It was inevitable. It seemed Eric Cockream was destined for destruction. A father's suicide, a mother's disastrous remarriage, and a passionate young man who gave in to the allure of ecstasy—Eric's life was full of one series of compromises after another.
Finally, he received a kidnapping charge that carried with it a 15 years to life sentence.
"My life was wrecked … no spiritual connection," he says. "In the end, it was a joke. I was living under a mask, having issues."
Eric was set to establish a legacy of destruction for the wife and two small children he was leaving behind.
Until one day in 2000, six days into his stay at the county jail, everything changed.
That day in jail, Eric bumped into a volunteer who invited him to a Bible study that was taking place in a few minutes. With no interest or intention in going anywhere near a Bible study, Eric refused and returned to his cell. But he couldn't stop thinking about it and says that from somewhere inside he felt almost physically pushed to walk down the hall to the Bible study.
He gave in and went. And at the altar call, Eric relinquished his life to Christ. "I gave my life to Christ, not knowing what awaited," he remembers. "My family thinks I'm nuts, and the critics just thought I was trying to get out of trouble."
"I'm a product of other people. It's because other people gave with their time, energy, resources. That will forever be my story."
"I'm a product of other people," Eric admits. "It's because other people gave with their time, energy, resources. That will forever be my story."
Greg—the volunteer who invited him to the Bible—continued to play a significant role in Eric's early journey with Christ. Over the better half of the next year, Greg would visit with Eric regularly to study Scripture and talk about how to follow Christ in an incarcerated setting. Even after Eric was transferred to a different facility, Greg stayed in touch and the two are still good friends today.
DESPITE THE MILES
Over the next decade and a half, Eric toured the Michigan corrections system—learning to follow Christ in the various contexts of six different prisons, taking culinary classes, working in food service, tutoring other prisoners, and volunteering in the chaplain's office.
Despite the length of his sentence and his frequent transfers, Eric's connection to his family remained strong, thanks to one woman's strong resolve, a father's commitment, and the ministry of Angel Tree®.
Although he and his wife Lynda divorced a few years into his incarceration, she made sure to bring their two children—Jessica (who was 7 when Eric went to prison) and Eric, Jr. (who was 2)—to visit their father at least twice a month. Meanwhile, Eric did his part to stay connected from afar, recording audiobooks for his kids and helping them with homework via mail.
And Angel Tree, a program of Prison Fellowship® that delivers Christmas gifts and the Gospel message to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents, played a significant role as well. Eric signed his kids up the first year he was incarcerated and for 10 years after that.
"I always remember us getting gifts delivered to our house. It always felt like it was coming from my dad. My mom maybe couldn't get us everything she wanted to. [It] filled a void," Jessica, now 24, says.
FROM JOSEPH ...
Eleven years into his sentence, Eric was serving time at Thumb Correctional Facility, and life was about as good as it could get for a prisoner.
"I really felt like Joseph in prison," he says. "God had such a favor on my life. I was serving full-time in the ministry with the chaplain; cooking. For somebody who's incarcerated, that's the life to have."
One day, he was going for a run around the prison yard and began thinking about another prison—Muskegon Correctional Facility, one where he had never been incarcerated.
"Lord, what is up?" he prayed.
Three days later as he was leaving his cell, he noticed a large group of guys gathering around a bulletin board. On the board, information had been posted about a faith-based pre-release program run by Prison Fellowship … at Muskegon. Instantly, Eric knew he had to apply. In 2014, after being accepted, Eric was transferred to the program, three hours away from his family.
... TO NOBODY
But as soon as he arrived at Muskegon, he thought he had made a mistake. The program wasn't what he had initially imagined, and suddenly he wasn't big guy on campus anymore but a "nobody in prison blues."
Now, he sees that the transition was necessary for his growth. "I didn't realize how much value and worth that I had placed in me serving in the ministry; in me doing what I do in the culinary program … it was one of those seasons in which I had to grow, and be forged, and be purged." At the end of the day, it was just what he needed.
"Prison Fellowship really offered a real sense of community … and challenging some of my thoughts to prepare me for what was next," he explains. "A life of incarceration after that long, it becomes ingrained in you … for me, I could get in the habit of 'doing time.'"
The 16 months he spent at Muskegon helped him work through negative concepts of manhood that he had received when he was young. It helped him think through helpful strategies of conflict resolution. And it served as a launching pad for leaving a life of prison behind.
Eric graduated from the program on March 17, 2015. A few months later, he appeared before the parole board, and was released on August 18.
FREEDOM FOR GOOD
Once a hell-bent prodigal, Eric has been welcomed home with open arms. He was invited to work as a janitor at Kingdom Life, a church in Muskegon that was co-planted by a fellow prisoner. Nick Wagenmaker, the lead pastor of Kingdom Life, met and visited with Eric several times before he was released and was impressed by what he saw.
"He didn't really seem institutionalized, didn't have an antisocial aspect," Nick says. "He had a calm presence about him. A lot of guys coming out are fidgety."
Nick has continued to be impressed with Eric, in his role as a janitor and as leader of the church's men’s ministry, as well as his involvement with 70x7 Life Recovery, an outreach to former prisoners.
"Eric is just one of the most gentle spirits I've ever met," Nick says. "He loves people and loves relationships … He's a detailed guy. Works with a very high quality."
In addition to his work at the church, Eric spent much of his first year of freedom deepening his family relationships. The first weekend he was home, he was warmly embraced by family at his son's graduation party.
"When my dad was released and able to finally come home, it was almost like nothing had happened and that he really had been there the whole time," Jessica says. "Our first day together outside of a visitation room was a moment I will never forget. It was that moment when I saw him for the person he really had become. He really did go through a complete transition of himself."
Lynda sees it too: "Back then, he was very rebellious … Now, he's mature, soft spoken. He listens. He cares."
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