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Battlefield chaplain’s war unfolded on many fronts
Army chaplain Darren Turner, left, wound up quitting the Army for a spell after returning home from Iraq.
May 26th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

Battlefield chaplain’s war unfolded on many fronts

Editor’s note: CNN.com writer Moni Basu is author of “Chaplain Turner's War,” published by Agate Digital.

By Moni Basu, CNN

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) - Darren Turner insisted on going to war, even though the Army usually reserves desk jobs at home for new chaplains like him.

Turner was young and green, enthusiastic about taking God to the battlefield. The Army captain had learned that people in pain are often wide-open to inviting God into their lives.

Jesus always ran to crises. Turner was going to do the same.

He’d enrolled in seminary in 2004 at Regent University in Virginia, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. And early in his spiritual journey, he was inspired by Christian writer John Eldredge, who suggests that American men have abandoned the stuff of heroic dreams, aided by a Christianity that tells them to be "nice guys."

God, says Eldredge, designed men to be daring, even dangerous.

Turner arrived in Iraq in May 2007 with the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment amid a raging insurgency. His soldiers faced an invisible but lethal enemy in booby-trapped houses and roads laced with massive bombs.

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Chaplain Turner’s war would unfold on many fronts. He would be a soldier on the battlefield. A counselor behind closed doors. He was a friend, even a father, to his men.

And when his 15-month tour was over, Turner returned home to face all the problems he had counseled his soldiers about: anger, depression, stress and – most important for him – preserving relationships with loved ones.

Nearly 4,500 American troops died in the Iraq war. More than 30,000 more were physically wounded. Countless others live with scars that can't be seen, like post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury. Many have struggled with regaining their lives at home.

Darren Turner counsels a soldier inside a sleeping container at Patrol Base Hawkes, southeast of Baghdad.

Turner had recognized the needs his soldiers would have after witnessing the horrors of combat, after losing friends.

In Iraq, he had comforted and advised soldiers at Forward Operating Base Falcon, in southeastern Baghdad, and in the combat outposts around the villages of Arab Jabour.

Preparing clergy for war: How chaplains train for combat

At Falcon, the Army provided a morale phone that allowed soldiers to make free 15-minute calls home. But Turner knew it wasn't enough. He carried a cell phone in the left shoulder pocket of his uniform and whipped it out whenever a soldier signaled domestic distress at home.

"Call her," he would say. "Call her now and tell her you love her."

When they returned to Georgia in the summer of 2008, Turner told his soldiers that their families would be their cushion. He knew his men were suffering; that the ghosts of Iraq would haunt them, maybe for the rest of their lives.

What he did not know then was that he would not himself be immune to the same threats. He neglected to heed his own advice and his life floundered.

I’d spent many weeks with Turner in Iraq for a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I didn't know about his troubles until I drove up to meet him and his wife, Heather, earlier this year at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

An exhausted Darren Turner catches a nap at his desk inside his tent at Forward Operating Base Falcon near Baghdad.

On that rainy February day, Turner told me that he’d come back from Iraq and felt like the bomb defuser in the movie "The Hurt Locker," who goes into a grocery store and is overwhelmed by the mesmerizing variety of cereals.

Remembering the fallen: Learn about casualties

It was a lot to process after having few choices in Iraq. Reverse culture shock.

"I wanted everything in there but I wasn't sure what to buy," Turner said.

He also detected a lack of public concern for the men and women fighting overseas. Off post, people went about their lives without a real understanding of the sacrifices made by American service members.

At first the anger boiled inside. But then it began to surface. He took it out on Heather. It was a release so that he could keep his work as normal as possible.

Little things like arranging the dishwasher became big fights with Heather. Big things like Heather’s life plans became small issues that Turner mocked or discounted because they did not fit his own plans.

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"I came home angry," Turner told me. "Even my attitude, which I thought I was in control of, was walling me in. I didn't realize it until my wife told me, 'You're no longer welcome in our house.'"

During the deployment in Iraq, Turner had pined for Heather and his three young children, Elie, Sam and Meribeth. Now, he was losing them.

"The thing I was angry at was the very thing I was longing for during my deployment - my family," he said.

