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A Texas pastor welcomed a death row inmate into his church and is set to pray over him at his execution

<i>Matthew Busch/The New York Times/Redux</i><br/>
MATTHEW BUSCH/The New York Times
Matthew Busch/The New York Times/Redux

By Dakin Andone, CNN

Once a month, Pastor Dana Moore gets into his car and drives 300 miles across Texas to Livingston, where he walks into a state prison, takes off his belt and shoes and is ushered through a metal detector before stepping through metal gates that clang shut behind him.

Inside, Moore sits down on one side of a Plexiglas partition. On the other side is a member of his church: Texas death row inmate John Henry Ramirez, sentenced to die for fatally stabbing a man 29 times.

“We always pray. I always tell him I love him; he tells me he loves me,” Moore told CNN, adding, “That’s a little bit unusual.” Moore doesn’t normally tell parishioners at Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi that he loves them. But Ramirez is different, Moore said. “He needs that love.”

That may be truer now than usual. Ramirez, 38, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, his latest execution date after several others in recent years were postponed — including once by the US Supreme Court so it could hear Ramirez’s request that Moore be allowed to place hands on the inmate and pray aloud at the time of his death.

The court — which in recent years has weighed several cases pitting claims of religious liberty and prison security policies — ruled in Ramirez’s favor. And if all goes according to Texas’ plan, Moore will lay his hand on Ramirez’s chest in the execution chamber this week while he’s put to death by lethal injection. It would be the first time in their five-year relationship the two have made physical contact.

Moore would like Ramirez — who does not dispute his guilt — to live.

“Our society would be better if John is allowed to live,” Moore said. Ramirez is willing to remain in prison the rest of his life if he can be a field minister, the pastor said, working behind bars to minister to other inmates. “Isn’t that going to be a better thing than executing him? If he’s executed October 5, are you really that much safer on October 6?”

Though Moore hopes for the best, he’s making peace with the fact Ramirez could be executed this week. And while the 59-year-old clergyman is “probably still in some denial,” he knows when the moment of Ramirez’s execution arrives, he will be focused on the work at hand.

“I’m the pastor, and I’ve got work to do,” he said, anticipating his mindset as the moment approaches. “I’ve got my vocation, I’ve got my calling to fulfill.”

A divine seed ‘started growing’

The youngest of four boys, Moore grew up in Houston in what he described as a Christian, middle-class home. He first felt called to ministry in middle school, when the pastor at his family’s church took a Sunday off and had a deacon preach in his place. “It just kind of blew my mind,” he said, “that somebody else could preach.”

“God put that little seed in there, and it started growing,” he said, and evoking 1 Timothy 3, he prayed if it were God’s will that he be a minister that God give him a desire to do it.

“And he’s been giving me a desire to do it ever since,” Moore said. He started leading a Bible study while an undergraduate student at Baylor University and was ordained in 1983. By the time he was 20, he had started his first church.

But while Moore longed to be a pastor, one ministry he had no interest in was prison ministry, he said, describing the environment as one that was “so foreign” to his own upbringing and life experiences. He felt he lacked “relatability” to inmates.

But that didn’t mean he could avoid it: While pastoring his last church in Amarillo, Moore had to visit the county jail a couple times. He chuckled as he remembered driving out there one day and praying, “Lord, I don’t mind going to visit folks in jail. But I’m just really getting tired of visiting church members in jail.”

An indirect request to join his flock

It was about five years ago that two of Moore’s church members, Janice Trujillo and her late sister, began visiting Ramirez — an opportunity that, over time, would draw the inmate toward their congregation and its pastor.

A 77-year-old lifelong Texan and retired teacher, Trujillo was teaching a Bible study for women at the county jail when a local chaplain, who was visiting another death row inmate, asked if she would visit Ramirez. Her sister volunteered to go with her.

The first time, “I just prayed and prayed and prayed before I went in,” Trujillo said. “Because this man stabbed somebody 29 times, and I just didn’t know what to say to him. So, I said, ‘God, you’re going to have to be the one to talk to him.'”

Ramirez was sentenced to death for the July 2004 murder of Pablo Castro, a father of nine and grandfather to 14, according to court records, after Ramirez and two women decided to rob someone for money to buy drugs.

When they encountered Castro, who worked the night shift at a Corpus Christi convenience store, Ramirez repeatedly stabbed him. They left with $1.25 as Castro bled out on the pavement.

Afterward, Ramirez and the two women committed aggravated robbery and were attempting a third robbery when they were seen by police, court records say. The women were arrested, but Ramirez escaped and fled to Mexico, where he managed to evade authorities for more than three years before he was caught near the border in February 2008.

When Trujillo first visited Ramirez a few years later, he was “open” with her, telling her not only about his crime but also about his love for poetry and his favorite teacher in high school who encouraged him to write, she said. “After the first time, I realized he was just a person just like me.”

Over the years, Trujillo and Ramirez — who refer to one another as godmother and godson — communicated between visits through writing, with Trujillo using the inmate communication service JPay and he responding with letters.

One day, Trujillo opened a letter to find a question from Ramirez: “Do you think the church would allow me to join?”

An open door

Trujillo had already shared Ramirez’s story with the church, Moore remembered, offering testimony about how he had become a believer and their relationship. So many members were familiar with Ramirez, even if they had never met him.

