FARGO — The course of self-destruction for Andrea Eberhardt began the moment she lit her first cigarette.

“I taught myself to smoke, forcing myself not to cough in front of people,” says the mother of five, who traces her downfall to her father’s suicide when she was 3.

“My mom worked a lot, so I was home by myself a lot,” she says. Since her grandmother couldn’t keep up with her and her brother, “I just fell in with the wrong crowd right away.”

By age 11, she was drinking alcohol, and she became sexually active at 14. Using, then selling, marijuana, cocaine and meth eventually became her career.

“Life was just one big party,” she says, noting that after high school graduation in Mayville, N.D., she fled to Fargo. “I met up with a drug dealer, dated him, and got pregnant.”

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Though jailed many times, Eberhardt says she escaped being charged with a felony by the grace of God. While in jail, Eberhardt took part in a Jail Chaplains Bible study, which presented the idea of “you don’t have to stay in your land of sorrow.” By the third session, she was hooked.

“I just knew that I was loved,” she says. “I went back to my cell and read my Bible… and so much grace was given to me.”

Living Free small group options include Godly Parenting and Committed Couples. Both of these groups are impacting the Eberhardt family, (from left) Sophie, Miles, Andrea, Austen and Adam. Special to The Forum
Living Free small group options include Godly Parenting and Committed Couples. Both of these groups are impacting the Eberhardt family, (from left) Sophie, Miles, Andrea, Austen and Adam. Special to The Forum

Finding grace

At 29, Eberhardt got clean. She credits Living Free, a small group program recently introduced to the community by Jail Chaplains ministry, with helping keep her there. The program offers a healthy way to sort through ongoing challenges in a trusted group setting. “I prayed for a new community,” she says of becoming sober.

Then she met Gerri Leach, Jail Chaplains' executive director, who led her to Living Free and eventually helped her become a co-facilitator. The Christ-rooted program offers participants thought-provoking questions to answer. One, “How would your children describe you today?” led Eberhardt and her husband, Adam, toward concrete, positive parenting changes.

Leach says she was thrilled to discover Living Free after several years of recognizing a larger need, not only in the Cass County Jail but beyond. The impetus initially came in early 2016 at an Eyes Wide Open community forum organized in response to the opioid crisis. There, a plea from the law-enforcement community came forth, and then-U.S. Attorney Chris Myers told the standing room only crowd, “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” calling urgently for an area-wide effort involving the faith community

A year later, Leach stumbled upon the faith-based small group program and quickly saw how it could be a bridge between the incarcerated and addicted and the wider community. In September 2017, the Jail Chaplains board voted to implement the model locally.

“The launch of Living Free in Fargo has been much faster and more embraced than in other parts of the country,” Leach says, owing partly to the tension the community faced with the drug crisis along with a strong jail ministry program.

“Really, this is the way the faith community is answering the plea (from 2016),” she says. "I don’t want to get to heaven and hear God say, 'What did you do with that opportunity I gave you?'"

Its nondenominational approach brings a unifying dimension as well, she says. “We’ve had small groups offered in churches and in community locations to meet people where they’re at, with groups from Casselton to Glyndon and everywhere in between.”

Participants commit to nine- to 13-week sessions on specific topics ranging from anger management and parenting skills to dealing with anxiety and grief.

“I often describe the groups as life skills wrapped in Scripture,” Leach says.

Coordinator Eric Johnson says that having first come to Christ through a small-group experience, he knows the power of those communities. Facilitating them in the jail has been especially rewarding, he says, though in the beginning, despite his military background, he felt he might not be “street-smart” enough to make an impact.

“I realized shortly thereafter that I was doing the ‘boss’ thing, of ‘them versus me,’” he says. “But it’s not ‘them versus me,’ it’s us.”

Like many of the men in jail, he says he also grew up with anger issues that needed taming.

“Whatever is essential to your life, if it’s not God, that is what is controlling your life, whether it be gambling, video games, sports or substance abuse," he says, adding that Living Free strengthens the wider faith community. “We’re there to give them a Christ-like environment, but we’re also learning that information for ourselves. I had to learn to love myself first; then I could give to others.”

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Leach says isolation is a tool of the enemy, and small groups break that.

“When people come into a group and find a safe place to become transparent,” Leach says, “they learn they’re not the only one with struggles.”

Facilitators-in-training also discover their own weaknesses, a process Leach describes as "cleansing." "How often do we hide behind our Sunday smiles?"

Discovering their shared humanity helps makes Living Free especially valuable, she contends. Leach will share with the business and faith community how Living Free groups can enhance the workplace during a panel at the Faith and Work Conference at Concordia College scheduled for May 31.

Eberhardt describes the difference between addiction and sobriety as “total freedom” from her former “full-time job” of seeking the next high.

“Now I get to wake up with my kids and give them breakfast and look at their faces. I don’t think I ever looked at my kids’ faces before,” she says through tears. “I get to be home with them when they’re sick, and I don’t have to run outside for a cigarette. I can just be their mom. It’s amazing and it’s incredible, but you can’t do it without Jesus.”

Kathy Mitchell and Melvin Lewis participated in a Living Free small group together last summer. Special to The Forum
Kathy Mitchell and Melvin Lewis participated in a Living Free small group together last summer. Special to The Forum

If you go

What: 2019 Faith and Work Conference Luncheon on Employee Care featuring Jail Chaplains Executive Director Gerri Leach on a panel

When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, May 31

Where: Barry Auditorium, Offutt School of Business, Concordia College, Moorhead

Info: $50 for full conference or $25 for lunch only; contact Carol Hedberg at chedber3@cord.edu or 218-299-3305, or visit jailchaplains.com for more about Living Free

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.