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Linda Barkman was incarcerated after the man she lived with murdered her toddler. But she turned hardship into ministry.

The valedictorian of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies had been incarcerated longer than many of her fellow graduates had been alive. “I got a standing ovation at graduation,” said Linda Barkman, who graduated last year at the age of 65 and was imprisoned for 30 of those years. “I was shocked. It was not what I expected from my past.”

In 1979, Barkman’s live-in boyfriend murdered her two-year-old daughter. Barkman was found guilty of felony child endangerment—for living with her violent boyfriend—as well as second-degree murder. When the California Supreme Court set that verdict aside and she was retried, the prosecution successfully argued for “implied malice,” meaning she should have known what the boyfriend could do to her toddler.

“There was no battered woman syndrome defense,” said Barkman. “I was a 26-year-old, really confused, scared woman who made some really bad decisions. It cost my two-year-old her life.”

Barkman lost custody of her other daughter and then began her decades’ long sentence. While incarcerated, she rekindled her faith in Christ, began ministering to her fellow inmates, earned her undergraduate degree in psychology, and left prison just five credits short of a masters in the theology. Today, she has her PhD in intercultural studies. Her dissertation explores the gap in communication between women in prison and the volunteers who minister to them.

Barkman spoke recently with Christianity Today about the trauma of losing her daughter, what makes prison a “pretty good seminary,” and the women who inspired her while she was incarcerated.

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