My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”


“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  - I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death

soundoff (4,494 Responses)
  1. Rob

    My last words are going to be, "I can feel my spirit leaving my body" as I fart one last time....

    January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  2. scot pederson

    Yes, talking about families is important. But as a Chaplain, Priest, Preacher, Minister the last dying hours is really the last opportunity for finding out the person's spiritual condition. Either we are Saved (Born Again) or Unsaved and many good Preachers I've met tell wonderful stories of how they've witnessed to dying people on their death beds and some coming to repent and accept Jesus as their Savior. It's ashame that some people finally realize they've missed out on a relationship with their Heavenly Father while on their Death bed, but as the Thief on the Cross came to Salvation in his last hour so can any person who is willing to ask Jesus to save them from their sins.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      On behalf of atheists everywhere, I'd like to request that I get Kerry Egan at my bedside when I'm dying instead of someone who's going to waste my last moments on earth trying to tell me their version of why I'm going to burn forever.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • 2/8

      None of us will burn in hell, that's just the BS side of religion (and there's alot it). I like to think of true religion like this: I'll let you kick me, punch me, spit on me, and call me every name in the book. When it's all said and done, I'll still step in front of a bullet for ya and consider you family. And that isn't neurons or whatever firing in some far reach of the brain. That's how I see it atleast.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Question

      @ Scot,

      I am a Christian, and I would have to say that most true athiests have chosen their path well before their deathbed. By the time they are there, they have chosen their whole life, it is unlikely they would change their mind then. The undecided, on the other hand, might be open.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • AndrewDFW

      Great article. For those that consider the last moments on this earth should be spent talking about Jesus and redemption all I can say is that it is your right to talk about whatever you want. I would far prefer to talk about love and family. I'll take my chances on the other side knowing that I did the best I could to be a good husband, father, friend, and community member. If that isn't enough then so be it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Pshychonaut

      To be born again can also mean, that your soul is stuck... How do you know your religion knows the truth? Truth is coded inside our brains, look up DMT- spirit molecule...

      January 29, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • TR6

      “many good Preachers I've met tell wonderful stories of how they've witnessed to dying people on their death beds and some coming to repent and accept Jesus as their Savior”

      Oh yes, those preachers must be so proud of themselves for badgering and bullying some of the most helpless and vulnerable of human beings into parroting their religious dogma. Disgusting!

      January 30, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  3. esa

    very meaningful article, thanks from mental health group to share it in facebook.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  4. boo boo

    i love this article and all that is said in it . it turns on my love for those how have died for our countries !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :(

    January 29, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  5. 2/8

    The fact that we're not alone has been proven over, and over, and over again throughout history. The ones who don't believe it, well, they'll find out one day, until then we all have a right to believe what we want. Personally I don't think God exists, I believe God IS existence. And I'm the last person who would be seen as a religious "nut". I drink, smoke, swear, but I've seen and heard things that take the worry out of this life. It's gonna be a heck of a ride when it's over.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Aircarz

      Congratulations! You are the voice of the new age movement! The voice that says "Personally I don't think God exists, I believe God IS existence...and since "I" exist, I am god...there is no absolute truth...right is what is right for me...right is what i say is right. <-the doctrine of death folks, and it is coming out of most of the mouths responding on here. Listen closely and you will hear the ssssss of the serpent in their speech.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • 2/8

      Sure.....but I don't think I'm God. I couldn't imagine this world if I was put in charge.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • A Matter of Faith

      I like that!! "GOD IS existance"

      January 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • 2/8

      ....I think Aircarz believes I'm the devil now.....or the serpent.....or whatever else that horned dude is supposedly to look like.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • A Matter of Faith

      No matter..... I got what you were saying... That if there is anything called existence then it only exists in God. If we breathe, we breathe in Him. If we love, we love in Him. We do nothing outside of what He created, He is therefore all existence. We are the whim of His imagination. Created by Him and for Him. YAY!!! for those who get that.....

