Atlanta Chaplain Gwendale Boyd-Willis is proof that no matter what challenges life may bring you, hard work, family, and faith can always bring you back.
In 2005, Boyd-Willis was living with her grandmother and trying to figure out her life when she went to an ATM and saw a card left inside. She made some purchases but it wasn’t long before the law caught up to her.
“I had just gotten a divorce and I was living in Carrollton,” Boyd-Willis told Black Enterprise. “I went to the ATM one night and a young woman left her card in and it said do you want another transaction, so I took some money out and went shopping. I was just in a very emotional place.”
About a month later, the cops caught up to Boyd-Willis, who admitted fault and cooperated with the investigation and had five charges dropped as a result. However Boyd-Willis still had had to serve time—four months at the West Central Center facility.
Boyd-Willis will never forget the feeling of walking in. “I was sad, depressed and ashamed,” she says. “I was really disappointed in myself.”
Boyd-Wills said the facility was run like an army barracks: bunk beds, 5 a.m. wake up, and everyone has a job. Hers was in the kitchen, which meant she had to get up at 3 a.m.
“After we cleaned up our area in the morning, everyone would report to their assignment and if you didn’t have one, you’d stay in the barracks,” Boyd-Willis says.
The inmates did get a break during the day, but Boyd-Willis says she largely kept to herself during that time. The one thing she did look forward to was church.
“When we would go out on the yard I would just keep to myself, I didn’t really socialize with anyone, I wasn’t trying to make friends,” she says. “They did give us time to go to church so I took advantage of that and I would go and seek counsel on a regular basis.”
Boyd-Willis began going to every church service, not only to get away but because she always had a strong sense of faith. During the services she felt moved by the music and it wasn’t long before some of the inmates who also attended church found out that Boyd-Willis had a voice.
Eventually the women in the barracks began asking Boyd-Willis to sing to them at nights when their work was done for the day. “They always asked me to sing Sam Cooke, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ so I’d sing that song every night.” Boyd-Willis says laughing.
When she found out her release date, Boyd-Willis kept it to herself. On the day, she she was excited to get out, but the four months inside West Central made the transition difficult.
“When I went home for a little while I didn’t want to be around anybody, I had to get adjusted back to doing normal things,” Boyd-Willis says. “On the day I got out my mom took me to Ruby Tuesday’s and I couldn’t even eat the food; I went home and had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
Boyd-Willis moved to Atlanta after her grandmother passed away and found it difficult to leave her past behind her due to her record. Since she couldn’t get a job, she went to school, earning her Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Westwood College.
But after getting her degree, she still couldn’t find a job, so she decided to go back to school.
“I was looking for a job and couldn’t find one so I said I guess I’ll go back to school. Half of my family is in law enforcement and the other half of my family is in ministry, so I got my masters in religious studies at Beulah Heights University,” Boyd-Willis says. “My mother was a licensed evangelist, my grandmother and uncles were pastors, so there was a lot of influence from them.”
Even after getting her masters, Boyd-Willis still couldn’t find employment as her record continued to follow her. So she continued pursuing her education at Luther Rice College and Seminary School.
Boyd-Willis now had two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree. And while her resume was stunning, her record always came up in job interviews. During that time, she made money through a catering business she started and twice tried to get her record expunged but was denied.
It wasn’t until she got help from the Georgia Justice Project, a nonprofit that provides legal advice for Georgia residents with a state criminal record, that she was able to get her record expunged.
Boyd-Wills is now a chaplain and is writing her autobiography. She wants those who may be struggling the same way she did to know that if you work hard enough and stay on the path, things will happen for you.
“When I look back, first of all I have to give God glory and praise because I know he was with me,” Boyd-Willis said. “There’s a purpose behind what you’re going through and to those who are struggling I would say keep your faith and don’t give up.”