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Falsely Accused, Wrongly Imprisoned, Truly Set Free (Interview with Russell Ford)
Catholic World Report ^
| May 17, 2013
Posted on 05/17/2013 5:21:36 AM PDT by NYer
Russell Ford’s testimony is captivating, surprising, sobering, and, at times, rather humorous. The following interview is much longer than most CWR features, but we think readers will find his story, perspective, and insights both challenging and encouraging. Also, Russell's recent appearance on EWTN's "The Journey Home" can be viewed on the EWTN website.
CWR: For those who might not be familiar with your background, let’s go back to the mid-1980s. Prior to going to prison, were you a Catholic? What were you doing prior to being imprisoned?
Ford: No, I wasn’t a Catholic. I hunted bounty after I got out of the army. Between my time in the military and as a bounty hunter (the more politically correct term these days being “independent fugitive recovery agent”), I was shot twice, stabbed twice, poisoned, run over by a car, fell off the side of a car at 70 miles per hour, and beaten almost to death. So when I got tired of being other people’s punching bag, I left bounty work to get into the slower life of business. I eventually made some major errors, because I’d gotten too big for my britches, and lost everything. I decided to go to Alabama, where I’d done part of my military training, because I recalled how well I was treated there. I came to realize quickly, however, that I’d been treated well before because I was in the military. What I discovered was that anyone who was from any place other than Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, or Louisiana was considered to be a Yankee… and Yankees are hated there. I’d only lived in Alabama for a few months when I found myself in a mess of trouble.
CWR: Why were you arrested and sentenced to prison? And when were you released from prison? How did that come about?
Ford: This series of questions are considered a major social blunder in the joint. Indeed, for a convict to ask these questions it is potentially deadly. You never ask a convict why he’s in prison, how much time he has to build, or when he gets out. However, this may be an opportunity to finally explain things fully and correctly.
One day, my radiator cap had decided it didn’t like me anymore and I had to have a new one. I was driving to the auto parts store to buy one, when I suddenly found myself surrounded by about half a dozen police cars. Without explaining anything, the police said they were taking me in for questioning. That was in 1987. In 2012, I finally made it back from that trip to the auto parts store on June 19, 2012, but I still don’t have a radiator cap.
At the police station, two detectives began to question me. They wanted to know where I’d been several nights before, and all I could tell them was I was at home. Then they asked me to lift my shirt so they could see my back and chest. That plays into what eventually happened to me years later. I asked why I was being treated like a criminal. They told me I matched the description of a man who was accused of rape. I asked them to read me the description. They were looking for a man in his mid-twenties (I was 29 at the time), about six feet tall (I was 6’1”), black hair (which I have), and about 200 pounds (I weighed about 220 at the time). When I told them that could be about a third of Alabama’s male population, they said, “Yeah, but we got you.”
Next, they prepared a photo line-up to be done by fax machine. Apparently the alleged victim was not even in Alabama at the time. The line-up was a joke. Along with my picture, they sent photos of two other men. Since the photos were black and white, it was hard to tell some details. One guy, I could tell, was skinny as a rail and either had blonde or red hair. The other picture they sent was a black guy! So who got picked out of the line-up? It wasn’t the black guy.
After six months in county jail, my court appointed attorney came to me with a plea bargain. He told me that the DA offered a 25-year sentence, which I thought was crazy. He told me if I didn’t take the deal they would give me a life sentence. So I took what is called an Alford plea, also known as a best interest plea. The day I was sentenced, the DA and ADA were standing behind me, a bit to my left. As soon as the judge’s gavel fell, I heard one say to the other, “Whew! We couldn’t have convicted him anyway.” I turned and saw them both smiling at me. Although I was chained and shackled, I turned toward my lawyer with the intention of killing him right then and there, but he’d already managed to move toward the door and out of my reach.
I learned a few months later that the DA never offered me a plea bargain. My attorney went to the DA and suggested the plea agreement, as he was only being paid a few hundred dollars to defend my case. I learned that the DA was going to hold me a few more months then cut me loose, as he had nothing upon which he could convict me.
Fast forward 19 years. A witness came forward and said the man they were looking for had tattoos all over his chest and back. I’ve never had a tattoo in my life. An attorney, Raymond “Corky” Hawthorne, who is a Christian man who happened to believe in me, and his Catholic paralegal Marshall Pickard, decided to take my case. They discovered the DA had altered and destroyed evidence (once DNA became an accepted form of evidence in the courts), as well as altered the original police report. In other words, they knew back in 1987 they had the wrong man, if indeed a rape had ever been committed. I have my theories as to why I was set-up, but I’ll never discuss those in public unless and until I can prove what I believe happened.
