From Prison to Princeton to Priest
By Kana Goldsmith
This is the story of the incredible journey the Rev. Ricardo Sheppard, T’16, has taken. At nine years of age, he immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago with his Baptist minister parents to the inner-city of Brooklyn, New York. At 17, Sheppard enlisted in the Marines. “I joined to get away from the church,” he recalls. For two decades he has run, marched, and paced to get away from the call to ordained ministry. Just like how gum sticks to a shoe, no matter what he did “the call” stuck.
Serving as an infantry man in the Marines gave Sheppard a ticket to travel the world. Even in the military, however, the call to minister to others kept coming. “Marines kept coming to me with their problems and I would help them out. I just could not get away from it.” Pastoring people is not a choice for Sheppard, as he is most comfortable and the happiest when helping and serving others.
Honorably discharged, Sheppard returned home to Brooklyn married, with children, and within a year was incarcerated for what he calls “robbing drug dealers.” “It sounded good, we were trying to clean up the neighborhood and get the drugs out.” But Sheppard admits that illegal drugs became a lucrative business and some of his choices led him to incarceration for 12 years, three months, and 26 days.
The call to minister to others kept up in prison. “There was no place to run, nowhere to go, it was just me, myself and I.” For three years the prison chaplain asked Sheppard why he was there. “I had no answer, only attitude.” Eventually, Sheppard admits that he began to ask himself the same question. “I am not stupid, not uneducated; prison broke me and I said, OK God, it’s me and you, and who I was needed to be became real clear.” The prison chaplain began to teach and counsel Sheppard in how to become an inmate chaplain. “My life turned and I realized this is my calling.”
But seminary was not in his immediate future. Sheppard had a military career, a prison record, and no college degree. He needed a job, and thanks to an incarcerated men’s program, he trained to be a chef and began cooking in restaurants and went back to church. He laughs about his first hire as a chef in an Irish pub—“I know how to make Shepherd’s pie!” Cooking gave him cash to restart his life and church gave him a vocation. Before long he was ordained a deacon in the Baptist church.
The next part of the story is a maze of twists and turns. His prison experience and pastoring skills led him to employment in the Hudson River Presbytery. He was the prison partnership coordinator for more than 89 churches in the Hudson River area. With some encouragement, he enrolled in the College of New Rochelle and took night classes to earn his bachelor degree. Three years of working by day and studying by night, Sheppard accepted the position as Field Area Supervisor for Prison Fellowship, coordinating volunteers in New York prisons. Ironically, within seven months the state of New York declined his “volunteer status” due to his recent release from prison and Sheppard was unemployed.
The next twist was receiving a L.I.V.E. Symposium (Learning, Inclusion, Vitality, Exploration) invitation at Princeton Theological Seminary. To this day, he does not know why he received that email from Princeton. But he visited and loved the campus and the sense of community. “The interview went great, I told Debbie Davis about my combat and prison experiences and my call to help others. She just kept shivering in her seat and I thought Oh, Lord, I scared her.” But, it turned out, she was not frightened at all. “You have to come here!” Sheppard recalls thinking that there was no way he could go to seminary now that he was in his forties. It seemed a ridiculous thought. But as this story is full of surprises, Sheppard found himself cashing in his military education credits and with a few courses to complete from the College of New Rochelle, he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. “I didn’t mind being called Pops,” laughs Sheppard.
Very quickly he started to bring people together and build community on the Princeton campus. Sheppard’s required field education course led him to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Trenton, New Jersey, under the supervision of Dean Rene` John. Sheppard began to mentor young people in the Urban Promise program. While at Trinity, he was given the opportunity to preach a Good Friday sermon, and afterwards, Sheppard recalls meeting and talking to Bishop George Councell who, after a brief while exclaimed, “you know this Jesus guy!” Before long Bishop Councell invited Sheppard to become an Episcopal priest. Sheppard’s response—“An Episcopal what?”
Becoming a Baptist prison chaplain was the path Sheppard was on but Dean John encouraged him to pray about it and he did. “God is speaking—listen,” is what Sheppard heard. A phone call to his mom, confirmed it. “She told me, ‘you weren’t born a Baptist and you don’t have to die one.”’
Once he was received into The Episcopal church, Sheppard began the process of discernment. During this time, he was given the opportunity to take a mission trip to Cuba and while there, met a group of students and faculty from the School of Theology. He let it be known that he needed to take Anglican studies somewhere and the group encouraged him to consider Sewanee. Within weeks he started receiving emails from Anwyn Myers asking him to come to the School of Theology. Sheppard’s initial response was, “Are you kidding? The University of the Middle maybe but not the South.” So after accepting yet another Come and See invitation, he landed in Sewanee during one of its rare snow storms. He remembers vividly his first impression of the community in Sewanee. “I can deal with ice and snow, I’m from Brooklyn after all, but everyone in Sewanee came out of their house or dorm to check on each other. I had never seen a community like this.” And that’s what brought Sheppard south.
When thinking back on his Sewanee experience, Sheppard recalls, “I can still hear the voices of my professors when I preach.” Sheppard credits Princeton with theology but claims Sewanee made him a priest. “I remember sitting in chapel with all these seminarians and tears began to fall. I sat there in the quiet so grateful and amazed that I was one of them.” Sheppard is now the priest-in-charge of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey. “St. Alban’s is a mission church and my goal is to stay here until we reach sustainability.”
Sheppard’s passion lies in building community and discipleship. “We need to know our own story and we need to share it with others.” His mission church has a very active food pantry and thrift store where they serve more than 50 families a week. Sheppard is also passionate about his opportunity to mentor youth at the Juvenile Correction Facility teaching the young men life skills. “It must be the Marine in me, because at 260 pounds, they don’t give me any trouble.” Sheppard also finds time to serve his Diocese as the interim dean of the Northern Convocation as well as the Diocesan Youth Council and Continuing Education Committee.
The Rev. Riccardo Sheppard has lived his life by what he remembers hearing, clear as a bell while being air lifted from injury while in combat as a Marine, “It is not over yet!” We can’t wait to hear the next chapter of his story.