“What’s a Dumb Ox Production?” asks one teen eyeing the bold logo across another teen’s T-shirt. Emblazoned on clothing or tripping off the tongue, Dumb Ox Productions is a name that’s one cool conversation starter for the New Evangelization.
The 2001 brainchild of co-founders and life-long friends Brian Butler and Randy Hernandez, both 30 years old and married, Dumb Ox is proving so successful in reaching youth through its own ongoing retreats that it’s now also part of the vocation office in the Louisiana Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux.
Through Dumb Ox Productions, which is endorsed by the likes of EWTN News Director Raymond Arroyo and David Sloan of the God of Desire singles ministry, Butler coordinates a diocesan vocation-formation program for teens.
The what, why and wherefore are firmly planted in John Paul II’s call for new evangelization and his theology of the body. In fact, Butler recently co-authored Theology of the Body for Teens: Discovering God’s Plan for Love & Life (Ascension Press, 2006) with Jason and Crystalina Evert. The how is through a big focus on the “411” retreat.
Butler describes 411 (four-one-one) as “a full weekend helping young persons to discover the true purpose of their lives and to come before God starting to search and really listen.”
The catchy name is meaningful. “We play on 411,” explains Hernandez. “You call 4-1-1 for information. Youth are looking for information. More importantly, we believe we’re created for one purpose and one union.”
Teens learn that purpose is love, the union is with Christ and, by living out their vocation, they’re achieving the purpose God has for them: They’re in union with Christ, whether through the married life or the religious life.
Bigger Than Chastity
Last April, when Father Mark Toups, director of vocations and seminarians for the Houma-Thibodaux Diocese, met Butler and learned his dream was to develop this new comprehensive vocation program for teens, the priest also knew his own office wanted to help teens learn how to listen to God.
“It was a match made in heaven,” says Father Toups of Dumb Ox paired with the vocations office. “What I like about 411 is it’s not necessarily a recruitment tool. It’s really trying to help teenagers across the board learn how to listen to God.”
“The core of 411 ministry is just solidifying teenagers’ commitment to holiness, upon which their listening to God will be based. The vision is to raise up a radical generation of holy teens.”
The vision is already taking hold. Co-founder Hernandez vividly remembers after one of the 411 talks a young girl asked if they could speak to her entire girls’ high school in New Orleans about chastity.
“What I found so flattering about that is the 411 retreat is all about God’s love and your purpose,” says Hernandez. “It’s not specifically about chastity. Yet when we talk about God’s love, they realize that means chastity — whether to save themselves for married life or religious life.”
When Dumb Ox followed up with a talk on theology of the body to the girls, they also immediately related it to chastity.
“As we present this information the way John Paul put it, they are realizing this is the truth, the way God set us up, the way love is supposed to be, the way we’re to respect our bodies,” Hernandez explains. “It’s blowing out the ideas society is feeding them.”
What do teens at St. Peter Catholic Church in Covington, La., think of Dumb Ox and 411?
It “taught me how to share in a personal relationship with Christ,” says Jenny Bravo, 15. “It showed me a new way to worship with great love.”
“The love God has for us and extends to us through others was more deeply revealed to me through the Discovery 411 retreat,” says Chantelle Ferrari, 16. “Falling in love with Christ took on a whole new meaning.”
St. Peter’s High School Youth Coordinator Julie McKnight finds the Dumb Ox crew has a unique gift for becoming one with their audience and, because of their knowledge of the Catholic faith and their sincerity, they quickly earn the trust and respect of the young people.
“They seem to be able enter into where they are in life spiritually and emotionally, and have a real appreciation and respect for where they are,” she says. “The kids really sense that.”
The Dumb Ox crew also uses means and methods teens understand, again inspired by John Paul’s call to utilize the media. There’s praise and worship music and a multimedia trivia game where kids have fun while learning about the faith. Talks begin with a story, usually personal, that kids can relate to.
Butler describes 411 as drawing the bridge for teens to walk across from the world they live in to Christ and the Church. He has discovered one powerful step to the conversions in that walk is reflected in John’s Gospel (1:35-41) in the way Andrew brings Peter to see and know Jesus.
“We can talk to them and play games, but whenever we can, we offer them adoration — we bring them to Jesus,” Butler says, adding that words can fall short, but Jesus doesn’t. “Those are the times we see the most change: when they trust us and follow us into that moment with Christ. They see who they are, who their Father is, and they’re ready to listen to how he’s asking them to live.”
What of the apostolate’s name? It comes from the nickname of St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the Church’s greatest theologians. He was called “dumb ox” because of his quietness and his lumbering size, but he was one of the brainiest people the world has ever known. And he had an unparalleled gift for using reason to explain the Catholic faith.
In a way, Dumb Ox Productions is following his example.
As Father Toups sees it, the group “paves the way for a new generation of teenagers who will listen to God.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from