Scott Warden
December 6, 2023 // Diocese

From Addiction to Conversion, St. Charles Borromeo Parishioner Shares His Faith Journey

Scott Warden

For many in the crowd at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Fort Wayne, Caleb Perkins didn’t need an introduction – it’s his home parish, after all – but Father Tom Shoemaker gave him a rousing one anyway.

“He came to St. Charles roughly three years ago and said, ‘I think I want to be a Catholic.’ As I started talking to him, he knew all about St. Justin Martyr, he knew all about St. Ignatius of Antioch, he’d been reading the great works of the Church,” Father Shoemaker said of Perkins. “It wasn’t your typical, ‘I want to be a Catholic’ kind of a story.”

Photos by Scott Warden
Caleb Perkins shares his conversion story at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Fort Wayne on Thursday, November 16.

Those in attendance on Thursday, November 16, quickly came to learn that nothing about Perkins’ story is typical – from his upbringing in various Christian churches to his challenging relationship with his father, his drug addiction and eventual recovery, and how his search to find the truth about Christianity led him not only to St. Charles and Father Shoemaker but, eventually, across the globe to share his testimony with 800,000 pilgrims at World Youth Day in Portugal and a face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis.

Perkins began the evening by telling a story from this past summer at World Youth Day, for which he was chosen to give the only English-language testimony at the Stations of the Cross event. Perkins, his wife, Natali, and others were walking back to their hotel after an evening of Eucharistic adoration led by Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, who is the founder of the digital media apostolate Word on Fire. Perkins said he walked past a stranger sitting on a park bench, “and I felt like the Lord was telling me, ‘You need to go talk to him.’” Perkins asked the man if he could pray for him – pray with him. “His name was Henry,” Perkins said, “and I asked him, ‘Do you know Jesus?’” Henry told Perkins that he was baptized and raised Catholic but had abandoned the faith. Perkins urged Henry to pray with him and make God “the Lord of your life.” Perkins said, “He sits there for a second, and he’s like, ‘You know, if I would pray that prayer, I would be very dishonest.’”

The conversation with Henry inspired Perkins to a moment of self-reflection on the night before he would meet Pope Francis and nearly a million people would hear his testimony. “I’m sitting here, and as I’m thinking about what he just said, it made me think back to my life. Henry wasn’t compelled enough yet to surrender his life, but it made me think of my life – how long it took me to be so compelled to give my life over to Jesus.”

Perkins told the crowd that he grew up with a father who “really did not know his identity or his worth as a beloved son of God. … Most of what I remember with him was a lot of yelling and screaming, a lot of bitterness, a lot of hatred, a lot of anger, rage.” It all boiled over one day during his senior year of high school. “I remember the day like it was yesterday,” he said. “It was January of 2012. … I wake up one morning and my dad and I were going at it, and it ended poorly. I drove to school, and I got called to the office later that day, and my mom was on the phone, and she said, ‘Get your brothers, we’re leaving.’ And for about two weeks, we were on the run from my dad. We had to hide, because we weren’t sure what was going to happen.”

Wanting to make her marriage work, his mom moved herself and her other sons back in with her husband, but Perkins chose to live with his grandparents instead – a decision he called “very healing.” Eventually, Perkins said, he returned home after “caving” to his dad’s pressure, but it didn’t last. Perkins said after about a week and a half, “I couldn’t handle it. I told my mom, I said, ‘I’m about ready to kill myself. I can’t stay here.’ So I packed up my stuff in the middle of the night and left.” He said toward the end of his senior year of high school, he was “battling with depression and struggling with self-harm” in the form of cutting himself. “It was bad.”

Perkins said his parents’ divorce further eroded his already deteriorating mental health. “It sent me down a spiral,” he said.

He got involved with drugs, and for a couple of years, he hung out with a crowd “where at any point I probably could have gotten shot.” Around 2014, Perkins said, he was at such a low point that he considered taking even harder drugs, “because, at that point, it didn’t feel like I really had a purpose in life. … I was ready to be done. I had no desire to live.”

But God stepped in, and it was then he met his future wife. “When I met Natali, there was a desire in me that wanted to give up all the stuff that I was doing … all the people I was using, the substances I was abusing. I saw Jesus in this woman, and I wanted what she had.”

Throughout the course of the three years he and Natali dated, Perkins said he got sober and dug deeper into the faith of his youth. Then came the breakup – and the breakthrough.

Scott Warden
Members of Shema Culture – from left, Caleb Perkins, Natali Perkins, and Gloria Kohrman – play music and sing during Eucharistic adoration at St. Charles Borromeo on Thursday, November 16.

During a six-month period when he and Natali had stopped dating, Perkins began working at a tattoo shop “where I got to see a whole other side of life that I had never seen. All the type of guys I was running around with, the type of guys coming in and getting tattoos … I was just seeing the brokenness and seeing Jesus in the people that are forgotten by society that everyone looks down on because of what they look like.”

Perkins told the audience at St. Charles about one particular night that had a profound effect on his faith. He and some friends were in the tattoo shop, and they began playing worship music, praising and singing to the Lord. It was “so weird and so beautiful at the same time,” he said. “This guy I was with had been in and out of prison; he had three kids with three different women. And I just saw Christ in all of them. And through all of this, the Lord really drew me to Himself.”

He and Natali got back together in 2018, and, as a couple, they were leaning into their faith. While Perkins felt the call to become a youth pastor, he knew he was intellectually unequipped, so he began researching various aspects of Christianity. “I just started asking myself the question, ‘What do I believe, why do I believe it, and can I give a defense for it?’ I didn’t feel like I could.”

He pored through the Scriptures, read about the Church Fathers and the lives of the saints, investigated the dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism. “And over the course of about two years – in secret, because I tried to share with Natali at one point, and it didn’t quite go over very well – I started … chewing through what the early Christians had done.”

It was the Church’s teaching – Jesus’ teaching – on the Eucharist that brought Perkins to the faith. He quoted Father Mike Schmitz who said, “If you don’t want the Eucharist, then you don’t fully want Jesus.” Perkins said: “And I wanted Him. I wanted Him so badly. I wanted to let go of all the junk I had dealt with over the years. I wanted the healing. I wanted the renewal. I wanted to be bold and know what I believed.”

Fully convinced that Catholicism contained the fullness of Christ’s truth, he approached Natali and told her, “I’ve got to become Catholic. I have to.”

He and Natali “lovingly worked through everything,” and they went through RCIA as a couple and came into the Church on March 14, 2021.

Perkins is the Praise and Worship Director for youth ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Fort Wayne, and he and Natali are co-founders, along with fellow St. Charles parishioner Gloria Kohrman, of Shema Culture, which aims to facilitate unity among the Christian community in the Fort Wayne region by worshipping Our Lord together as one body in Christ through praise and worship music.

Toward the conclusion of his testimony at St. Charles, Perkins said: “If you walk away from tonight having heard anything, walk away with the message of the Gospel, that Jesus Christ came to set each and every one of us free – free from whatever sin we’re struck with, whatever pain we’re dealing with, whatever sorrow we’re dealing with, whatever we’re holding on to, whatever we feel like we can’t let go of. Jesus came to set you free.”

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