      January 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
    • Aircarz

      well..you are either for Christ, or you are anti-Christ. I mean, let's consider the hollowness of the statement "God is existence." What do you mean by that exactly? You exist, don't you? Aren't you therefore in essence saying that you are your own god then?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Pshychonaut

      Christ is one of the many Gurus, who glimpsed or met our Creator, who has another creator and so on... There is no total truth... It is impossible, because of infinity... and is damn confusing... hallelujah!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  6. plee1382

    As Billy Graham has said 'Sin Separates us from God' the only thing that will join us with God is his Jesus,...'THIS IS NOT RELIGION' it's the FACT that Jesus came to earth and died in our place and wants to give us heaven 'if only we believe in him' and NOT JUST God is love and he admit anybody into heaven, that's not how it's going to work.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      That's one heckuva confusing run-on sentence you've got there, tiger...

      January 29, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Answer

      Cut and paste. Crap.

      It's just another psycho religious nutbag.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
  7. John2001

    They say..."I can't believe I wasted my vote on Obama, vote conservative people!"

    January 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Mel

      Sure, you should have voted for Palen and what's his name, that would have been a good idea! What does this have to do with the topic at hand anyway?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
  8. Marina

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It is very enlightening and thank you for being there when people need you most. It must be a hard work.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Thomas234

    How many Catholic priests accepted JC as Lord and Savior? Didn't stop them from molesting the altar boys...

    January 29, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
    • Heidi

      Anyone can say they accept Christ, or anything else for that matter, and not mean it. If anyone molests another human being he obviously hasnt really accepted Christ

      January 29, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
  10. Rational

    What a bunch of BS. Another pitch of the religious establishment that shameless acknowledges the abuse they do on the weak and ill. Their only presence there should be forbidden. If somebody really wants a chaplain, or alike, it should be their own prerogative, or otherwise it’s paid by everybody else, you want it or not. The only way that I would support a service like that, is if provided by some neutral social worker. I understand that some will hate my opinion, something normal in religious blind minds that confuse love with faith. Just a fact, the thinking of a public chaplain in a Hospital in any other country of the developed world is a joke. But I can imagine, the people with so much “love” to support this is the same that don’t have any “love” left to care for the rest of the planet.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      May want to actually read the article there, champ...

      January 29, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • David

      Bitter, bitter person.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Dom

      Wait until you are dying, you may have different words on this article buddy. Why you so hateful?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Joe

      You're an idiot. I dont believe in God either, but how is this BS. This is far from BS, what is wrong with someone believing in God AND talking with people before they die? What if I believed in Santa Claus and talked with someone before they died? The awesome part about this story is the fact that the Chaplain IS NOT IMPOSING her beliefs on to the patients. The Chaplain here is simply going forth and giving these people the opportunity to share their life story with someone who will listen. She believes that God is Love and good for her, she is not forcing the people on their death bed to believe the same.

      I believe that she is an amazing person REGARDLESS of her belief. I could care less if she was a Hindu, or a Muslim, she is helping people out and she is doing it WITHOUT imposing her beliefs.

      If I have a chaplain come talk to me on my death bed, I will welcome him or her very lovingly. However, the moment they mention religion, I will order them to leave my sight, and strength willing I may even strike them in the face for being such I jerk. Kudos to this particular Chaplain for being awesome!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • 2/8

      ....wow, pretty intelligent statement. You must be one of those people who have the entire universe nailed down. I admire you for you telling the rest of us how it REALLY is. Good job!!!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Dave

      Although I disagree with your opinion, I would gladly fight for your right to possess it and speak it. I am sorry you don't see what a chaplain is supposed to do: provide comfort to the dying and their family. Were I a chaplain, I would do my best to provide that to you and once I discovered that our faiths were different, I would still do my best to provide you the comfort you need in your last days.