Heather said her husband was disengaged, impatient. She wanted them to seek counseling but Turner refused, insisting that she was the one who had issues.

Just a few months after his return from Iraq, Darren and Heather Turner separated.

“I was very selfish and tried to control my surroundings, which crushed those closest to me,” Turner said.

Turner eventually realized how much he had hurt his wife, he said. How he had stepped away from God's calling by failing those he cared about most.

After finishing Airborne School, he quit the Army in August 2009, believing the military would demand too much time away from his family at a critical juncture in their lives.

He took a job in sales at a Home Depot not far from his house in Dacula, Georgia. He struggled to mend his marriage and reconnect with his faith.

Four months later, Turner and his wife reconciled. He chose to return to the Army as a chaplain, he said, "a renewed man both in marriage and profession."

He and Heather found their calling. God, he said, gave them a special connection with soldiers and their families. They know they will stay busy for a while.

The U.S. mission in Iraq ended on December 18, 2011, as the last American soldiers climbed into hulking trucks and armored vehicles at Camp Adder, the southernmost base in Iraq.

The war, however, is sure to continue on a second front - in America's cities and homes. And in the offices of counselors and chaplains like Darren Turner.

Turner reminisces about Iraq often, and when I saw him at Fort Campbell, he told me he wrestled with mixed feelings on the day America's military presence ended. He hopes that, in the end, the war will have been worth the blood that was spilled.

Another war, the one in Afghanistan, is far from over, with casualties mounting every month. Today, Turner counsels soldiers serving there. His words, honed from experience, are more specific now.

Get Skype, he says.

Perhaps it's not what a soldier expects to hear from a man of God. It’s certainly not the stuff of Sunday sermons.

But it's practical advice that Turner knows will go a long way toward filling the emotional vacuum. He believes distance from one’s own family can trigger a breakdown, especially when a soldier is coping with injuries and combat stress.

"Being away from your family for that long is way more difficult than I anticipated," Turner said.

Skype, he discovered, is the next best thing to being at home. You can't feel someone or smell them but you can see and hear.

"That's two of the senses," he said. "That's exponential."

Turner’s pastoral passion is still driven by the force that first drew him to the chaplaincy: Jesus.

Everyone has faith in something, Turner said. His own conviction is that Jesus answers longings in the human heart and provides perspective. Beyond immediate emergencies, the larger story is one of hope.

“He's been there on the other side, and came back to tell us,” Turner said. “That's the biggest event in human history, something that maintains hope, even in battle. When soldiers get that, it changes everything.”

Turner said he may not have been God’s perfect messenger, but that his selfish choices do not negate God’s love.

Turner is thankful for that. And that he can carry on with his calling.

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Christianity • Military

soundoff (2,230 Responses)
  1. ThatDCGuy

    OK, idea for a reality show:

    Take all of the commenters from this board and put them in a sealed off room full of knives, guns, and assorted weaponry... I am curious who is going to make it out alive (my money is on the militant atheists – they won't waste time praying)

    May 27, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      That would only be true if all the Faithful are Little House on the Prarie types of Faithful.

      I put it on the Militant 700 club crowd. Remember... "Kill them all and let God sorta them out"types.

      Problem is where they would start at.

      May 27, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  2. Everett Wallace

    Reply to Mirosal. Don't know about zeus really don't matter but I will tell you this GOD THE SON is here on Earth in the flesh in the United States in Georgia. My alias are BIG SON, 8 STar GENERAL or you can just call me Everett. A good old down to Earth country MAN.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • Mirosal

      Sounds like someone has a bit of a Messiah complex lol Must be that Army training, but what do I know, I'm just an old "squid" (E-8) ;)

      May 27, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • doodlebug81

      At everett please do not cite my home and the great state of georgia in your post. Ignorant " christians" ( i'll bet southern babtist) such as yourself are the reason that men of science like myself are scornfully regarded by the rest of a knowlegable country.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:18 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Somebody sampled a bit too much of good old Georgia mountain white lightning.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  3. watash

