Tim Drake

Wednesday, June 04, 2003
Reaching Out from Behind Bars: Evangelist and Apologist Russell Ford
By Tim Drake

Russell Ford may be behind bars, but in many ways he is more active in Catholic evangelizing than most Catholics living in the outside world. From his cell in Alabama’s Draper Prison, Ford evangelizes not only with words, but also with wood.

Ford is a much different person today than the one who came to prison 16 years ago. “I came to prison a hate-filled and embittered agnostic, living as a practical atheist,” said Ford, who was sentenced to 25 years in 1987.

Ford’s agnostic-to-Catholic conversion story is told on the audio-tape No Escape, available through St. Joseph’s Communications.

As Ford tells it, toward the end of his first year in prison an older Catholic convict, whom had been inspired by Pope John Paul II to be an evangelist to prisoners, tricked Ford into studying the catechism. After not having much success at first, the older convict appealed to Ford’s ego by challenging him to read The Baltimore Catechism #2. He told him he doubted that Russ would be able to answer the questions after reading the book. The tactic worked, sparking an interest in Ford.

Later, Ford became convinced by the intellectual realization that the Catholic Church was the Church founded by Christ. After learning of Christ’s real presence in the Holy Eucharist, Ford emotionally embraced the faith. He was received into the Catholic Church on February 11, 1989 — the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

While on his own journey of faith, Ford also became a catechist for others. “My chaplain handed me a catechism and urged me to teach other convicts,” explained Ford. Using the Sharing the Faith video series by Father Robert Fox, Ford continues to teach his fellow inmates about the faith.

His success is impressive. Ford now counts 61 godson converts, and has played a direct role in the conversion of nearly 200 other inmates. Perhaps more impressive, the recidivism rate among his Catholic converts is only 1.6%, compared to a general recidivism rate between 70 and 80 percent for the state.

Prisoners, Ford has written, are drawn by a sense of the sacred. He compares his work as an evangelist to that of being a “tag-team salesman.” “The salesman presents the product with its features and benefits to prospective buyers,” said Ford, “once the presentation has been made, the Holy Spirit comes in for the close.”

It is work for which Ford has paid a price. As a white Catholic evangelist in a predominantly black Evangelical Protestant prison system, Ford has been beaten by a guard, unjustly locked in solitary confinement, had his Bible and books confiscated, and has been denied parole five times. His parole was once denied reportedly because Ford’s priest would not reveal what Ford had divulged under the seal of the confessional to a female member of the parole board.

Ford’s catechetical work has also led him to found an apostolate for prisoners and to engage in apologetics writing.

Reaching Out to those in Chains
Ford sees his apostolate work as a mission of outreach. According to Ford, there are more than 2 million men and women in the nation’s prisons. “We are losing the battle for souls in prison by default,” said Ford.

“The largest mission field in America has almost no Catholic presence in evangelization. The groups competing for convicts’ souls are not just Fundamentalists and Islamic sects, but also growing numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Native American spirituality, Wicca, Druidism, and even Satanism,” explained Ford.

In response, with the help of his first godson, Phil Hanna, Ford founded First Century Christian Ministries (FCCM) dedicated to evangelizing prisoners in cooperation with prison chaplains. FCCM’s newsletter, “The Perfect Prisoner” reaches more than 1,100 subscribers, 75 percent of whom are prisoners. The lay apostolate sends materials such as Catholic books and magazines, catechisms, rosaries, and scapulars to more than 70 prison chaplains across the nation.

Other FCCM initiatives include a strictly screened pen-pal program for Catholic inmates and a “Bibles for Inmates” program.

The program has received praise from various prison ministry offices. “I can’t speak highly enough of FCCM,” said Heidi Sumner, secretary to the prison ministry office for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. “They have donated a wealth of materials from their members to our ministry.” Lay volunteers with the office have distributed the materials to 16 correctional facilities in the five-county diocese.

“If we’re not in there with the Gospel, something else will grab them,” said Joseph Strada, chairman of First Century Christian Ministries. “While they have their debt to society, we have an obligation to save their souls.”

