Minister is defined by baptism he performed for Dahmer

Wis. man shares story of killer's spiritual awakening

March 11, 2007|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,New York Times News Service

COTTAGE GROVE, Wis. -- The big wall clock tells the minister he has less than an hour before this night's Bible class down at the church. No time for supper.

He finds his keys in the tight apartment that he and his wife, Susan, have rented for 16 years, shared now with an adult daughter, two cats and a dog. In this space, the clock looms large, a treadmill dominates the living room, and bunny knickknacks everywhere signal the approaching season of rebirth.

A goodbye to Susan, a pocket pat to jingle those keys and out he goes into the wintry Wisconsin sunset, Roy Ratcliff, minister of the Mandrake Road Church of Christ in Madison. No different from any other preacher, save for one baptism he performed long ago.

"My friend Jeff," Ratcliff often calls him. His friend Jeff was killed in prison in 1994, several months after his baptism and in a brutal fashion too quick and clean for some. To say that he confessed to killing 17 young men and boys only begins to hint at his grisly crimes. His full name was Jeffrey Dahmer, and his depraved actions once made the world recoil.

Dahmer left behind confused parents, dozens of distraught relatives of the victims, the traumatized city of Milwaukee - and this white-bearded minister, struggling still at 60 with the sense that he, too, has been condemned, for having the audacity to grant God's blessings upon a man who committed evil acts.

"I'm marked as the man who did that," Ratcliff says, his tone suggesting frustration, not regret.

Before this act came to define him, Ratcliff was a modest minister of modest means, addressing the temporal and spiritual needs of a few dozen congregants. He tended to speak rapidly, with New Testament references seeming to tumble from his lips with each exhalation.

Then, one day in April 1994, Ratcliff found himself in a small room at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, where an inmate had expressed a desire to be baptized. He had never met a serial killer. For that matter, he had never been inside a prison.

The young man entered smiling and unshackled. The minister calmed himself and said, "I understand you want to be baptized."

In Ratcliff's mind, the stunning crimes of Dahmer were stipulated; the inmate had confessed after his capture in 1991. What mattered now was whether this man before him understood that baptism cleansed his sins against God, not his crimes against the state.

"He was seeking redemption," Ratcliff says, recalling how Dahmer often spoke of being the worst of sinners. "He was seeking forgiveness."

A few weeks later, Dahmer donned a white polyester robe and climbed into a steel-silver whirlpool normally used by inmates with physical injuries. The minister gently pushed him under the water until he was fully immersed and baptized him with a short prayer.

When the convict emerged, the preacher said, "Welcome to the family of God."

Every Wednesday for months afterward, Ratcliff met with Dahmer to pray. The convict said he should have been put to death for his crimes, and Ratcliff agreed. He talked about suicide, something the preacher had thought about many years earlier, after being fired from another church. A shared faith drew the different men together.

A few days before he was killed in November 1994, Dahmer handed Ratcliff a Thanksgiving Day card that the minister keeps wrapped in plastic. "Dear Roy," the note begins, in loopy handwriting. "Thank you for your friendship, and for taking the time and effort to help me understand God's word."

After a memorial service at the minister's church in Madison, after Dahmer had slipped into the recesses of public consciousness, Ratcliff continued to be identified as the man who baptized the serial killer. Both in and out of the Church of Christ community, some embraced him for it, while others shunned him.

At gatherings of preachers in the region, he says, one minister from Milwaukee constantly points him out to others and says: Do you know who that man is? Do you know what he did?

"I've become a little bit jaded by the hypocrisy," Ratcliff says.

Last year, Ratcliff wrote a short book about what he calls Dahmer's "story of faith." The book, Dark Journey, Deep Grace, has sold poorly.

Ratcliff says he is a better man for having known Jeffrey Dahmer. He says he now visits several prisons a month. He says he has a keener understanding of faith, and of mercy.

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