    According to the bible, Jesus was born to a married virgin who was impregnated by persons unknown while her husband was lolling about doing nothing. Eve was made from a man's bone making her sons victims of incest. her eldest son committed murder because he killed his brother in a fit of rage making him the first murderer while his mama was doing evil things with a snake that happened to be in the garden of eden. What a bunch of hog wash.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • bill constantine

      Forget God and other ideas. This has to do with the brain. All of us are not meaant to see people killed in such ways and others suffer and one people hating each other..this is why our mind snaps....One moment I am out there killing people with a baynet, machine gun, handgranade, and what have you and the next moment I am told to get ready because I have a two week leave so that I can go home to visit and say hello to my local friends and then return to killing people...Is our mind ready for this...Were is the miricacle of God to abolish all this hatred or what have you..Bill the Greek

      May 27, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  4. BB

    Regardless of your beliefs, many of these comments are indecorous. This is a weekend where we are obliged to remember the sacrifices of the men who have fought for this country.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:05 am |
    • Mirosal

      I remember my brothers and sisters in arms every single day. I do not agree with why they are there, but since they ARE there, they deserve every means of support available to them from EVERYBODY.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • Easy E

      Correction, we remember the men AND women who died protecting our way of life here in the US (and yes, a fair number of women have died serving this country).

      May 27, 2012 at 2:30 am |
    • Steve the Goat

      If we really wanted to honor them, we would be throwing the commanders in jail, taking certain presidents to court for treason, and getting rid of all of the military industrial complex that we funnel our tax dollars into.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  5. doodlebug81

    I like make-believe aswell. Paul bunyon was real though and I will forever pray at the alter of Babe the blue ox.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  6. Everett Wallace

    Okay Captain and others in this field as chaplin you have two choices. Change MOS or get out.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  7. watash

    Fighting for one's country and killing if it is necessary when your country is invaded or war is declared on it like in WW2 could be justified in the minds and souls of the ones that did the killing and saw all the atrocities, but other then WW2 we have not been in that kind of situation. All of our wars since then were pure and simply wars that were generated by the politicians for the benefit of the big armament manufacturers. That might be the reason the men and women who returned from the bloodiest conflict this nation or any other nation has ever been involved in did not have the guilt feelings that the ones that fought in the Korean, VietNamese, Gulf wars and Afghanistan fiascos. The pure fact is that we stick our nose into too many disputes that are none of our business. the airplane attacks were acts of terrorrism just like the uni- bomber, Tim Mc Veigh, and all the other crazies. Iraq did not have a damn thing to do with it and we must carry that burden forever thanks to Bush and Rice and Colin Powell.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • ןןɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Yes. ALL the bloodshed in Afghanistan has been a complete waste of lives and treasure. They justified it by 911. The reason 911 happened was because the fat old men who ran Logan Field did not have the proper security in place, and because it was possible to enter airline cabins with box cutters, As had been pointed out to the US public in the weeks before by the news media. We will NEVER be able to control what goes on in caves on the other side of the world. Nation building has ALWAYS failed. So tragic, but duping young men/boys into thinking they are "defending their country", is a LIE.

      May 27, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Dan

      A good man with a good heart trying to do his bit to help.

      May 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
  8. colleen

    It is interesting that there are alot of people posting about how God is so small and that we don't need our Creator in the picture. For those who believe we are grateful that God is here He is in our midst and He loves us so much. Father I pray for your divine hand to be on this servant who cares and shows your love. Open the hearts of those who deny you and show them your grace even though they rejected Jesus they will reject us even more.. Don't ever knock a religon if you haven't done your homework.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Jake

      Amen!

