Less than 10 years ago, Sheila Raye Charles fell out of her cot, hit the concrete floor of a federal prison in Bryan, Texas, and asked God to kill her.
"I asked God to take me stage left from the planet," the daughter of singer Ray Charles said earlier this week, before an appearance at Brainerd Baptist Church. "My children had been taken from me. I had blackballed myself from the [music] industry, nor did I ever conceive God would want a relationship with me. That was the best I could hope for -- that he would just take me out of here."
What happened instead, said Charles, 48, who grew up as Sheila Robinson (the original family name), was "a supernatural experience."
She came to understand, she said, that "God is amazing, that he sent his son for people just like me."
"I had never heard about grace," Charles said. "It was only [choosing between] hell or heaven, and if you don't get it right away, you're out of luck."
She said she learned that God's "grace was sufficient," that he was telling her, "If you'll give me all that pain, suffering, hurt, abandonment issues ... I will take you out of this captivity."
In 19 months, Charles was released from her physical captivity of prison, but the captivity of her soul had been freed months earlier.
Today, she delivers what she calls her "sing-imony" across the country (sheilarayecharles.com) and often, as she did earlier this week, at Celebrate Recovery events.
"They're right on with the Word," Charles said of the organization, a Christ-centered recovery program that helps people struggling with hurts, hang-ups and habits. "Everybody in there is from the same place. There is no condemnation. I just love it.
"If you'd ever told me I'd stand before people and speak -- no way," she said. "But once the Lord charged me to speak my testimony to save lives, you can't shut me up."
Charles is the seventh of her late father's 12 children and only now can look back on her youth with a dose of perspective.
"My father didn't have any parenting skills," she said. "He was raised in an institution for the blind, then was out on the road." In time, "he was married to his music, women, then the family."
Once Charles met all of her siblings and realized they had some of the same experiences, she was able to love her father, who died in 2004, for what he was.
"They called Ray the genius of soul," she said, "and musically he was exactly that. He could play more instruments in the orchestra than people know about. He transcended things in the industry. He did things the kids today wouldn't know about how to do without him, like own his own masters (original recordings). And musically, he didn't stay in one lane. He crossed them all."
Now, Charles said, "I love him with all of my heart. He left us an awesome legacy. I know he loved us truly in his own way."
From her experiences with him, she said, she learned there is "nothing you can't accomplish if you work hard and walk in the gift God has given you," that it's difficult to be a good parent if your life is consumed elsewhere and the importance of communicating with your children.
Two of her father's songs, "You Don't Know Me" and "Gonna To Keep Singin'," speak most closely to her, Charles said.
"You Don't Know Me," she said, reminds her of her relationship with her father. "When I first heard him sing it, I cried and cried," she said.
She considers "Gonna To Keep Singin' " as "a true portrait of who my father is."
In the future, Charles said, she and some of her siblings plan a tour that would include some of her father's best-known songs as well as photos, videos and stories not shared before.
"It's an opportunity to bring his kids together and [show] that Hollywood doesn't have to destroy every [celebrity] family," she said. "In God's perfect timing, it will happen."
Contact Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...