Welcome to the Family of God

This week, I read an inspiring New York Times story about a man named Roy Ratcliff, minister of the Mandrake Road Church of Christ in Madison, Wisconsin. He was living an ordinary life as a nondescript minister of a small church, when one day something happened that changed his life forever. In April 1994, he was called to the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, because an inmate wanted to be baptized. In and of itself, a minister baptizing a prisoner is nothing unusual. This, however, was no run-of-the-mill prisoner. It was Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious serial killer.

It’s easy to be skeptical about the motives of someone with Dahmer’s grisly reputation, but this didn’t look like a case of a prisoner saying he “found God” in order to get out of prison early or escape the death penalty. Dahmer wasn’t on Death Row, and there was no way he was ever getting out of prison. Rather, Ratcliff says that he felt genuine remorse for his crimes—he regarded himself as the worst of sinners. In Ratcliff’s words, “He was seeking redemption. He was seeking forgiveness.”

So, a few weeks after their initial meeting, the baptism took place. Dahmer, wearing a white robe, stepped into a steel whirlpool tank, the kind used to treat injuries. Ratcliff fully immersed him and said a short baptismal prayer. Then Dahmer rose up out of the water and Ratcliff said to him, “Welcome to the family of God.” Dahmer smiled.

In the months that followed, Ratcliff and Dahmer met every week for prayer. Dahmer talked about thoughts of suicide, and Ratcliff could relate; he himself had considered suicide after he had been fired from a previous church. In the words of the article, “A shared faith drew the different men together.” In November, a few days before Dahmer was killed by another prisoner, he gave Ratcliff a Thanksgiving card that Ratcliff still keeps with him. The card said, “Dear Roy: Thank you for your friendship, and for taking the time and effort to help me understand God’s word.” After Dahmer’s death, Ratcliff performed a short memorial service at his own church.

Ever since, Ratcliff has been known as “the man who baptized the serial killer.” The reaction has been mixed. Some have applauded his action, but many have condemned him “for having the audacity to grant God’s blessings upon the devil.” Some have literally walked away from him when introduced. Others praise him in person but then speak against him behind his back. One minister at a regional gathering of clergy constantly points to him and says, “Do you know who that man is? Do you know what he did?” Other churches rarely invite him to speak. His book on the incident, entitled Dark Journey, Deep Grace, has sold few copies—”perhaps, [Ratcliff] says, because people cannot see that a story about Mr. Dahmer is a story about all of us.”

Ratcliff, however, says his encounter with Dahmer has transformed him. He now visits prisons regularly, and “has a keener understanding of faith, and of mercy.” To this day, he calls Dahmer “my friend Jeff.” The clock he bought with the money he received from Dahmer’s family for the memorial service has been dubbed “Jeff’s clock” by his family, a constant reminder of Dahmer’s positive impact on his life.

I’m deeply moved by this story, especially Ratcliff’s words when Dahmer rose out of the water: “Welcome to the family of God.” It’s so easy to look at Dahmer’s crimes, which were indeed horrific, and conclude that this man has been forever disowned by God, forever banished from His Presence, forever exiled from the beloved community of God. But according to A Course in Miracles, nothing we do within this illusory world can place us outside the light of our Father’s Love. “Ultimately, every member of the family of God must return” (T-1.V.4:1)—yes, even Jeffrey Dahmer.

And yes, even you and I, for this is indeed a story about all of us who have ever felt that our own “sins” have condemned us to eternal exile from Heaven. Like the prodigal son, God welcomes each of us into His loving Arms, no matter what horrible “crimes” we think we have committed. I’m grateful today that Roy Ratcliff and Jeffrey Dahmer were able to set aside what seemed to separate them and join as brothers who are part of the same loving family. This is the calling of each and every one of us who dwell in this land of exile “east of Eden”: to recognize in everyone, even “the least of these,” our long-lost brother or sister. Whom do you need to welcome to the family of God today?

Source of material commented on: He Befriended a Serial Killer, and Opened the Door to God
[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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