by Karen Bonar
Special to The Leaven
SABETHA — The most freeing moment of Tammy Drake-Gannon’s life was when handcuffs were clamped on her wrists.
“As soon as that happened, a sense of peace came over me that I have never in my life had. It’s when I knew there was some kind of God,” she said. “I didn’t know what God, but I knew there was a God.”
She was aware that she was looking at nearly three decades in prison for her involvement in drug sales, coupled with a weapons charge.
But she didn’t care. She was finally free.
“I know it was God who saved me that day,” said Drake-Gannon. “I hated life. I had no intention to live. I didn’t want to serve 30 years. I was going to go out suicide by cop.”
But when law enforcement arrived to arrest her, her dogs distracted her at the very moment she was attempting to provoke a life-ending response.
She was arrested without further incident in 2017.
‘I didn’t have what matters’
Drake-Gannon had no formal religious instruction growing up. She lived with her grandparents, who “were very poor and very sick,” she said.
“They gave me a roof over my head, but I was not brought up around any kind of religion at all,” she said.
She fell into a life of selling drugs.
“I had plenty of material things and had everything most people think you could ever want,” said Drake-Gannon, “but I didn’t have family or didn’t have God. I didn’t have what matters.”
She served her sentence in the Topeka Correctional Facility, a state prison for women.
“Prison is where I started getting my religion,” she said. “Being Catholic was something I only heard jokes about my whole life. Being asked to go to Catholic group was like being asked to go to outer space, but I went, because it got me out of my cell.”
Drake-Gannon said she immersed herself in Christian groups at prison but formed a special bond with the Catholic volunteers.
“The volunteers taught me everything about religion. They didn’t just teach religion, they showed it by their kindness,” said Drake-Gannon. “For the first time in my life, I knew what true love and true happiness looked like.
“The volunteers would come out of the goodness of their heart and spend so much time with us. They brought us kindness, love, a sense of peace, hope, joy. . . . They became family to a lot of us.”
She met a volunteer named Ron Shirrell, who served as a volunteer for multiple years.
“I honestly believe he changed my life,” said Drake-Gannon. “He said, ‘I am not here to get you to become Catholic. I’m here to answer any questions. I’m here to teach you whatever you want to know about God.’
“From that day forward, I never missed a chance to come to his service.”
‘A lost cause’
For the first several years of her sentence, Drake-Gannon was in maximum security, where movement was restricted and privileges were few.
“A lot of volunteers don’t want to come to us. They might feel like we’re a lost cause or wasting their time,” she said. “The volunteers who came to us were special because we were not lost causes to them. We probably needed [the ministry] more than the others.”
Accessing the traditional Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes was more difficult in the maximum security section of the facility. She said Shirrell advocated for two years on her behalf.
By the time the details were sorted out, she was transferred to a different area of the prison, where she was able to take RCIA class with other inmates.
“We had a whole group who would have joined the church together — the archbishop was coming. But when COVID-19 hit, they stopped allowing volunteers in,” said Drake-Gannon.
While she originally faced 30 years in prison for not registering as a drug offender and for weapons charges, Drake-Gannon wound up spending only about four years at the Topeka facility. This was because she took a plea bargain for less time and also was granted a downward departure, which also lessened her prison sentence.
As she approached her release, she decided being in a Christian community was important.
“I knew I needed a faith-based house,” Drake-Gannon said, and when she landed a job in Sabetha, a friend mentioned My Sister’s House.
“I knew God had plans,” she said. “I didn’t know what those plans were. I never dreamed they would be this amazing. I just signed a lease on my own house!”
“I’m going to make this my hometown,” she continued. “This town is full of surprises and love.”
‘That was all God’
One such surprise was learning that the priest in the small, rural community she chose to move to previously ministered at the prison where she had been incarcerated.
“I had heard so much about him through Ron. When I came here, I found out it was the same Father [Jaime] Zarse,” she said.
“I knew that was all God. The volunteers spoke so highly of Father [Zarse]. He made an impact on them and encouraged them to keep coming back for us,” she said.
As she assimilated into Sabetha, My Sister’s House connected her with staff at Sacred Heart Parish, where Father Zarse was teaching an RCIA class.
“It was a whole different experience than what I had, but it was two completely great experiences,” said Drake-Gannon. “We were taught by a book in prison and Father Zarse taught from lecture.”
During the RCIA process, she formed a friendship with Gina Sallman, the parish’s director of faith formation.
Sallman said the Christian churches in Sabetha have a strong working relationship with My Sister’s House.
“The community is very supportive of their helping the women find jobs or rides or take them to church,” Sallman said.
She initially began by giving Drake-Gannon rides to Mass on Sunday. Friendships naturally grew and evolved within the parish.
“Right after I started bringing her, people at the church invited her to a Sunday night Bible study,” Sallman said. “Other parishioners would pick her up and bring her. She got involved right off the bat with weekend Mass, RCIA and Bible study. A lot of people have surrounded her with love and support.”
And COVID couldn’t cancel this year’s Easter joy, when at the Easter Vigil on April 3, Drake-Gannon was welcomed into the Catholic Church.
And it was everything she had hoped for.
“We can anticipate these big things, but experiencing it was a whole different level,” said Drake-Gannon. “Being in the church is like being welcomed into a family. It takes on a new meaning.”
‘I have a family now’
About eight months after moving to Sabetha, Drake-Gannon saved enough to rent a place on her own. Sallman reached out to those who attended RCIA class, as well as Bible study participants.
“I emailed 10 people or less, but in a short time, she had furnishings and all the kitchen stuff she needs,” Sallman said. “We talk about being a parish family, and I have really seen it in action when it comes to Tammy.”
Honesty is something Drake-Gannon said was important to her as she embarked upon this new family relationship.
“I have never lied about my past or hid my past from anyone,” she said. “Father and the people here have proven that it’s a family. There’s no judgment. I have made a lot of bad mistakes, but I have a family now, a true family. It’s amazing.”
Drake-Gannon has settled into parish life, participating in Bible studies. She has also become involved in the Christian Motorcycle Association, another group that was formative in her journey toward Christianity.
‘God had me’
Drake-Gannon credits the prison volunteers, especially Shirrell and Sister Mary Pat Johnson, SCL, for aiding her in her journey to the Catholic Church.
“I think it’s so important for people to realize that everyday people can make such a difference, whether they know it or not,” she said, “[like] the volunteers coming and just listening to the inmates. We wanted to talk to someone who isn’t judging us. That’s what the volunteers are really good at.”
It was more than three years from the date she was arrested to the time she joined the Catholic Church.
“I have been blessed in so many ways,” concluded Drake-Gannon. “If it wasn’t for the volunteers who took the time to do what they did in prison, I wouldn’t have all the opportunities I do now.
“The whole time I was locked up in prison, I was not miserable. I was happy. God had me from the moment I was picked up. I knew somebody wrapped their arms around me and I was going to be OK.”