Dark Journey, Deep Grace

Dan Barry's March 11 New York Times article:
He Befriended a Serial Killer,
and Opened the Door to God

The big wall clock tells the minister he has less than an hour before tonight’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,” Mr. Ratcliff often calls him. A child of God.

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.

Mr. 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, had been condemned, for having the audacity to grant God’s blessings upon the devil.

“I’m marked as the man who did that,” Mr. Ratcliff says, his tone suggesting frustration, not regret.

Before this singular act came to define him, Mr. Ratcliff was just another 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, Mr. 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 got to the point: “I understand you want to be baptized.”

In Mr. Ratcliff’s mind, the shocking crimes of Mr. Dahmer were stipulated; the inmate had readily confessed to everything after his capture in 1991. What mattered now was whether this blond, pallid man before him understood that baptism cleansed his sins against God, not his crimes against the state.

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

A few weeks later, Mr. 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.”
Jeffrey Dahmer smiled.

Every Wednesday for months afterward, Mr. Ratcliff met with Mr. Dahmer to pray. The convict said he should have been put to death for his crimes, and his minister agreed. He talked about suicide, something the preacher had flirted with 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, Mr. Dahmer handed Mr. 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 discreet memorial service at the minister’s church in Madison, after the notorious surname had slipped into the recesses of public consciousness, Mr. 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.

People would walk away when introduced to him or argue that they wanted no part of a heaven that included Jeffrey Dahmer. Some would praise him to his face, only to tell others that he had been duped. He was rarely invited to other churches to talk about the salvation of the least of us, because, he guesses, “there is a sense of shame.”

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,” Mr. Ratcliff says.

Last year Mr. Ratcliff wrote a short book about what he calls Mr. Dahmer’s “story of faith.” The book, “Dark Journey, Deep Grace,” has sold poorly — perhaps, he says, because people cannot see that a story about Mr. Dahmer is a story about all of us.

Mr. Ratcliff says he is a better man for having known Jeffrey Dahmer, but knows that some people will have trouble understanding this. He says he now visits several prisons a month. He says he has a keener understanding of faith, and of mercy.
It seems that Mr. Dahmer is rarely far from the preacher’s mind. For example, that large clock looming in his family’s apartment was bought at a kiosk in the mall, with the honorarium the Dahmer family gave him for arranging the memorial service. The Ratcliffs call it “Jeff’s clock.”

By the time that clock strikes seven, the minister is already at his church, turning on the lights, checking the heat, greeting congregants. Soon he joins them in song.


  1. Wow. This was so interesting. How can anyone say that Christ's love and forgiveness is for everyone....except serial killers. I can't think of anyone who needs grace and forgiveness more. It in no way excuses his what he did or absolves him from paying for his crimes (which he did), but Jesus came for all of us...not just the "good" people.

  2. I agree Jesus died for all of us. I can't get my mind all the way around it but God see all sin the same. I am pretty sure that when we see Jeff in the here after we won't see a serial killer we will just see one of us.

  3. We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all. 1 Cor. 8: 3 or so msg translation....

  4. Not only do I agree with the previous comments here, but I could add that his willingness to carry out his mission as a minister -- knowing that the public would have mixed feelings at best if they found out -- took an incredible amount of courage. He may still be struggling with the entire process, but if it wasn't ordained by God then it wouldn't have met Dahmer to begin with.


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