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Prison Yard Apologetics

Russell L. Ford is a longtime friend of Catholic Answers and frequent contributor to This Rock. His popular series “Buckethead and Bubba,” about his apologetics experiences in prison, appeared in the magazine between 1994 and 1998. This article was the cover story for the November 1992 issue of This Rock.

In June 1988 I completed my first year as an inmate in an Alabama penitentiary and my 13th year as an agnostic. My journey through agnosticism ended that year, but my prison sentence continues.

When I was paroled from agnosticism, our Lord gave me the desire to share our holy and ancient faith. With the approval of the prison chaplain, I began teaching catechism to any inmate I could threaten, intimidate, or calf-rope long enough to listen. Don’t be surprised by this—I’d been a criminal much longer than a Catholic, you know. My catechetical work made me a high-profile Catholic, open to attack by every Fundamentalist resident of this house of “I didn’t do it.”

Force-Fed Truth

The attacks from Fundamentalist prisoners came only from those who had virtually no knowledge of history, of their own denomination’s teachings, or of common sense. I single out their lack of prudence because I’m over six feet tall, weigh 225 pounds, and had quite a reputation for being less than patient with antagonists. In those days, my idea of apologetics was to say, “Shut yer face while ya still got one!” Then I sat my student down and force-fed him the truth. It wasn’t long before Fundamentalist prisoners decided I was better left to the “evil clutches of Rome.”
I thought my brand of apologetics worked pretty well. Nobody denied the truth of Catholicism—at least not to my face. (No one who valued his appearance would dare.) My crude method of teaching was a reaction to my own fears and insecurities about discussing the faith. I was still trying to become proficient with the Catechism and lacked proper motivation, time, and resources to study apologetics.

That Ol’ Catholic Demon

Here in Alabama there exists a large group of Fundamentalists who undertake a successful semi-annual program for evangelization in the state’s 18 prisons. They converge by the hundreds on all of the prisons for a solid week. During the day these well-meaning folks send men into the bowels of the prisons to “witness.” At night women join them for “crusade” services in the gym.

These “Fundies” (as non-Fundamentalist inmates call them) are a zealous lot. I’ve seen them shouting sermons in the middle of a cell block and babbling in “tongues” when trying to win a new convert at some poor fellow’s bunk. They eat with us, play checkers, challenge the prison team to a game of ball, and do anything else to convince us that they are true convicts for a week. I avoided them like a police lineup. But a confrontation eventually became unavoidable.

In the summer of 1989, they again arrived and turned this purgatory into a living hell. I had just finished praying my rosary at my bunk and was about to put it away when one of the more obnoxious—and imprudent—Fundamentalists approached.

“Whatcha got thar, son?” he asked with a big, silly grin on his face.

Well, I’m from up North, but I decided to play along with this fellow on his terms. In my best Dixie-ese I said, “Got me a rosary, and I just finished prayin’ to May-ree.”

You would have thought that I stabbed the poor guy. The little bit of neck he had swelled up, his shoulders stiffened, his face turned crimson, and all the veins on his forehead popped out. Almost yelling at me (mistake number one), he said, “Whatsamattah wit’ you, boy? Don’t ya know the Lord kilt a slew-o-Jews fer doin’ that when Moses came back from gittin’ the Law?”

I laughed and said, “Mister, you got it all wrong. We don’t—”

“Oh, yes ya do, boy! Ah got a duty ta save ya from that May-ree worshippin’!” (mistake number two). “Boy, Ah’m gonna pray fer ya and rid ya of that ole Catholic demon” (mistake number three).

By this time it was I who had the puffed-up neck and crimson face. I stooped over until my face met his and shouted, “You’re about to learn how to talk through your navel! Now git out of here and leave me alone! I’m a Christian in the one, true Church! Now git!”

Great apologetics, huh? I suppose this exchange did a lot to get this fellow to check out Catholicism.

Like Dorothy’s Tin Man

You would think that such an experience would have been enough to get me to begin a concerted study in apologetics. Well, I’m not in prison for using my head, and this time was no exception. In my defense I can say at least I saw the need for apologetics after this mutually beneficial discussion. My biggest problem was access to sources.