Reaching out with the Pen
Another way that Ford evangelizes is through his writing. At the urging of Father Killian Mooney, S. T., Ford began engaging in Catholic writing. Influenced by the work of Catholic Answers’ Karl Keating and Peter Kreeft, Ford’s work has appeared in such Catholic publications as This Rock, Communio Magazine, Immaculata Magazine, The Wanderer and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

In addition, Ford is the only Alabama convict to have published a book from prison. His straightforward and streetwise The Missionary’s Catechism (Magnificat Institute Press) poses some 600 questions and answers based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Catholics such as apologist Karl Keating, the late theologian Father John Hardon, and Fathers of Mercy Superior General Father Bill Casey have endorsed Ford’s work.

Ford’s writing is extraordinary for several reasons.

First, the writing is done amidst the constant noise of the prison, an environment which Ford admits is anything but conducive to spiritual writing. Second, Ford has access to neither a computer nor a typewriter. His articles and books are entirely written by hand. Third, Ford suffers from arthritis, making writing with a pen difficult. “Every word is wrought from pain,” said friend and Jewish convert to Catholicism Marty Barrack.

Reaching Out through Wood
Ford’s words aren’t the only thing wrought from pain. Ford also carries out a woodworking trade from the prison’s hobby craft shop. Proceeds from the trade help to fund the work of his prison apostolate. It’s a vocation that Ford came to by accident.

“I was making rosaries and they were not selling, so I started watching the guys who were doing woodworking,” said Ford, “and I started making things.” It is a vocation to which Ford is able to devote approximately two-and-a-half-hours per day.

Using largely self-taught skills, Ford fashions stunning heirloom gaming tables, ladies jewelry boxes, cigar humidors, rifle racks, quilt racks, and wall and mantle clocks from solid hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, red oak, maple and mahogany. The one-of-a-kind pieces, such as the rifle cabinet or wall clocks, start at approximately $400-500 and retail for more.

Ford uses hand-rubbed finishes that strongly accent the grains in the wood. Each piece is inconspicuously signed and dated. Delivery typically takes six to eight weeks.

In addition, Ford also produces a line of decorative Catholic wall carvings. Each carving is meticulously hand-carved by Ford. The carvings feature one of more than 30 different prayers, such as the Ten Commandments, Hail Mary, the Prayer of St. Francis and many others. Each plaque is decorated with molded edges and traditional Catholic symbols, such as a Celtic cross, the fleur-de-lis, or a chalice and host. The symbols are accentuated with a partial or complete stone inlay. Ford’s hand-carved wall coverings range in price from $35-50 and retail between $50 and $75.

Last year one customer ordered ten small plaques for her friends and family as Christmas gifts. “I have received many thanks from the recipients,” she said.

Federal appellate attorney Fred Isaacs of Lake Oswego, Ore. first learned of Ford through his Catholic writing. Fred and his wife Nancy, co-direct the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program at their local parish and frequently distribute copies of Ford’s Missionary Catechism to their RCIA students.

Only later did Isaacs learn of Ford’s skill with wood. Isaacs commissioned Ford to build a Regulator-style clock. To say that Isaacs was pleased with the result is an understatement.

“He made us perhaps the most beautiful clock we have ever seen,” said Isaacs. “It has a German movement and a beautiful wood case with a piano finish. It took Ford several months to complete, but it is a work of art and it graces our living room fireplace mantle.”

Isaacs was also pleased with the price. “We paid about one-fourth, or less, of what a custom-made clock would cost elsewhere,” said Isaacs.

In addition to individual sales, Ford also makes his woodwork available to retail stores.

Marty Barrack has devoted 11 pages to guest apologist Russell Ford on his own apologetics web site Second Exodus (www.SecondExodus.com). There, customers can read about Ford and his work, see photos of his woodworking projects, and place orders for his books and wood products.

“Russ does superb work,” said Barrack, who owns some of Ford’s woodworking as well. “He makes woodwork items as if for Christ himself. I know the love for Christ that Russ pours into every piece, and I know the pain in Russ’ arthritic hands that he offers up to Christ as he works.”

© 2003, This article originally appeared in the Catholic Marketing Network Trade Journal. Tim Drake is features correspondent with the National Catholic Register, and the editor of Saints of the Jubilee (1stBooks, 2002). He writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.

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