A Baptist death row missionary says capital punishment denies God‘s grace to condemned prisoners. (Flickr Creative Commons photo by Christian Senger)
A Baptist death row missionary says capital punishment denies God‘s grace to condemned prisoners. (Flickr Creative Commons photo by Christian Senger)

Minister on death row surprised by only one thing: fellow Baptists’ support for capital punishment

Raised in Mexico by Southern Baptist missionaries who shared the gospel in prisons, Dorothy Ruelas said she was shocked to learn most Baptists in America support the death penalty.

By Ken Camp

In the six years Dorothy Ruelas has visited death-row inmates at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in West Livingston, Texas, only one thing shocked her.

“I was surprised and shocked to find out most Baptists support the death penalty,” said Ruelas, a member of Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Sugar Land, Texas.

That’s contrary to the example her parents set. Wyatt and Beth Lee served 36 years as Southern Baptist missionaries in Mexico, where she was born and spent most of her life. As a teenager, she frequently accompanied her mother to a prison in Guadalajara where they visited inmates and led a Bible study.

“It kind of got in my blood,” Ruelas said.

She recalled how her parents opened their home to ex-offenders in the days immediately after their release, until the men could travel from Guadalajara to wherever their families lived.

deathrow ministry425Even after her parents retired and moved to Woodville, Texas, they continued ministry to prisoners at a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility near their home.

So, after she heard the Christian testimony of a father whose son was on death row at the Polunsky Unit, it seemed natural for her to start writing the young prisoner.

A surprising discovery

The inmate expressed appreciation in a letter to her, and he registered his surprise, since he understood most Baptists support capital punishment. At first, she didn’t believe it.

“We live under grace, not Old Testament law. Only God has the right to take a life,” she said. “Besides, if you kill a prisoner, how will he ever have the opportunity to get to know Christ? How will he have the chance to show people how God can change a life?”

Her ongoing correspondence with one Anglo inmate led to contact with eight other death-row inmates, all Spanish-speaking. After about a year of letter-writing, she began personally visiting the inmates on a regular basis, often accompanied by her husband, Juan Jose Ruelas.

“The men really enjoy when my husband goes with me, because he is a big jokester and makes them laugh a lot,” she said.

Professions of faith

Two of the nine inmates she befriended were Christians before she initiated contact with them. Several had some religious background or were in the process of moving toward faith in Christ. A couple professed faith in Christ directly as a result of her ministry.

“Seeing the spiritual growth, the changes, peace and joy in these men is the greatest joy in my life,” she said.

“I never in my life thought I would live in the United States, but I believe God brought me up here because of this. It’s not something I chose to do. God put it on my heart.”

Two of her nine death-row friends have been executed. In both instances, she traveled to Huntsville to be with their families at the Hospitality House — a ministry launched by Texas Baptists — before and after the execution.

Impending execution

One other inmate, Miguel Angel Paredes, is scheduled for execution Oct. 28, and she plans to be present as a witness.

“Until about two years ago, when he began growing spiritually in gigantic steps ... he had a lot of hatred and anger in him,” Ruelas said.

Since he committed his life to Christ, Paredes has been transformed.

“His testimony has given him open doors to be able to reach inmates who were unreachable by chaplains and other Christians in the free world, because they knew how he was years back and can visibly see the changes in him now,” she said. “He knows how to talk to them and how to get to their hearts — he has impacted the life of many on death row.”

Even the man’s family has begun to visit him again.

Ministry to inmates on death row has grown to become a consuming passion for Ruelas.

“The men on death row are still human beings, created by God, and God also wants us to reach out to them with his love,” she said.