By Jamie Shafer
“A lot of what I do is plant seeds,” said Eric Perry. “I like the parables that have to do with seeds. There is the parable of the sower and the different kinds of ground. The seeds are all good, the grower knows what he’s doing, but not all of the seeds grow. There are receptive and non-receptive hearts.”
A typical day at the office for Eric is spent looking into the faces of criminals. Currently a case officer with the Alternative Community Corrections Program in Johnson City, Tennessee, he spends his day with adults who are nonviolent felons—meaning they have been convicted of theft, forgery, or drug-related crimes. Meth continues to be an ongoing challenge in the upper east region of Tennessee. Approximately 90 percent of the felons Eric works with are battling substance abuse problems.
Eric describes his job as part cop, part social worker. “In our program, we see them more often and they go to classes. We work with East Tennessee State University and have interns from their counseling programs who do counseling with our clients. We help integrate them into the community and offer resources to help them succeed.” Program participants are also required to hold a job and consent to drug testing and regular home or employment visits.
After working in this role for 15 years, Eric has watched some people succeed and go on to create a better story in their own lives. Unfortunately, the odds are against the majority. Sometimes it is the worst clients who teach Eric powerful lessons.
“They can be very deceptive and very manipulative.” Eric gave one client who had missed an office visit an ultimatum. “I said, ‘You must be here before 2:00 p.m.’ He showed up at 2:05. I was frustrated and mad. I said, ‘What is your problem?’ He said, ‘You know, I could never like you. You always think you’re better than I am!’
“His words cut me to the core. I think I was working on the assumption that I was better. In thinking like that, I was treating them as less than human beings, less than how God’s looks at them. I can’t judge. It doesn’t help them. And I can’t really help them in that position.”
“First Corinthians 13 talks about what love is and says it ‘rejoices in the truth.’ A huge part of my job is getting people to tell the truth, even when it hurts or it’s not to their benefit. I try to catch them doing right and reward them by saying, ‘There is what we need!’” Eric explained.
“A lot of guys don’t have adult male role models, so I’ll tell them, ‘That was the man thing to do!’ I’ll affirm them. Love is interested in the truth. My clients often have to learn what love even looks like.”
Eric also noted, “In Matthew 25, Christ talks about what is done to ‘the least of these.’ People who are in jail are among those. Our responsibility as Christians is to ask where Christ is in this broken situation. There is nothing he can’t see through or shine through.”
Eric carries a caseload of about 35 clients. Some will make progress, but he knows that only a few of them each year will take the difficult steps to choose a better life for themselves.
“This is a lead-the-horse-to-water program. Sometimes we even pull on their noses a bit. Our clients are in the midst of legal circumstances and a substance abuse program. When they fail, it’s big. We have people who commit new crimes. That’s one kind of wreckage. We also see the wreckage of families. Others will overdose and die. The stakes are high.”
Fifteen years ago, this wasn’t necessarily the path Eric would have projected as his vocation, especially as an ordained pastor holding a Master’s of Divinity. But he said that he is inspired by the words of Mark 4:8, 9: “‘Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’”
“I’ve had clients who failed miserably, but there are others who find a better job or focus on a child and their attitude changes. They are able to move forward from here.
“The more hopeful story in Mark 4 is where the seed grows. That’s important for my work too. There are other factors in these people’s lives. But I’m one part of it.”
Jamie Shafer is a communications strategist for Fishhook Communications in Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her husband, Eric, have two children.