Corky had to get me back into court on a habeas corpus. The problem with that was, Congress had placed a time limit on the Great Writ to keep guys from making so many appeals on death row despite that the Constitution says, “the Great Writ of habeas corpus shall not be denied”. So we began the long legal battle for my freedom and exoneration. How they managed to even get the case back into court is a mystery to me, but they did. The federal district court said that I’d made a showing of my innocence, but refused to do anything about it because I was “time barred” on the habeas corpus. The federal circuit court denied me justice as well. As my lawyers explained it to me (by now three of them), the U.S. Supreme Court denied my petition, but in such a way that they allowed the lower court ruling that I’d shown my innocence to stand. That came just five days prior to finishing my 25 year sentence. This allowed us to file back into the original sentencing court in Alabama to ask for a declaration of innocence and to have my criminal record expunged.
We were recently told the judge plans to vacate my conviction, grant the decree of innocence, and expunge my record sometime this month or next month (letting us know what he’s going to do is called ex parte, which is highly illegal and considered unethical, but it’s common in Alabama’s good-ole-boy system). In order to make that happen, I had to sign an affidavit forfeiting my right to compensation for wrongful incarceration, but my good name and reputation mean far more to me than the $4-5 million I could get in litigation… after about 10-15 years. Anyway, after the judge grants my decree, we plan to put everything pertaining to my case on our website.
CWR: How did you find your way into the Catholic Church?
Ford: When I was sent to my first permanent party prison, it was one that was brand new and had only been open about nine months. I was bitter and angry. I didn’t want to make any friends, talk to anyone, or otherwise be bothered. Then they moved an old gentleman in to the rack next to mine. I say old, but the fact is he was the age I am now, and that doesn’t seem old to me anymore. Anyway, he had been locked up since 1962. His name is Michael Mayola, and he had just transferred in from another camp. Mike attempted to strike up conversation with me, but with little success. I didn’t want to be his friend, but I gave him a little more tolerance than I would have anyone else because of he was an older man who had built a lot of time, so he deserved respect.
One day, Mayola tried to engage me in conversation about religion. I told him I wasn’t the least bit interested. He decided to appeal to my sizable ego. He pulled out an old Baltimore #2 catechism, one written for middle school kids. He opened it to the chapter on baptism. He showed me the test at the end of the chapter and told me if I could pass the test with at least a 70% grade he would leave me alone; however, if I failed I’d have to take at least two catechism lessons from him.
To Mike’s grave disappointment, I passed the test with 100%. To his credit, Mike was going to walk away and leave me to my own demise. However, what Mike had no way of knowing was that before I went into the military I had been a ministerial student at a Baptist university. I had dropped out of my studies and joined the army because the Scriptures they were so intent on me studying clashed with the doctrines I’d been taught to believe. In conscience, I could no longer continue my studies and began to seek the truth. Eventually, I became an agnostic in the truest sense of the word. When Mayola gave me that test, I didn’t give the answers I’d been taught as a Baptist, but rather answers based on what I’d figured out on my own. So I decided that maybe Mayola could give me the answers I’d been seeking. That was when we began to study together.
My catechesis with Mayola went for nine consecutive months, a minimum of eight hours a day, seven days a week. Our longest session went from 6:30 one morning to 2:00 the next morning, continuing even during meals and stopping only long enough to use the bathroom or make a cup of coffee. I once asked Mike, who is a walking Catholic encyclopedia, if he gave all his students that sort of attention. He said that he didn’t normally do that; that, indeed, I was the only one who had ever had that sort of attention. When I asked why, Mike responded that he believed God had something special in store for me. If I had known then what I know now, I’d have probably run for the hills.
CWR: How and why did you establish First Century Christian Ministries?
Ford: First Century Christian Ministries was a natural extension of the work we did, but it is interesting to learn how I got roped into this line of work.
We had a missionary priest from the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. His name was Fr. Killian Mooney, and he was in his mid to late seventies when I met him. One day, while I was still a catechumen, Fr. Killian took me off to the side after Mass. He pulled out an old Penny Catechism and tried to hand it to me. He said, “Russ, I want you to begin teaching the faith to other prisoners.” I replied, “No, Father, I don’t think I want to do that. I just want to enjoy my new found faith in peace and anonymity.” He smiled and said, “I understand that. Just make sure they understand the ninth article of the Creed.” I said, “No, Father, I don’t think you do understand. I don’t want to do this.” Continuing to smile, Father repeated, “I understand that. Make sure they know the difference between ordinary bread and the Eucharist.” “Father,” I said, “what part of ‘no’ do you not understand. I don’t want to do this!” He smiled again and said, “Be sure they know the Cardinal Virtues.” Arrrgh!