      I am not sure what you mean by "love" but I'd encourage you to discuss this with a true servant of faith, rather than continue in rage against what you oppose. Again, that's your opinion and you are welcome to it. And I am truly sorry for whatever has happened in your life that has you so set against what faith can offer.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Rational

      Joe, you said: "the moment they mention religion, I will order them to leave my sight”. Well, they do the moment they show on your door without a single word, clothing, symbols, a bible, anything is a statement. Remember this is the people that chase and discriminate minorities, which still kill for their beliefs, all in the name of their God. I don’t have any respect to that sorry. I will respect a different opinion a thousand times, not an imposition.
      In the article they don’t sell religion in the hospital. You really believe that? You really must be a pure Atheist that then “believes”

      January 29, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • Bob

      Consider me an agnostic. But when I read posts between atheaists and Christians, I find the dynamic interesting. Atheaists are generally angry and mean-spirited with their posts. The Christians generally seem passive and sorry for the atheaists. I guess I'd rather go through live not being so angry. Does it really make you that angry that someone else believes in something you don't. Why do let it bother you? I'm not sure if you are in America, but this is where we celebrate our diversity. So it seems odd that someone who believes in something (which isn't causing you any harm) can actually put you in such a fowl mood. It's sad.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Rational

      2/8 the irony is that I know nothing about the universe, but you appear to know everything, even myself!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • Rational

      Bob, I am not Atheist or Agnostic, I am myself and acknowledge my human limitations. I don’t hate anybody, just the ideas of the religious people that at significant degree insult, chase, and kill minorities that don’t fall in their pot. I been living in good part of my life here in US in different states and in Europe in three countries (I am US and EU citizen) .I never saw anything like here, especially in the South. I am an activist in doing something about it.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
    • Bread and butter

      These religious frauds just have to keep pushing their delusions on people even on their death bed. Obnoxious and irritating!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
  11. Dave

    Wow, lots of angry people.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  12. Suzy Q

    Very nice article. I lost a grandaughter when she was 10 years old and also have lost my husband, watching him draw his last breath. I'll tell you something, I would not have, nor would my husband would have, wanted some whack job such as some of the posters here at his death bed. I would, and bet my husband would have, been more than happy to take solace in the presence of the woman who wrote the article. At the time of death you think on spiritual matters perhaps, but not necessarily on religious matters. And having someone by your side who who is kind and caring IS spiritual.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Jennifer

      Well said Suzy Q. I am so sorry about your husband and granddaughter.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  13. Lynda S.

    Thank you for your heart felt message. I love that the message is about the healing power of love and not a doctrine or particular path that you might believe in personally.
    I have sat with people dying, and they never spoke of anything other than their need to connect with their loved ones and family. (and some have been devout Christians).
    The simple truth is, we are all connected by our need to be loved and to love, regardless of our theological beliefs.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  14. thinkabouit

    Well Kerry its nice what you do, but if you're a chaplain you need to at least speak of what death is= a separation of the spirit and soul from the body,at which point if you havent accepted Jesus Christ you will go into eternity either to heaven or to a place of torment to hell.At a person;s death bed you need to know the truth and speak it.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • IndependentThinker

      You are such a self-righteous, sanctimonious idiot. When people are at their moment of death – and I have been there, held their hands – they do not need some self aggrandizing religion pusher to shove things in their face. what counts is to listen to what they say, respond to what they say with respect, and not push some outside agenda. Jesus Christ himself would probably tell you the same thing. Shame on you! Do everyone a favor – stay away from people on their deathbeds. They deserve to die in peace, without your bullying zealotry.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • Thinkcritically

      Hell does not exist. Would god send his own creation to burn in hell for all eternity. You think he would have the decency to just completely destroy him, after all, no one choose to be born.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • Jim in the Bible Belt

      You sound like a fundamentalist self rightous pharisee whose only concern is rules; never understanding grace, love, and forgiveness. This was an incredibly good article about what people really want to talk about when they are dying. You want to make it about heaven and hell? God loves people that love their famiies. God is Love!!! You want some death bed confession of sins and then a beg for forgiveness. People like you tarnish Christianity! Read your Bible and learn about love, grace, and forgiveness and get over the rules. All of us are sinners! All of us have forgiveness, The article was about what people want to talk about when they are dying, not some last moment attempt to "save" someone.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Bill

      It's good that you and the Aiatollas no the "truth!"
      You are both sick!

      January 29, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
    • J.C.

      your take on God is a vengeful one. One taught for centuries by organized religion for the purpose of keeping people bound in a fear based choke hold. Please know that I believe in a afterlife and I don"t think its a christian"s only club.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  15. Phil

    I'm an atheist. I do not believe in god. But if belief brings comfort - go for it. I do not require it.

