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Bible-toting chaplain leads hundreds of inmates to Jesus

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–It’s a good thing Ralph Shepherd is not a gunslinger. His belt would not be long enough for all of his “victory” notches.

But then, too, Shepherd’s goal is much different from the Wild West sharpshooters. Those men had death as their goal. Shepherd has life as his. The 83-year-old chaplain has led more than 2,600 people to faith in Jesus Christ — all of them behind prison bars.

He has a no-nonsense approach to witnessing and can immediately quote blocks of Scripture to counteract any excuse a prisoner may come up with for rejecting Jesus.

“If I come away from the jail without at least two to three salvations, I’ve failed,” said Shepherd, who has been working in jail/prison ministry for the last 20 years.

Shepherd has worked the last seven years at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City, but started his ministry on death row at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He also has served at Jess Dunn Correctional Center in Taft and Joseph Harp Correctional Facility in Lexington.

Shepherd, who will be 84 in October, graduated from Carver University in 1943 with a Ph.D. in psycho-bio-physiology and as a chiropractor in 1944. He practiced in Oklahoma and Texas before taking over a mobile home business when his father died, which he operated until 1994.

Shepherd accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior at the age of 12 after his brother died, but it was while he was living in Wichita, Kan., that his passion for witnessing was born.

“There were two deacons at Wellington Place Church where I was a member who had a glow about them,” Shepherd recalled. “They went out to talk to people; they were soul-winners and I wanted to be like them.”

Shepherd, now a member of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, said he asked the deacons if he could go visiting with them, and then he had the opportunity to give his testimony in a jail.

“God gave me a passion to minister to death row inmates,” Shepherd said.

That’s when he moved his family to Oklahoma City and drove back and forth to McAlester.

“I didn’t know anyone at the prison, but the chaplain welcomed me with open arms,” he said.

Shepherd was cleared for visitation on death row in two weeks. The process usually takes at least six weeks.

After the riot at the Stringtown prison in the 1980s, where 400 inmates were transferred to the McAlester facility, Shepherd had the privilege of leading many of them to the Lord.

Although he said he believes God has called him to help the lost and forgotten men and women of the earth, Shepherd said it is not easy ministering to people behind bars.

“Listening to people with all sorts of problems takes something out of you,” he admitted. “If it were not for God’s Spirit, I would probably crumble.”

Shepherd noted that some inmates are habitual offenders and some only first-time minor offenders.

“Many come to jail because they have broken the laws of man,” he said. “Some have had religious experiences, and some have not, and many are confused about God’s Word.”

Shepherd said he is not easygoing when talking to criminals.

“I use different approaches, but I make it difficult,” he said. “I don’t let them get through too easily.”

He said those who are “religious-minded” are the toughest to deal with.

“The way I witness depends on the person,” he said. “If they reject Jesus, I show them Proverbs 1:24-31, which starts out, ‘Because I have called, and you have refused … ‘ and continues, ‘then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.’

“I tell them they can’t come to God when they are ready, but only when he calls them.” Shepherd said he leaves the discipling of the new converts to others, but encourages them to read the Bible.

“In the last year, I’ve led 10 men to the Lord who couldn’t see without eyeglasses,” he noted. “I went and bought them glasses so they could read the Bible for themselves, and not just take my word for it.”

Although jail ministry keeps the retired doctor busy, that’s not his only witnessing venue. He has also worked with the Chaplains’ Corner at the State Fair of Oklahoma.

“One morning during the fair, I was talking to a tall, slender fellow at one of the booths and asked him if he’d like some coffee and donuts,” Shepherd said. “I took him to the Chaplains’ Corner, and then asked him if he’d like to know more about the Lord. We went to my car and sat there with the doors open while we read the Bible. I asked him if he’d like to be a child of the living God and know that heaven was his eternal home. He said he would, so I asked him to bow his head. He said he couldn’t do that. I knew he was sincere about accepting Jesus, so I asked him, ‘Why not?’

“He said it was because he was deaf. He had been reading my lips, and if he bowed his head, he wouldn’t know what I was praying. So I told him to look straight at me; we prayed and he was saved.”

And as if ministering to prisoners and carnies at the State Fair isn’t enough, at age 75, Shepherd started riding with the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

“I led four people … to the Lord,” he said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: THE BIBLE COUNTS.

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  • Dana Williamson