Whereas I already had a relationship with Archbishop Lipscomb, as Mike felt some of my questions were best answered by him, I wrote to him about Fr. Killian’s insistence that I begin to evangelize. My letter basically said, “Will you please get this holy old priest off my back!” I’ll never forget His Excellency’s reply. After his initial greeting he said, “Russell, obey your pastor. I think you will make a wonderful catechism instructor.” What could I do? Thus began the apostolate.
First Century Christian Ministries, however, was founded as a non-profit corporation in 1992. Why? Beats me. I honestly don’t know why I did it, only that it was something I was supposed to do. Over the next twenty years it was kept alive by my friend Dr. Joseph Strada as a means of getting good orthodox Catholic materials to inmates in prisons all over America. Of course, I took it back over in 2012 after my release from prison. By that time, Joe had managed to get it IRS 501 c (3) qualified.
For the record, it really angered the prison officials when they learned that I’d chartered First Century Christian Ministries as an Alabama non-profit right under their noses. I paid a price for it, but I’d do it all over again. I was doing what His Majesty wanted me to do.
CWR: You are godfather to nearly a 100 people. Are most of them prisoners? What are some of the more memorable or amazing conversions that you’ve witnessed and been involved with?
Ford: I tell people I have 84 godsons and hundreds of spiritual progeny beneath them in all of Alabama’s major penal institutions. I actually have even more godsons and daughters. The 84 I publicly claim are now or have been prisoners, but there are at least a half dozen who have never been to prison.
Let me first say, I’ve never converted anyone in my life. Not only is that not my job, it’s not possible for me to do. Only the Holy Spirit can convert people. My sole task is to present the truth in its fullness. Any conversion that takes place is a private matter between the inquirer and the Holy Spirit. I have never even asked a man if he wants to become or is interested in becoming a Catholic. When a man has answered the Holy Spirit, he will let me know he wants to become a Catholic. That is when I begin the process of showing a catechumen how to apply and live the Catholic faith. My job is nothing more than teacher. I do not have the graces of state possessed by a priest, nor do I have an inside track with His Majesty for making converts. Helping people find the road to conversion is a numbers game, just like any sales profession, and that is what I’m called to do sell the faith.
There are two conversions that stand out to me. We’ve played a role in the conversions of everything from satanists to homosexuals to pedophiles, but it is the conversions of Carl Monroe and Lyndahl “Heavy Duty” Sale that stand out to me.
Carl is my best argument against the use of the death penalty. I’m a conservative; I’m conservative politically, socially, and economically. It really disgusts me, though, to hear conservatives push the death penalty like it is the end-all-be-all solution to crime. It is not. Although the state certainly has the right to protect society with capital punishment, it is not necessary in Occidental society. After all, we have the ability to keep a dangerous person humanely segregated from society for his entire life, so there is no need to take his life. I hear conservatives all the time say that if a man wants to find Jesus on death row he needs to hurry up and get it done before they throw the switch. That is the most arrogant attitude a person can have. Conversion cannot come from force of will; it must come from grace. Grace is offered by the Holy Spirit in His own good time, and Carl Monroe is a great example of this.
Carl had been a hero in Vietnam. He was a Marine, and his heroic act was such that his commanders weren’t sure if they wanted to decorate him or court-martial him. Carl had been told to guard a particular hut containing arms and munitions. En route to his guard post, Carl stopped to get his contraband bottle of whiskey. He then went to his post and proceeded to get hammered until he passed out.
After falling asleep, two Vietcong set out to break into the hut and steal the contents, deciding first to kill Carl. The details of what happened from this point are a bit foggy, but according to the Silver Star citation Carl held his intestines in with his left hand while he killed the two Vietcong with his right hand. He has a wide scar covering his entire abdomen where they laid him open with a bayonet.