Over the next several months our Lord began to do what we tend to think he is best at: He began working a miracle. My holy confessor, who went to heaven last January, decided to tame a bit of the animal in me. He became my spiritual director and worked with me until I was civilized enough to be taken into public places (assuming I eventually get out of here). The Blessed Virgin and her divine Son turned me inside out at the hands of this saintly priest, Fr. Killian Mooney, S.T. I actually developed a heart.

At the same time Providence began to arrange for me to start learning apologetics. Evangelization is virtually impossible without apologetics. I finally realized I had to become a competent apologist or we would never see Christ’s most forsaken children come to the warm embrace of his Church.

About the same time I got the opportunity to read two books: Protestant Fundamentalism and the Born-Again Catholic by Fr. Robert J. Fox and Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating. One of my godsons had purchased Mr. Keating’s book, and Fr. Fox sent me a copy of his. I read, re-read, and re-read again these two books. They were all I had to go on, but they were more than enough to defeat the Bible thumping that goes on here. I memorized all I could from these two texts. I still frequently refer to Fr. Fox’s book, and I’d still be reading the copy of Mr. Keating’s book I finally obtained for myself if somebody hadn’t stolen it. (I hope the thief at least reads it!)

“Da You Know Jee-Zus?”

The following year came four straws that broke this camel’s back and made me decide on an all-out effort to learn and teach apologetics. I was in a small room teaching one of my godsons (believe it or not, I’m his godmother) in preparation for his baptism. The Fundamentalists were in the camp, making their semi-annual visit. I had my back to the door when one of them bolted in uninvited and exclaimed, “Da you know Jee-zus?” Those four words were the four last straws.

I took a deep breath and rolled my eyes while trying to remember that Fr. Killian said I was supposed to be charitable. Then I put on my best Jim Bakker smile, turned to face the intruder and said, “Yea-ess! Are you sure that you do?”

“Whaddaya mean?” was the surprised response.

“Well,” I began, “are you sure you’re a member of the one, true Church Christ founded?”

“Well . . . er . . . uh . . .”

I didn’t do much for this poor fellow beyond planting a few seeds. There is little doubt, though, this guy will think twice before coming through a door again uninvited. The poor lad was so confused about what he believed by the time he left that room that he probably began looking for Rod Serling to verify that he had just been through the Twilight Zone. I didn’t do a very good job, but it was a start.

Fruits of the Spirit

Can apologetics work in a prison nestled in the heart of Fundamentalist country? You be the judge. As I write [1992], we are only seven months into the year and the Church has received seven new, fully-instructed converts into its embrace. Every Friday night we have a room full of catechumens and inquirers for instruction. Four years ago we had only three convicts attending Mass, but now we have 20 regular participants, and we had nearly 50 convicts show up last May when Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb came to confirm five men and witness our act of consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

By the way, the Archbishop’s homily deeply touched a few of the anti-Catholic guests I invited to come along. I now give them private instruction.

Our story doesn’t end here. Our little Catholic community has grown zealously evangelistic on the heels of our consecration to the Mother of God. We are seeing the need for proficiency in apologetics. As a result, recently I have begun research to put together a course in prison apologetics. On top of this, our new priest, Fr. Michael Sreboth, a real soldier for Christ with an apostolic zeal seldom seen these days, intends to begin his own set of classes soon.

The sources we have here for apologetical research are few, but they are rich. The more I research, the more my chest swells with pride. Protestants have spent the better part of the last 500 years complaining that Catholics are arrogant in our claim of belonging to the one, true Church. They’re right in a way. We are arrogant about this fact. We’re not arrogant about our claim in a sinful way, but with a holy form of arrogance (if I may put it this way), and we should maintain this attitude. We don’t have the best—we’ve got the only.

Two Lasting Lessons

Let me close by listing the most important lessons I’ve learned about apologetics.

The first is that all the apologetical knowledge the world is absolutely fruitless if the apologist does his work without prayer and sincerely living his faith. This insight comes from several embarrassing experiences.

The second lesson is the proper role of the apologist. It is not my role, nor am I able, to convince or convert any non-Catholic. My role is to present the truth accurately. It is the Holy Spirit’s role to make the conversions, and he does a wonderful job, even on this side of the walls.


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