Russell Ford has won more converts to the Catholic faith than most of us could ever imagine. He has helped convert more than 100 persons and has served as godfather for 77 of them. He has written a Catholic catechism and founded a catechetical apostolate that have reached thousands more, all from within an Alabama penitentiary. New evidence proves he is innocent.
MONTGOMERY, AL (Catholic Online) - Russell Ford has won more converts to the Catholic faith than most of us could ever imagine. By his own count, he has helped convert more than 100 persons and has served as godfather for 77 of them. He has also written a Catholic catechism and founded a catechetical apostolate that have reached thousands more.
While those are impressive figures, there is something about Ford that is even more remarkable: He has done all of this from within the confines of an Alabama penitentiary.
Now, after serving 23 years of his 25-year sentence, Ford presently is appealing his conviction because new evidence proves he is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted - but he needs the help of faithful Catholics and other concerned individuals to help bring his appeal to a happy conclusion.
Although innocent of the crime, Ford admits that he was not a good man when he arrested, convicted, and locked away in prison back in 1987. He was a self-proclaimed atheist who lived the wild life to the fullest and was not a particularly nice guy to be around. That all changed about a year after his incarceration, when a fellow prisoner, himself a new convert, began speaking to Ford about the Catholic faith and earned his rapt attention. He became an eager student of Church doctrine and avidly learned all he could about his newfound faith.
Ford was baptized in 1989, but even before that the prison's priest-chaplain gave him a catechism and instructed him to teach it to other inmates. He resisted at first, but before long he was conducting catechism classes of his own and gaining new souls for Christ and his Church.
From that initial effort, Ford founded and developed First-Century Christian Ministries (FCCM), an outreach to inmates in his own penitentiary and other prisons across the nation. His first convert was his cellmate; many more were to follow. He also wrote articles and was published widely in Catholic journals such as This Rock and the National Catholic Register. His book, "The Missionary's Catechism," is beloved by many and is still in print.
Criminals can be a tough audience, so Ford had to learn sound apologetics methods in order to penetrate the exterior resistance of inmates and reach their hearts and souls. Prison officials have often made the apostolate more difficult for Ford by confiscating his Bibles and catechetical materials and ordering him not to teach the faith. Despite being described as a model prisoner, he was denied parole in 1995 after his priest-chaplain honored the seal of confession and refused to divulge to the parole board what Ford had said to him in the Sacrament of Penance.
Two years ago, Ford began a quest for exoneration based on new evidence that has come to light. His appeal is complicated by the fact that Alabama's justice system destroyed all DNA evidence from the trial, but it appears his case is progressing favorably. Supported by advocates led by Catholic laity, Ford and his legal team have been negotiating the daunting technical hurdles and challenges of the legal system and remedies that he has to navigate and overcome. He has just been granted an extraordinary ruling in federal court granting him a "certificate of appealability" acknowledging that he has presented substantial evidence that his constitutional rights were violated with respect to his claims related to newly discovered evidence and alleged destruction of evidence.
His case will soon be heard in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals; if necessary, the case will be petitioned before the United States Supreme Court. If the Court of Appeals rules in his favor, Ford will be exonerated and set free.
The financial cost of such appeals is very high, often reaching into six figures. Ford presently is receiving pro-bono legal representation, but there are heavy and essential costs involving court fees, procurement of evidence, and other necessities for mounting a credible appeal. He has no money for such expenses, but his close and longtime Catholic friends have established a legal fund to provide these costs. He desperately needs more concerned people to render monetary assistance so that he may present his case to the courts and win his vindication and freedom.
Ford's friends and supporters already include many prominent Catholic men and women. Donna Steichen, author of "Ungodly Rage," learned of Ford's story and included him in her newly published collection of conversion stories titled "Chosen: How Christ Send Twenty-Three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard" (Ignatius Press, 2009).
"No one acquainted with [Ford's] record could fail to be astonished by what he has achieved, both in his own education and development, and in his remarkable contribution to the common good," Steichen said in support of his appeal. "There can be no question that he has brought the light of Christ into the brutal darkness of prison, and led countless fellow prisoners into new lives. It seems unarguable that he deserves freedom in which to continue his work."
Dr. Joseph Strada is a former aeronautical engineer who first learned of Ford's story in a 1992 issue of This Rock magazine. Not long after their initial contact via mail, Ford asked Strada to serve as president of the prison apostolate he had founded, First-Century Christian Ministries (FCCM), a role he continues to fill today. He also testified on behalf of Ford at a parole board hearing.
Ford's conversion story in This Rock "was a powerful account that affected me deeply," Strada said. "Here was a man in a hostile, anti Catholic, prison environment who was winning more converts to the Holy Faith than I could hope to do in the free world."
Strada said he was "stunned" when the parole board's chairperson demanded that the prison priest-chaplain divulge details of Ford's sacramental confessions. He refused on the basis of the seal of confession, and as a result the chairperson blocked Ford's chance of parole.
"And now, 21 years after Russell's conversion, I continue to receive letters, emails and phone calls from those who have listened to his story or read one his many articles in Catholic periodicals," he said. Through the organization founded by Ford behind bars, Catholic literature and catechetical materials are provided to dozens of prisons across the nation, and Catholic volunteers live the spiritual works of mercy by visiting prisoners and corresponding with them.
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has corresponded with Ford and has read some of what he has written. "Russell Ford, in his writings, both private letters to me and public prison catechetical publications, has struck me as a genuinely ethical and honest person, psychologically mature [and] accepting justice and legal authority without resentment," Kreeft said, adding that he believes Ford is "psychologically worthy" of release from prison.
William E. May, professor of theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., said he has known Ford for more than 20 years. They first met when Ford was writing his book,"The Missionary's Catechism" and contacted May to get clarification on some questions of faith and morals. The book developed from the classes on Catholicism that Ford was offering his fellow inmates and has become a modern classic of apologetics.
May continued to advise Ford from time to time, answering difficult moral questions raised by inmates and lending support to the prison apostolate wherever possible. He said he was always impressed with the volume of reading in sound Catholic theology that Ford had accomplished while in prison.
May is even more impressed with Ford's character.
"Several times in the past two decades, Russ appealed for parole, and I sent letters on his behalf to the parole boards concerned," said May. "With others, I was appalled when those boards did not parole Russ. But I was even more impressed by his reaction. He was never bitter, never angry at the board, never angry that God allowed him to continue bearing his cross. He was a model Christian, a man who fully believed in Christ, who daily would take up his cross and offer any suffering it caused him to God.
"Like Christ, he forgave his enemies and prayed for them. He continues to do so," he added. "With many, many others I hope that the court of appeals will at long last recognize that this courageous man must be set free of the prison to which he was sentenced many years ago."
Fully aware of the current difficult economic times, Russ' advocates and friends are seeking financial contributions to his legal fund. Your monetary gifts will be used solely for the necessary expenses of his appeal. If the appeal is ultimately successful, donors will be blessed in knowing that their contributions helped exonerate and emancipate an innocent man, a man who is on fire with the Catholic faith and is determined to invite as many people as possible, both within and outside prison walls, to embrace the Catholic Church.
Tax-deductible contributions can be made payable to First Century Christian Ministries, Inc., P.O. Box 70697, Montgomery, AL 36107. Please write "Ford Legal Fund" in the memo portion of your check. Above all, please keep Russell Ford and his appeal for release in your daily prayers and intercessions.
Direct questions to Marshall Pickard at (334) 514-1109. Russ Ford's book, "The Missionary's Catechism," can be ordered at Amazon.com or through your local bookstore.
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