After Vietnam, Carl came home to Alabama. He had a lot to deal with, but I’ll not talk about those for fear others will think I’m making excuses for what he did. The simple fact is, in a drunken rage Carl beat another person to death. He was tried, convicted, and sent to Alabama’s death row in 1970. While on death row, Carl taught himself to read and write. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in the United States, so Carl’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Fast forward to circa 1994. Since about 1990, we have always had a program called “Boxes of Love”. Every year for Christmas we offered any man who wanted one a Christmas package, but it has to be earned. Beginning in August, to qualify for a package a man has to attend every Mass and every catechism class. That’s it. The end result is, after having been exposed to the truth all that time the men want to convert to Catholicism. Well, Carl came to us in 1994 (I think). He asked me one day if it was true we were giving away a Christmas package. I told him it was true. He asked what he had to do to get one, and I told him. He told me he wanted to participate to get a package, as he’d never had one before, but he said he didn’t want anyone trying to make him a Catholic. I promised him no one would even suggest to him that he become a Catholic. A week before Christmas, Carl Monroe decided to become a Catholic.
Carl Monroe became one of the finest catechists I’ve ever trained. He also took to Church history like a duck to water. In fact, Carl began teaching a Church history course every week that was as good as anything I’ve ever had in college. The bottom line is, if the state had taken Carl’s life back in the ‘70s, there would be far fewer Catholics in the Alabama penal system today. As I tell this story about Carl, he is dying in prison with pancreatic cancer and has only months to live. Please pray for him as he goes through his final agony.
The other conversion that sticks in my mind is Lyndahl “Heavy Duty” Sale. Heavy is built like a refrigerator with a head, and he looks like a Sasquatch somebody shaved and taught how to talk. He’s so hairy that it looks more like fur.
Heavy was a self-professed atheist when I met him. We were introduced by a mutual friend (who also happened to be one of my godsons) when Heavy transferred into the camp we were living in. At our initial introduction, when I brought up the subject of religion, Heavy rejected it out of hand and said he didn’t want to hear anything about it because he didn’t believe in God. Taking a page out of my godfather’s play book, I challenged Heavy. I told him that if I couldn’t prove to his satisfaction that God exists, I’d never bring up the subject again. However, I told him, if I could prove God’s existence he would have to take the catechism from me. Heavy made the mistake of agreeing to that challenge.
I used what I call the bad-man/mad-man argument. I thought it was something I had developed all on my own, thus thinking I was quite the Catholic thinker. Then I learned later that some obscure saint from the first millennium developed the argument first. Regardless of how the argument came about, I used it on Heavy. As the discussion ran its course, Heavy became visibly angry as he began to realize he was losing the battle. Indeed, my godson kept edging himself closer and closer so as to jump between us if Heavy decided to break me. By the time I finished the argument with the usual words “therefore God exists”, I thought Heavy’s head was going to explode from high blood pressure. He mumbled something and walked away… angrily. I figured that would be my last time to speak with him.
Heavy Duty is an honest man--just one with a violent history. To my happy surprise, the next day he was waiting on my bunk for his first lesson. Heavy was a bright and inquisitive student who required a lot of attention to be sure all his questions and objections were answered. I’m pretty certain he made a decision to become a Catholic while we studied the ninth article of the Creed, although he never told me so. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was Rome bound while we studied the Holy Eucharist. As the reality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist began to sink into his brain, the man who was to become one of my most beloved godsons began to weep. This big, powerful, dangerous biker a man who probably had not shed a tear since he was a child wept tears of true repentance and pure love for God in His Eucharistic presence. I recall holding him and feeling a sudden bond form between us because of his newly discovered love for Jesus in the Eucharist.
CWR: Many readers might know you from your articles and columns for This Rock magazine. How did that relationship come about?
Ford: This Rock was one of many publications I’d written for, but I suppose I wrote for This Rock more than anyone else. This Rock was published by Catholic Answers, and it is now known as Catholic Answers Magazine. Catholic Answers was, of course, founded by the famed apologist and author Karl Keating. I don’t really recall how Karl and I came to know one another, but I do recall that he asked me to write an article about evangelization and apologetics in prison. I was pretty intimidated by the idea of writing for a giant like Karl Keating, but I took a stab at it anyway.
Karl simply wanted me to tell an honest story about how things were in the Alabama penal system when evangelizing. That’s what I did. When I heard back from Karl, he told me he laughed the entire time he read my piece, and that it would appear in the next issue. Frankly, I was a little offended that Karl thought my article was humorous; it certainly wasn’t intended to be funny. However, when the issue came out and I read my article through the eyes of a free-worldler, I had to admit that it was funny too. All I did was tell the truth, but Alabama is a unique place when considered by outsiders.
CWR: What are some of the things you’ve learned about evangelization, specifically within a prison? What must Catholics do to be more effective in sharing and defending the Faith?
