Sandy Perry’s appearance draws a lot of looks. His tattoos provide a roadmap of his life as they wend their way up his arms, around his neck, and across his back. As a young man, he painfully etched a small cross on his right wrist with a needle and permanent ink. It celebrated his mother’s efforts to get Sandy and his brothers and sisters to church regularly. But this first relationship with Jesus was only skin-deep. Many years and 128 tattoos later, Sandy, has moved Jesus into his heart.
He also helps to move Jesus into the hearts of others—such as ex-prisoners Marcus and Christopher, whom Sandy is mentoring through the challenges of reentering their community. And there’s Micheal, David, Paul, and 15 other inmates at Kershaw Correctional Institution in South Carolina, who are learning from Sandy how to incorporate a Christian worldview into every aspect of their lives.
The Wretched Life
Sandy, 57, spent most of his life in the border area between North and South Carolina just south of Charlotte. The oldest of five, Sandy was often the target for his alcoholic father’s beatings. His dad’s abuse, and subsequent desertion, filled Sandy with rage for decades. He discovered glue sniffing while working on model cars. Alcohol and drug use soon followed.
Often suspended for his anger and disobedience in the classroom, Sandy gave up on school before the eighth grade. He cut his brief military career short by failing to follow orders. He managed a GED, the only recognition in Sandy’s life of formal education.
From the Army, he returned to his old haunts, buddies, and drug use. To finance a habit turning into full-blown cocaine addiction, Sandy began dealing drugs. He bought a motorcycle and joined the local biker gang. Then came a firearm bust and 18 months in state prison, where Sandy added a Grim Reaper tattoo.
Bartender + Bouncer
Like many others who have been shaken back to their senses while in prison, Sandy realized he needed to turn his life around. He walked away from drugs on his release and got his first real job—bouncer at a local bar. Ruth, a bartender, caught his eye. But Ruth knew Sandy’s past and would date him only if he sincerely became a new man. “I look into your eyes,” she told him, “and I see no soul.”
That did it. Sandy at last gave his life, and his anger, over to Jesus Christ and began attending a small local church in Pineville, North Carolina. He and Ruth were baptized and married, and both left their bar jobs. Sandy began driving big rig delivery trucks for Family Dollar, a retail chain. Together they built a new life based on Christ.
A Driven Man
But Sandy could not forget the many friends still behind bars. At first he became a pen pal to prisoners, sharing the hope of Christ and serving as a positive role model—one who had been in their shoes and now walked a different path. Three years ago, he and Ruth spearheaded Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree® program at their Lutheran church, “The Well.”
In 2009 he completed Prison Fellowship Ministries’ intensive biblical worldview study, the Centurions Program. His class included business leaders, ministers, professors, healthcare professionals, teachers, engineers, and a former member of Canada’s parliament. A few, like Sandy, are ex-offenders, but he is the only one who never spent a single day in high school.
Sandy opted to put his worldview skills to work discipling prisoners in a new program at Kershaw Correctional Institution. Designed by Alpha USA, a collaborator with Prison Fellowship, this faith-based reentry program consists of education, life skills, and spiritual- and character-development classes.
Called Prison to Society (PTS), the Kershaw program now has 85 men enrolled and 20 others who completed the program after their release. Sandy joined the program staff as an instructor in Prison Fellowship’s Wide Angle class on Saturday mornings.
“Sandy has a natural connection with incarcerated men and easily won the hearts of the PTS participants,” notes Chaplain Gerry Potoka. Sandy also mentors the men released into the PTS transitional housing program.
It’s not easy juggling all his commitments. Four days a week, Sandy rises well before dawn to pick up his Family Dollar 18-wheeler. He won’t return until after dark, having delivered to stores in a five-state area. The long hours on the road plus the heavy unloading duties have taken their toll over 22 years. The build-up of aches and pains has already led to a knee replacement.
But his greatest pain came when his beloved Ruth died last October.
Heading into 2010, Sandy signed up for the Year 2 Centurions Program, “Growing as Disciple-Making Leaders.” The program is designed to deepen one’s understanding of a Christian worldview, with an emphasis on how to become a godly, effective leader who can disciple others. As Sandy notes, despite all the ink on his body and the shared experiences that connect him with prisoners, “it’s hard to share Jesus with men who have been in prison, who are as angry as I once was, if you don’t have a strong foundation in Christian worldview.”
Armed with his worldview and his Bible, Sandy prepares for his long drive to Kershaw, to share his testimony with more than 100 prisoners on this Friday evening. He’ll be back in the morning to mentor the group assigned to him. It’s all in a day’s work for this painted driver.