Sheila Glenn wasn't always "the Rev. Sheila Glenn." As a young adult, the pastor from New York City got swept up in the drug culture and was an addict for many years before making the choice to seek treatment. That choice led her back to church, to college, and eventually to Harvard Divinity School, where, in the sermon that won her the 2008 Billings Preaching Prize, she reflected on what it took to get sober and sane.
“I didn’t miraculously wake one day, and I was changed,” she said. “I wasn’t always nice. I wasn’t always forgiving. It took work, and still takes work. It took learning how to make better choices. It took faith in God and confidence in that faith. It took the realization that I am truly a work of art. After all, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
In her life, Rev. Sheila Glenn, MDiv ’08, has known both fear and wonder. Her journey through addiction and recovery has brought her from despair to hope and humility. Today, she draws on that experience each day as the assistant pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Brooklyn and as a part-time administrator and instructor for drug abuse counselors in New York.
Glenn’s path to the ministry was not exactly a straight line. When she entered high school in the Bronx, she gave in to peer pressure and started using marijuana, then heroin. As she saw more and more of her peers fall to drugs, she moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where she lived with her aunt. When she was 18, she spent the summer in jail.
“There was a lot of unemployment, drug use, and there was nothing going on for young people,” she remembers. “I loved the streets. I loved barhopping. I loved partying. I liked getting high.”
Then one day she realized that she’d dropped a lit cigarette into her baby’s crib while under the influence. It was pure luck the bedding hadn’t caught fire. She decided it was time to get help.
“I knew I had to get out and get into treatment, otherwise I would die, or my children could get hurt,” she says. “I didn’t have just that one child, I had four children, and my life had gotten worse.”
Glenn checked into Phoenix House, an addiction treatment facility in New York City. She arrived hiding under a “big floppy hat and dark glasses.” Becoming visible was the first step in her recovery.
“They made me get rid of the hat, get my hair done, and get some glasses,” she says. “I had to see myself—and others had to see me too.”
“To keep it, you’ve got to give it away,” goes the old recovery adage. So, after graduating from its three-year program, Rev. Glenn worked at Phoenix House for the next 20 years, helping others to find the recovery that had saved her life.
“Phoenix House had a residential program that provided a 24-hour drug free environment,” she says. “I was an administrator and a counselor at times with a caseload of up to 20 people. I ran groups, did budgets, even worked with inmates when the correctional facilities started to send them our way. I was a Jane of all trades.”
The Shackles Just Fell Off
Glenn also went back to school and discovered she was an excellent student, earning nearly a 4.0 grade point average on her way to a bachelor’s degree from the College of New Rochelle. By this time, she had returned to the church, and faith had become central to her life—so much so that she was on the path to ordination. A school counselor suggested she apply to HDS. Glenn submitted an application, but none of the other necessary materials. “I didn’t believe I belonged at HDS,” she says.
Fortunately, the School’s admissions staff disagreed.
“I sent the application in and my cell phone rang, and my caller ID read, ‘Harvard Divinity School,’” she says. “I picked it up and a young lady introduced herself and said she’d gotten my application but didn’t have my references. The application period had passed, but she said they’d wait. At that moment, I was all in. The shackles just fell off for me.”
Even as she pursued a new life at HDS, Glenn was confronted with reminders of the past. Shortly after she arrived on campus, a cousin died of an overdose in New Bedford. The funeral was a sobering reminder of where she’d come from.
“It looked like the same town that it had been all those years ago,” she says. “The people were still unemployed. There were still drugs. It seemed like it had frozen in time. I was heartbroken to see it.”
After graduation, Glenn threw herself back into service and religious life, becoming the youth minister at Brooklyn’s Friendship Baptist Church (FBC). Today, as assistant pastor, Glenn helps preside over services, preaches occasionally, and, most of all, comes up with creative ideas that connect congregants with each other and the wider church community. When a church member suggested a fashion show at FBC, Glenn suggested one small change to the idea.
“I said ‘Let’s call it the Inner Beauty Pageant,’” she says with a laugh. “Let’s highlight the things about women and young girls that really make them beautiful. Women of all ages were welcomed to participate and share the experiences, dreams, and aspirations. And so, we had an actual judge from the law courts in Brooklyn come and preside over the event.”
Outside of church, Glenn works at Samaritan Daytop Village, a Queens-based organization that offers a wide array of substance abuse programs throughout the boroughs, as well as “innovative services for veterans, and programs for homeless individuals, women and children, seniors and families.”
“I’m low key here,” she says. “I teach classes, register students. Between this and church, my plate is full.”
So is Glenn’s life, largely because she carries with her the humility of someone who has experienced the horrors of addiction and the joy of someone who has recovered and helped others to do the same.
“My life was saved,” she says. “I’m so grateful and thankful to God. Everywhere I go, I’m able to give something back. Even if I can just pray for someone, I’m glad to do what I can to help people recover not only from drug abuse but from challenging spiritual dilemmas.”
—by Suzannah Lutz