Ford: Evangelization is just another form of sales, and a lay evangelist is just another sales professional. However, this is the easiest sales job I’ve ever had. I don’t have to find the prospect, as Providence puts lots of people in my path. I don’t have to close the sale, because the Holy Spirit is the closer. All I have to do is have product knowledge (the catechism) and the ability to present it so it’s satisfying for any intellectual level.
Evangelization in prison is no different than anywhere else. People are people. We all have the effects of original sin alive and well in our souls. We all have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We all want to love and be loved. We all want some sort of direction and authority in our lives. The people behind the wall are no different than the folks reading this interview. As the great Archbishop Fulton Sheen once told a group of prisoners, “The only difference between you and me is, you got caught”. Whether by physical act or mental act, everyone in the world has committed some grave offense against God and society. Every one of us has driven the nails into His Majesty’s flesh. Every one of us is deserving of hell. No, prisoners are no different than anyone else. And my experience has been that people who rail the loudest against convicts are people who are the most guilty of some grave crime that has never been detected. Many of them expose themselves to me in conversation and never even realize they’ve done so.
One trend we did see the last five or six years I was in prison, though, was in the youngsters coming to prison now. They are dumb as a bag of hammers. For example, one fellow asked me one day, “Hey, Pop, what time is it?” I replied that it was a quarter past eight. He asked, “Twenty-five after eight?” I said, “Yeah”, and went on about my business. They can’t even do simple arithmetic. However, this actually works in favor of evangelization. These kids have absolutely no background in religion. They are a completely blank slate: no prejudices, no preconceived notions, no earthly idea of Who God is. Most of them can’t even tell you Who Jesus is. When they first get to prison, the Fundamentalists get to them first. Since they have no background in religion, they very quickly leave the talons of the aggressive fundies. Despite a lack of education, when they come to us their very human nature and the divine design of their minds makes them see that Catholicism is the truth. They may not be able to articulate that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of truth, but they certainly sense it.
Regarding evangelization and apologetics among Joe Sixpack in the pew, that one is easy. To begin, all Catholics are obligated to share the faith. The problem is, most simply don’t know the faith. They think they know the faith, but they don’t. One way to tell that they don’t know is to watch them enter the Church. I attended a parish for a while where the tabernacle was off to the side and not in a central location. People continued to enter the church and genuflect to the altar. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday, people came into the parish I go to now and genuflected to the altar, despite that the tabernacle behind the altar was empty. The vast majority of Catholics simply don’t know their faith.
So the first thing Catholics need to do is learn the faith, and that doesn’t mean a remedial attendance of RCIA, as most of those programs are milquetoast at best. I strongly suggest that they take the basic and advanced courses written by Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. These courses were developed for the Marian Catechist Apostolate, and they are very, very good. While they’re at it, they may as well join the Marian Catechist Apostolate, which was founded by Fr. Hardon, who had the vision of an army of well trained catechists who would re-evangelize America. Fr. Hardon was one of my early mentors, and I became a Marian Catechist at his invitation. Since his death, the apostolate has been directed by Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, who is a great and holy man. Interested readers can go to www.MarianCatechist.com.
Regarding apologetics, I think that is the most exciting and fascinating field of study any layman can get in to. Virtually every subject makes you proud to be a Catholic and wonder why everyone isn’t already a Catholic. There are quite literally hundreds of apologetical resources out there now, but I would begin with Karl Keating’s modern classic Catholicism and Fundamentalism, published by Ignatius Press. Additionally, all Catholics are morally obligated to read the Vatican II documents.
First Century Christian Ministries is currently developing a new program in partnership with Ignatius Press and St. Joseph Communications. This program will be a package designed so even the most unenlightened Catholic can evangelize his neighbor or buddy at work. We are developing the package, Ignatius Press will be actually producing the package, and St. Joseph Communications will market it. We hope to have it ready for production next year. Still, readers don’t need to wait on that. They need to begin studying and evangelizing now.
CWR: How are you now working with prisoners and ex-prisoners? How can readers be a part of your apostolate?
Ford: Our apostolate is actually three tiered. One tier of our work has nothing to do with prisoners. We will be going into major and secondary cities to establish evangelization centers, from which we hope to make quite literally thousands of converts each year.