    Sometimes on the belief blog, I've been very vocal defending my position because I do not believe...it's time for the theists to do the same. Leave us alone. We're not evil. We do not hate god. We do not believe in those things, therefore it's impossible to "hate" something you believe does not exist. We do not want to be saved, but it's nice that you choose to include us in your nightly prayers.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • toadears

      Can you direct us all to an atheist message board where we can go tell them we disagree with what they don't believe?

      January 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Answer


      You're on it. Every messageboard is our playground. This is just another one.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
    • larvadog

      Phil, you sound like an eminently reasonable person. One whom atheists and theists alike could emulate.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      toady, grow a friggin' brain.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Observer

      Cordial discourse between believers and non-believers would be welcome, but ... unusual. I've experimented recently with matching the tone of the non-believers I encounter. The reaction has been interesting and rather telling. Amusing too, but probably the wrong way to go.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  16. Myths

    Sounds like the role of the chaplain is not to talk about families, but to listen about them. That professor completely missed what was important in those closing moments.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
  17. Somebody

    Ever notice that the people who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share your religious views with them?

    January 29, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      All. The. Time.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Answer

      That's how they are.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Observer

      Please continue. Let's hear your religious views. You are invited.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Answer

      An atheist's religious views .. that is so funny.

      Observer .. what do we follow? What do we promote? Do we give you 11 commandments? lol

      January 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • toadears

      Yes actually. I had a Muslim man in London basically preach to me that Jews messed up by killing Jesus, then Christians messed up by being too worldly and that is why God sent Mohammed and they are now the chosen people. I listened respectfully because he didn't care what I had to say about it at all.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Observer

      Why Answer, Somebody seemed to have something to say. Pity. Anyway, here's an observation: you use the words religion, religious and god as often as anyone I know.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Lol

      You should have listened respectfully and then slapped him across the face with a kebab

      January 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
    • Answer



      What other word describe religious, religion and god in the context that fit in the sentence to communicate on those subjects? Let's see give the handy replacement words for those when we are relating to those issues.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
    • Observer

      I'm sure everyone wants you to feel free to use any words appropriate to the issues that are important to you, Answer.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
    • Answer


      So you're too stupid to give some examples on a belief blog that focuses on religion and people who are religious and that they speak about god to give me alternatives to different terms? You need to keep count of my words to tell me how you have found that a certain usage of words is therefore relevant and then you show your true self "and not care". That's rather pitiful of you.

      I guess that is your true nature thus. Pitiful.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
    • PJ

      That is so true because they think their religion is the only true religion and no one else is right but them....

      January 30, 2012 at 3:26 am |
  18. Squarf of the Apocalypse

    Hi Kerry. Ignore the religious screwballs. Your vital gift to those who are about to die is merely being there, merely listening to them - even if it turns out to be death rattle. If there is a heaven, your place in it is assured. The meaning of life is love. If you have it, you have everything; if you don't have it, you have nothing. Keep listening.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  19. Emmanuel

    What a thoughtful, thought-provoking, beautifully expressed article. Made me want to hug my wife and daughter on the spot, and call my parents and siblings.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Answer

      Your family is precious.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  20. TOM

    After reading all these comments, makes feel so sorry for these people. When there time comes maybe they will recall our words of advice, just maybe they will have a change of heart, and ask for God's forgiveness, just remember it's never to late, there is always hope!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks to you Aircarz, for your comments.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • obvious troll is obvious and unimaginative

      shut up, and we know you're Aircarz too.

      January 29, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Joe

      This comment makes me feel sorry for all of your "victims". Unfortunately, for you, there is no hope. You will forever be damaged with your closed minded beliefs, and unfortunately you will spend the rest of your pathetic life harassing others about your nonsense believing that youre "doing the right thing" when in reality your just being annoying. I would pray for you, but it would do no good because prayer doesn't work. So i'll just continue feeling sorry for all the people you have harassed and victimized with your nonsense beliefs.

      Kudo's to the Chaplain in this case, this is one of the most amazing stories I have ever read. This story is a perfect example of what would Jesus Do. The comment above is the reason Ghandi said, "I like your Christ, but I dont like your Christians"

      January 29, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.