Moore was open to the idea, but the church is “old-fashioned,” he said. Prospective members usually must approach the altar at the end of Sunday’s service in order to join.

But Ramirez couldn’t.

So, the inmate turned to the method he’d used to grow his relationship with Trujillo and, in turn, her fellow congregants in Moore’s church: He wrote a letter expressing his desire to join their faith community.

The congregation accepted.

It was a couple years later, as Trujillo and her sister kept up their visits to Ramirez, that the monthly trips to Livingston began to wear on them. They signaled, Moore said, they might need a break.

God, in that moment, seemed to be opening a door, recalled the pastor who as a boy had prayed for the desire to live out a divine will. “It was almost like God was saying, ‘Here you go, Dana. Are you going to pick up the slack?’

Ramirez had already joined Moore’s church.

“It’s one of my church members,” the pastor thought: “Am I not going to go see him?”

Their visits have continued ever since. It’s just like visiting any other church member, Moore said. They get snacks from a vending machine and spend two hours discussing life — what’s going on on death row and what’s new with Moore’s family. They used to talk about Scripture but they don’t as much anymore, because they each know how much the other knows, Moore said.

Regardless of all those ordinary exchanges, though, Moore’s visits with Ramirez are different: Both pastor and parishioner know Ramirez is due to be executed.

“We all face death, but they’re going to be told when they’re going to die … John knows the exact time of day and date that he’s going to be executed unless the courts stop it,” Moore said, describing the knowledge as a “constant pressure.”

“No one there really is there to love him and care about him. … I want to be there and let him know, I’m here for you,” he said. “And part of that is love.”

The ‘significance and power’ of human touch

That responsibility for Moore extends to the execution chamber when Ramirez is put to death. He wants to be able to offer this member of his flock — his friend — spiritual comfort in the last moments of his life.

He almost didn’t get the opportunity.

Ramirez had been scheduled to be executed on September 8, 2021. When he learned the date, he asked corrections officials if Moore could be with him in the execution chamber. That request was initially denied, but prison officials later changed their minds, court records state, amending their protocol to allow in a spiritual adviser.

Ramirez then asked that Moore be allowed to “lay hands” on him and “pray over” him, rituals he argued were a crucial part of the observance of his faith. Texas denied the request, and Ramirez appealed, then sued as his execution neared, arguing the department’s denial would violate his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The case was later expanded to include Ramirez’s desire that Moore be allowed to pray audibly after corrections officials denied that request.

The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which halted Ramirez’s execution at the eleventh hour — Moore was at the prison, waiting for it to begin — so it could hear his case.

“Human touch has significance and power,” Moore wrote in an affidavit in support of Ramirez’s complaint. “Many miracles of Jesus were performed by touching,” he wrote, pointing to Matthew’s eighth chapter, in which Jesus heals a man’s leprosy with just the touch of his hand.

“I need to be in physical contact with John Ramirez during the most stressful and difficult time of his life,” the pastor wrote, “in order to give him comfort.”

The court in March ruled 8-1 in Ramirez’s favor.

Moore plays down his role in the case, summing up his involvement as 20 minutes spent writing the affidavit. If he’d known his name and statement would be enshrined in a Supreme Court ruling, he jokes, that he might have spent more time on it.

But of the ruling’s significance, he’s sober, not just related to Ramirez, whom he will be with — and touch — at the time of death but for other death row inmates seeking similar comfort by spiritual advisors.

“Overall for religious liberty, (it means) that even what we could consider ‘the least of these’ in our society, the condemned, that they still have rights,” he said. “And we treat them with dignity still.”

‘I will be there for John’

If Ramirez’s execution goes forward, it will be Moore’s first time in the death chamber, though not the first time he’ll have witnessed the execution of a man to whom he ministered.

After meeting Ramirez, Moore also began serving as the spiritual advisor to Joseph Garcia, a member of the so-called “Texas Seven” who was executed in 2018 for killing a police officer after the group escaped from prison. Garcia’s execution was the “longest 15 minutes of my life,” said Moore, who watched it happen from a witness room (at the time, state prison chaplains were allowed in the chamber, and one was there with Garcia).

“It was very strange, watching someone being executed and his life being taken away from him against his will,” Moore said. “And we’re all just standing there, and the whole state of Texas is like, ‘OK.'”

In the weeks leading up to Ramirez’s execution, the pastor has been thinking about what he will pray for inside the execution room. Cognizant others will be there, too — Castro’s family could be in the witness room, along with designated reporters — he knows he wants to pray for peace: for Ramirez, for everybody.

Moore opposes the death penalty — a position he came to sometime after college as he studied Scripture. And while he recognizes being present at Ramirez’s execution makes him “involved” in it in a way, he believes everyone in Texas is involved.

His focus, he said, is John Ramirez.

“I know there’s nothing I can do that’s going to stop it,” he said. “And so, the focus then becomes for me, as a minister, to make sure John has got care and comfort, as much as I can give to him.

“I will be there for John,” he said, “be able to see him and just minister to him and be able to touch him, to kind of give him reassurance, some semblance of peace, that he’s got somebody who’s there on his side that’s with him.”

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