The other two tiers do indeed deal with convicts and ex-convicts. Going back into the prisons for me is very exciting, but the way we will be doing it is unique. There are 51 penal systems in this country, including the federal system. Of the 50 states, all are in deep financial trouble, and 38 of them would file for bankruptcy if they could figure out how to do it constitutionally. This is actually a boon for us. When budgets get slashed, employee morale goes in the toilet. When that happens, guards take retirement or find other jobs. The one thing penal systems must keep up to speed is security, which means they’ve got to keep a full contingent of guards. Therefore, the bulk of their resources go toward retention and recruitment. This benefits us because when a state chaplain retires, quits or gets fired, the system is really slow about hiring a replacement. Of course, the federal courts require the prisons to have a chaplain, so the system is caught in a tough situation.
So far as I know, all 51 penal systems allow for what are called full-time volunteer chaplains. A state paid chaplain is restricted from promoting his own faith over that of any other faith. However, a full-time volunteer chaplain is not so restricted. That means we are constantly on the lookout for men who we believe have a vocation to this sort of work. While we train them to replicate our successful evangelization techniques and methods in prison, we are also looking for sponsorship for our “volunteer”. The sponsor(s) will contractually agree to a two or three year term to pay the salary and expenses of our “volunteer”. When we place the man in a penal institution, the state will train him to do the same things as a paid state chaplain. This even works in institutions where a state chaplain already exists, as all prisons are overcrowded and these state chaplains need the help of a volunteer. It is our hope that we will one day occupy every prison in the United States.
The crown jewel of our apostolate, though, is the concept of transition centers. We hope to open at least eight such centers over the next decade, but that will depend upon the generosity of good Catholics across the country.
We believe the greatest service we can perform for Christ, His Church, society, and the men we serve is by ministering to the whole person; spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. As I used to tell the men frequently, “There is more to the Catholic faith than simply knowing all about it. Satan knows the faith better than you or I ever will, but it does him no good. It isn’t enough to know the faith; it must be applied and lived”. Consequently, our work in prison has led to a lot of formerly hardened criminals striving for sanctity.
Depending on which study you read, the fifty-one penal systems in this country boast a recidivism rate somewhere between 70% and 80% after five years. In other words, seven to eight men re-offend and return to prison within the first five years after their release from prison. However, the Alabama men who are products of this apostolate as it was operated while I was incarcerated reflect a much different statistic. Indeed, after tracking the men for up to twenty years after their release from prison, only 1.6% of them returned to prison. Many of them are happily married, gainfully employed, and genuine assets to both their parishes and the community. This is evidence of the powerful effects of lived orthodox Catholicism on the lives of men who otherwise lived in hopelessness and despair.
Our transition center is intended to embody all that we discovered works for the spiritual welfare of the men we worked with in prison. The center is intended for Catholic men who have built a significant amount of time in prison, thus in need of an adjustment period. It is also intended for Catholic men who have nowhere to go upon release, as well as men who want to benefit from our program.
Although we mention Catholics specifically, we do not discount the admittance of non-Catholics to our program. However, we believe in following the command of St. Paul: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Therefore, Catholic men always have priority. If we have non-Catholics applying to the program, we will admit those who qualify, provided we have bed space available.
The center provides an intensive eighteen month program, divided into three six-month segments. The first segment of the program is very Benedictine in nature: ora et labora (pray and work). In other words, the men will spend all their waking hours doing only spiritual and physical work. There will only be talking when necessary; no idle chatter. The men will not be allowed to have access to computers, cell phones, televisions, radios, or any other electronic devices. They will attend daily Mass, daily Adoration, formal prayer gatherings, spiritual talks and discussions, and (occasionally) view spiritual DVDs. They will be required to read great spiritual classics, and encouraged to meditate.
When not performing their spiritual works, the men will be doing physical labor. Toward that end, we wish to purchase a farm in a very rural setting. All that we want to do is intended to benefit both the center residents and the apostolate, making it self-sufficient so we are not constantly seeking funding. The work on this farm will be eclectic and make the men more employable, as well as give them a sense of pride and accomplishment in a job well done.
Our first phase in the development is to raise both cattle and crops. We should be able to raise enough to meet all our food needs, as well as set up a green grocer during season to help supply funds to pay the monthly bills.
In the second phase of development we plan to establish an egg farm. Whereas we are non-profit and have low labor costs, we can undersell any local competitors. We would, therefore, establish regular routes with independent grocery markets within a fifty mile (or more) radius of the farm. The third phase of development would be the establishment of three vocational shops: a cabinet shop, a leather shop, and a meat processing shop. These shops will provide both vocational training for the men and income for the center. These shops are inspired by my own life experiences, just as St. John Bosco was inspired in his youth vocational facilities by his experiences. I am an experienced meat cutter, a trade I learned while working in the super markets when a youth. I am also a well trained furniture maker and architectural woodcarver, as well as an experienced leather carver and fabricator.
