condition continued to deteriorate, going from bad to worse. As we approached New Year’s Eve, it became apparent that Robby was likely not going to recover or survive.
Karen was able to pull a lot of strings with the hospital (with COVID-19 restrictions still in place), so a few days before New Year’s Day I was able to do a “clergy visit” and go see Robby (and Karen) at the hospital. By this point, Robby was going in and out of a coma. He was hooked up to numerous tubes and wires and could hardly speak audibly – just in a whisper during the few times he woke up. Karen had me sit in a chair beside Robby. I held his hand and stroked his arm. For most of my visit, Robby was sleeping/unconscious. But he did wake up a few times, and each time he motioned for me to come close so he could whisper something into my ear.
I will never forget the things he whispered to me: (1) How is GraceInside doing?; (2) How are YOU doing?; (3) How is Augusta?; (4) Is somebody doing rounds with the men there? I struggled to keep my composure and answered his questions the best that I could. Then he motioned to me and whispered to me, “Pray for me.” I did so. Even though things were bleak and sad, I felt the Presence of God powerfully. After my “Amen”, Robby motioned for me to come down close to him again, and I did so. It was then that he whispered two final things in my ear. In halting words, he said: (1) Thank-you; and then he said (2) I-love-you. After that Karen walked me out to the waiting room and we talked a bit, and then I left to go home. One more day went by, and then I got the word on New Year’s Eve that Robby had passed away and gone on to be with his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
It was hard for me to believe – hard for me to accept – hard for me to take in. This had all happened so quickly. We had lost our Robby so suddenly. My heart and soul simply wept for Robby’s Partner and Best Friend and Co-Chaplain – our dear Karen.
I will not know this side of Heaven why Robby was taken from us so suddenly – and way too soon. But I do know that Jesus must have stood up beside His heavenly Father and – as the angels stood at attention – He surely said, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
I love you, Robby and Karen, and I always will. Your whole GraceInside Family loves you, Robby and Karen, and we always will. And the many hundreds or thousands of men that came to know the love of God through the two of you – I know that THEY love you and will never forget you. We will all celebrate and get to say a huge “THANK YOU” to the two of you on that Great Day in God’s Kingdom.
How I thank God for our wonderful Chaplains – people like Robby Burke that pour their hearts and souls into loving and caring for “the least of these” – the forgotten men and women in our prisons. And how I thank God for YOU – the friends and partners that so faithfully support the Robby’s and Karen’s as they share God’s love and amazing grace in Jesus Christ!
Blessings and Peace to You,