Allesandre Reyes Cardenas, 35, is currently serving time in Michigan for second-degree murder.
Allesandre, known as "Pooh" in prison, came from what many of us would consider a typical background for a criminal. Pooh and his five siblings were latch-key kids, reared by a single mother who did not practice her Catholic faith. She at least managed to have Pooh baptized, but that is where Catholicism ended for him. "For me, being Catholic meant hanging up a picture of Jesus and doing whatever you want," explains Pooh.
Growing up in southwest Detroit was not easy. At a time when other children were negotiating a raise in allowance from mom and dad, Pooh was being introduced to the drug trade as a means of income. This particular means led to Pooh’s first arrest at age fifteen for assault with intent to do bodily harm.
While serving time in the Wayne County Youth Home for the assault case, the teenaged Pooh focused his energies on his love for music and made plans to become a disc jockey at parties and clubs. He soon learned, however, that the income earned as a DJ did not even cover operational costs, so it was back to the quick cash of the drug trade. This lifestyle quickly led to a multiple-count indictment for first-degree murder, two counts of assault with intent to commit murder, and four counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. For five months, Pooh sat in county jail until his lawyer could get the judge to reduce bail enough for his family to afford.
While awaiting his pre-trial freedom from county jail, Pooh had a conversion of sorts. When someone mentions a "jailhouse conversion," a typical reaction includes a rolling of the eyes and a doubtful sigh. Convicts have the same reaction to a jailhouse conversion. Most "conversions," though, are not an attempt to manipulate the system or those working in the system. The truth is that most jailhouse conversions are sincere in the mind of the converts, but in reality they are reacting to fear. Like many of us, jailhouse converts are arrogant enough to believe God is a celestial slot machine that pays off with every prayerful pull. Such was the apparent case with Pooh.
Although Pooh used these five months in county jail to do a cursory examination of Islam and Protestantism, he mostly settled on praying for his freedom. Once bail was posted and freedom acquired, it wasn’t long before he completely forgot God. That is a typical jailhouse conversion—but God was not yet finished with our Motor City friend.
Eventually Pooh was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced. He accepted that he would be in prison for a long time, and after he was "sent down," God set Pooh on the long track to true conversion—a conversion of heart.
In most prison systems, everyone is first sent to an intake prison for initial medical workups and classification. From there, the convict is permanently assigned to a prison. During intake, the prison personnel asked Pooh a question he had never been asked: What religion are you? Despite never practicing any religion after baptism, and after exposure to piles of anti-Catholic literature in county jail, Pooh surprised himself by declaring that he was Catholic.
"What Does Catholic Mean?"
For his first three years in prison, the extent of Pooh’s religious practice was to say nightly prayers at bedtime. Then a fellow convict asked him an honest question that got him going in the right direction: What does Catholic mean? That simple question was a small epiphany. As he says, "It hit me right then and there. I had spent a lot of time looking at different religions, but I hadn’t even given Catholicism an honest look!" Pooh had to admit that he didn’t know what "Catholic" meant, but he was determined to find out.
In Pooh’s experience, Protestant books tended to be self-bolstering, so he decided not to look to them for answers about Catholicism. He reasoned that Catholic books were probably equally self-bolstering, so he began with secular sources. His first was a dictionary. To his surprise, the dictionary revealed that "catholic" literally means "universal." Reading on about how the word applies to the Church, Pooh saw these words: "…the ancient undivided Christian church." Having long wondered what Jesus meant when he said, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church," (Matt. 16:18), he felt the dictionary had given him the answer. Subsequent research in encyclopedia and dictionaries convinced him that the Catholic Church is the one Church founded by Christ.
Unfortunately, Pooh’s research temporarily stopped there. He had been assigned to a prison that had no scheduled Catholic services, which by extension also meant no Catholic books. Pooh was anxious to begin attending Mass and learning more about his Catholic faith, but he didn’t know what to do about getting a priest into the prison. So he attended Protestant services, sitting quietly in the rear of the chapel.
After several weeks, at one such service he met an older Catholic man. The man asked if he knew any Catholics who would like to attend Mass. Pooh blurted, "I’m a Catholic!" The man put his name on a list of convicts who wanted to attend Mass, then submitted the list to the prison chaplain. Three weeks later they had their first Mass.
From then on Pooh was able to gather what he needed to study and learn the faith. About that time he ran into the same thing every Catholic runs into in prison: the anti-Catholicism of other convicts. Although he tried to avoid debate, he did learn to become a competent apologist. He had to learn all of the usual topics: praying to Mary and the saints, the Eucharist, sacramental absolution, and so on. Of course, as Pooh learned, there is no better way to gain an intimate knowledge of the faith than to study apologetics. At some point, though, we have to transfer what we learn, know, and believe from the head to the heart. After all, Scripture tells us that "Even the demons believe—and shudder" (Jas. 2:19).
So Pooh took seriously Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matt. 6:33).
Seek Ye First
He began seeking God first in his life, realizing that to put anything else ahead of God was doomed to failure from its conception. Weekly Mass became his top priority even when it conflicted with legal classes that might help him gain his freedom. He no longer tolerated having his prayers interrupted by other convicts who felt what they had to talk about was more important. Indeed, nothing stands between Allesandre and his prayers. He even told his family not to visit on days Mass would be celebrated, even though prisoners are generally excused from the Mass obligation so they may visit with family.
Because of his deep and abiding commitment to our Lord and the Church, Allesandre says he is freer than he has ever been in his life. That is an experience all committed Catholic convicts can agree with. We are infinitely more free than the vast majority of "free world" people reading this. Not only are we free, but we are happy. We are fed food you would hesitate to give your dogs, clothed in substandard clothing, sleep on iron bunks, live in constant noise and chaos, endure the ever-present threat of violence, and are separated from those we love, yet we are truly happy. We would like to be free, but as Allesandre will tell you, we would be no happier, no more fulfilled than we are right now.
It happened that Allesandre’s mother came into an unexpected windfall, thus enabling him to go to college while he is incarcerated. Likewise, Allesandre’s niece came into some money, so she is financing his appeal.
Back to the Fold
According to the fathers of Vatican II, all Catholics are obligated to share our holy and ancient faith with others. That obligation applies in direct proportion to our abilities. For some, that means helping finance outreach programs. For others, it means praying for the missions or lay apostolates who share the faith. For still others it may mean sitting down with any warm body who will listen and teaching the catechism as an evangelist. And that is exactly what it has meant to Pooh.
Allesandre has had the privilege to instruct six men in the faith. He has been godfather to six at baptism and four at confirmation. After thirty years outside the Church, the son brought his mother back into Christ’s fold. Because of his mother’s reversion, Allesandre’s oldest sister returned to the Church after thirty years as well. Likewise, his sister’s mother-in-law returned to the sacraments, and that same sister’s youngest daughter was confirmed at Easter in 2005. Finally, Allesandre currently instructs two of his adult nieces in the visiting room every Friday, patiently waiting for the day they will make a public profession of the faith.
Allesandre and I are not the kind of men most of your readers would want for neighbors, and you would probably have a fit if your daughter brought Allesandre home to meet you. We understand and accept that. It’s the stigma we created with our own sins, and the stigma we will carry for the rest of our lives. But if you can get past the stigma and be honest, you will probably feel the same way about Allesandre and others like him that I feel. And how do I feel about men like our beloved Pooh? I feel like a lion in a whole den full of Daniels.