Under Missouri law, meat processed in our meat processing facility can be inspected by the state (rather than the USDA) and sold to anyone in the state. This would allow us to sell our own processed beef to the general public. Whereas there is a shortage of skilled professional butchers and meat cutters, this will help to make the men more employable.
In the cabinet shop we will teach the men to build both custom cabinetry and furniture. We will work with contractors and individual homeowners doing renovations to build cabinetry. We will also entertain commissions to build custom furniture. Again, this will make the men more employable.
The leather shop workers will make tack for local farmers, as well as rosary cases, Bible covers, et cetera, for sale on the First Century Christian Ministries website. Admittedly, the leather shop is neither a major source of income nor anything to make the men more employable. However, there is a secondary purpose to both the leather shop and the cabinet shop.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The men must have recreational activities. When they are in their recreation periods and spare evening time they will be allowed to use the facilities to make their own wood and leather projects. They will not only have recreation, but they can also put a few dollars in their pockets to save up toward the day when they leave our care.
The second six-month segment is less restrictive. It is during this segment when we allow more activity beyond prayer and work. This is when we begin to prepare the men for the more worldly aspects of living in a free society. Those needing a GED will concentrate on their education. The men will also obtain their driver’s license at this time. We will begin teaching classes on personal financial management, interviewing skills, resume writing, sensible shopping, et cetera. After gaining the new skills required, we will begin to attempt to place the men in jobs. Throughout this period the men will continue to perform their habitual spiritual practices.
The third segment is merely a transitional period for the men. They will continue to live at the center and perform their habitual spiritual practices while working at their new jobs off campus. They remain at the center so as to save money for an apartment and to set up housekeeping. When the man is ready, he will leave the center to begin his new life. We plan to hire a Catholic sociologist to follow up on these men for at least the first year after they leave the program.
This program is far more intense than anything the men experienced in prison. It is far less stressful, but much more intense. Many well-meaning Catholics would say the intensity of our program is too hard on men just coming out of prison. They think the men have had life hard enough as it is. Well, the reasons for the intensity are several. Firstly, no man who has spent a significant amount of time in prison is prepared for life in a free society. Not only are there immense temptations (women, alcohol, pornography, drugs, et cetera), but there are also many distractions that a man simply does not consider prior to his release. For example, the colors in the “free-world” alone are shocking to the senses, as these men live for years in the institutional colors of dull grey, dull blue, and dull green. Even food and nature become distractions, and possibly even occasions of sin for these men. Therefore, by spending the first six months being devoted to prayer and work they are better able to cope with the onslaught the world offers to their deprived senses.
Secondly, these men are, by habit, lacking in self-discipline. Certainly this is not true of the men who went through our apostolate in Alabama, but we will be accepting men from all fifty-one penal systems. That they have been in prison is itself indicative of a life absent of self-discipline. It is our job to help them save their own souls and remain free by teaching them this self-discipline.
Thirdly, most of these men have been reared by their mothers, if anyone at all. The father has been absent from their lives most, if not all, of their lives. Consequently, they know nothing of what it is to be a man. For most of them, the definition of manhood is possessing the ability to procreate and force others to bend to their will by way of force. For me, since evangelization never ends, no matter how long a man has been a Catholic, it is our job to minister to the entire person. That means teaching them how to become true Catholic men. Our philosophy on this is, first we must rid the men of the destructive influences of radical feminism. Then the idea is to teach men how to truly respect women and themselves and others as God intended. The intensity of our program accomplishes this. As I’ve always told my boys, “Lived Catholicism ain’t for sissies”.
Finally, the intensity of our program is to start men on the path of accomplishing the one thing all Catholics are obliged to do: become saints. Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). How perfect is the Father? He is infinitely perfect. Jesus commanded us to be infinitely perfect. Obviously this is something we cannot accomplish on our own, but by our cooperation with actual grace we can become perfect, which is the very definition of sainthood.
As stated earlier, this program is for everyone, but Catholics come first. However, just because a man is Catholic and applies for acceptance into the program does not mean he is automatically accepted. Our vetting process is arduous, and justly so. We cannot afford to take men who are not seriously committed to what we are trying to accomplish. After all, if one man comes to us and gets into trouble or causes problems, all the other men will suffer for what he does or fails to do. Therefore, the first part of our vetting process is for the applicant to write, in as great a detail as possible, his entire life’s story, most especially being candid about the nature and circumstances of his crime. I will be the one to read and analyze these stories. Once the applicant has sufficiently answered any and all of our questions, a determination will be made as to whether the applicant moves on to the second part of the vetting process. Assuming the determination is made in the affirmative, we begin the second part of the process.
We will send a form to the applicant’s priest. This form asks pointed questions about the man’s commitment to living the Catholic faith, but no attempt is made to learn anything that could in the least touch upon the seal of confession. The priest will also be asked to make any comments he thinks are relevant to application process.
Simultaneous to the priest’s questionnaire, we will send one to the institutional warden. We will request that he give us both his subjective opinions regarding the applicant and any objective information he feels free to relate. Ultimately we want the warden to make a recommendation for the applicant.
Once these processes are complete, we will make a decision about acceptance. A synopsis of the application process on each applicant will be written for the senior staff members, who will then vote on whether the man will be accepted into the program. If the staff votes to accept the applicant, he will then be sent a lengthy description of the program and what is expected of him, along with a contract. This contract details exactly what is expected of the applicant, what the rules are, and the consequences for violating the rules.
There will be very few major rules, and not many more minor rules. Minor rules violated three times within the program period, and any violation of the major rules, will result in immediate and irrevocable termination. There is no discussion, no appeal, no second chances. Any man terminated from the program will be immediately removed from the premises, and the staff member in charge will call the county sheriff’s office, or the man’s parole officer (whichever is applicable).
Many people believe I am a hard man when it comes to dealing with our residents. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I love these men with all my heart. Most of our senior staff members will be my own godsons from prison; men who know, understand and accept his philosophy. Mine is not a soft love, nor is it a tough love. It is a true love for the soul of each and every man. The end result will be productive members of the Church and society.
There are lots of ways readers can become a part of the apostolate. The one thing we need more than anything else now and always is prayer. Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, who is my superior as a Marian Catechist, made me quite well aware of that last December. I begged him to relieve me of this apostolate. I told him I’m in over my head, that I’m not competent to build something like this, and I’m overwhelmed. His Eminence simply smiled and said, “Good! That means you’ll have to depend more on God.” Boy, was he ever right about that! I go to Holy Mass every day that I can, and I spend time daily with His Majesty in front of the tabernacle to pour my heart out to Him. Likewise, we need the prayers of all your readers.
His Eminence also told me it is vital that I get in front of as many souls as possible to tell them about the work we did in prison, as well as what we are doing now. Therefore, I need as many invitations as possible to speak to any size group that will sit still long enough for me to tell them our story.
Obviously, we also need money. Certainly we appreciate any gift anyone wants to make, whether that be cash, property of some sort, or whatever. However, we have also devised some other means where folks can help us and help themselves at the same time.
One way readers can help us both is by becoming a member of the First Century Christian Ministries apostolate. We offer six levels of membership, and each level provides some good things for every member. Readers can go to our website at www.fccmission.org to learn more.
Lastly, we have formed a partnership with a business person who has set up a company just to help us. It is called Belair Decors ( at www.belairdecors.com), and the business is being marketed only to Catholics who want to aid this apostolate, but they will happily sell to anyone. They sell over a thousand products in the categories of outdoor living, home decors, kitchen & household, and lighting. They give us 25% of all profits earned, and that percentage will increase as the business grows.
TOPICS: Catholic; Ministry/Outreach; Moral Issues; Prayer
posted on 05/17/2013 5:21:36 AM PDT
To: netmilsmom; thefrankbaum; Tax-chick; GregB; saradippity; Berlin_Freeper; Litany; SumProVita; ...
Russell Ford was the guest of Marcus Grodi on this week's episode of The Journey Home
. If you missed it, you can watch the entire program at THIS LINK
posted on 05/17/2013 5:23:06 AM PDT
(To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possibl)
Saw it and very compelling, worth watching.
Interesting read. Not Catholic, but I love to see men find and share faith anywhere.
posted on 05/17/2013 7:28:44 AM PDT
(Those of us who work for a living are outnumbered by those who vote for a living.)
Thanks for posting this..
Looking forward to seeing a possible R.Ford return for a 2 interview..
posted on 05/17/2013 10:57:18 AM PDT
I saw that this afternoon. Stunning. I don’t get choked up about much, but the tears just prickled. Some people might think their lives were ruined by an unjust conviction like that, but not Ford. How humbling and chastening.
posted on 05/17/2013 9:25:17 PM PDT
(The OTTB Mare--now a Marine Mom)
An amazing story and ministry!
posted on 05/17/2013 9:58:18 PM PDT
("With God all things are possible." Matthew 19:26)
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