      May 27, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • watash

      colleen, when you can prove without a doubt there is such a being you will put a lot of folks mind at rest. Until that is done you have no right to ask folks to believe in a ghost. Why would God let all the folks in this world suffer from cancer which if you are correct, he brought on us? he also brought on all the other killer diseases and all the wars. Please dont answer me with the B/S about him working an strange ways.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • doodlebug81

      Pray in one hand....defacate in the other. See which on fills up faster. My predicition is you end up with the same thing... a bunch of cleaning.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Mirosal

      I did 12 years of homework in religious schools. I passed the class, but your "god" failed to make the grade.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:56 am |
  9. watash

    Preaching to someone who is going into battle and might kill innocent men, women, and children is just a waste of everybody's time. When kids were drafted and had no choice but to either kill everybody they were ordered to kill or face the wrath of the federal government was one thing, but doing it on a voluntary basis is a horse of a different color. Whether one likes it or not, today's soldiers are just mercenaries and get paid to kill just like the hit men in the Mafia.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Jake

      Yet another idiot posting.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:40 am |
    • disgustedvet

      I would like to tell you what an unfeeling sod you are,but that is too mild,so i'll let you imagine my real thoughts about you. Just think how disgusting it must be to see you and be exposed to your venom in person.I feel sorry for those around you.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • doodlebug81

      Did I miss the draft? Pretty sure everyone volunteered for this one.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • seriously67

      It's always so interesting to me how many people like to post out here and don't have a clue what they are talking about. You really are display your ignorance to this topic.

      May 27, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  10. Michael

    "And when his 15-month tour was over, Turner returned home to face all the problems he had counseled his soldiers about: anger, depression, stress and – most important for him – preserving relationships with loved ones." – WHAT?! magic jesus didn't fix their REAL issues? Huh go figure.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Jake

      Clueless moron.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Susan

      If you read through the whole story, you would realize that Jesus did help him with the REAL issues. God restored his marriage and his ministry. Now he is helping others with those same REAL issues again. Christians are not exempt from REAL problems. We just have a God that has the power to change situations. You should give him a try. His name is Jesus Christ. I accepted him in my heart almost 11 years ago. Since that day, I haven't been the same. Yes, I still deal with REAL issues, but the peace and the joy that God has given me is more than I could ever ask for. Above all that, he has forgiven me for my sins, and now I will make Heaven my home. You can have the same promise.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:42 am |
    • doodlebug81

      He's a modern day Job and he apparently passed the trials because jesus fixed his life.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Everett Wallace

      reply for Susan. Try getting past Jesus Christ, read the Holy Bible (new international version) get to know who GOD THE FATHER is and understand and receive GOD THE HOLYSPIRIT! and I promise you that you will not have another worry in your life. Just knowing jesus is NOT going to cut it.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:59 am |
    • doodlebug81

      The fact you cite a "version" of a supposedly infalable text is a hilarious indictment on the whole fallacy of religion. The saddest part is none of "you" realize this truth.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:14 am |
  11. watash

    Most folks, including myself joined a church or proffessed to be "saved" during a time in their life when they were easily influenced by some slick talking preacher. In my case a lot of my buddies had alreadty joined and there was a lot of peer pressure on me to do the same. I went along, but did not feel any holier or "purer" than I did before being baptized. I believe it gave me a guilty complex because I did something I was not comfortable with and knew I was living a lie every time I saw the Preacher. My personal belief about religion is for everybody to treat everybody else like you wish to be treated and leave the Preachers and churches out of it.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • colleen

      For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son for you Watash that you would not die but have everlasting life.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Susan

      I must say that I have had the opposite experience that you had. I walked into my church expecting a little religion, but what I encountered was the beginning of a relationship with God. I met a Pastor who not only preached about the power of God to change a life, but he also lived it. Jesus Christ has completely changed my life and has given me a church family who has been there with me through the good times and bad. God gave me a Pastor and Pastor's wife who accepted me with all my faults and all my problems. I had nothing to offer them in return. They were there for me because the love of God lived in them. Here we are 11 years later, and I will never forgot the love that was shown to me.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:53 am |
    • Everett Wallace

      Now if you can take that and tell your friends and they listen, boy you are definitely knocking at HEAVENS door and GOD will open the door and say " I"VE been expecting YOU" awesom watash

      May 27, 2012 at 2:17 am |
    • bill constantine

      Stop and think. Religion is a cancer.for years people are killing each other...Moslems, Christians..//Are you making money from poor Jesus? Let us go back to the Greek Gods and worship, the trees, sun, water, ..No matter what,,God helps those that help their selfs..and also, Do not be in the wrong place at the wrong time....Bill the Greek

      May 27, 2012 at 2:26 am |
    • Dan

      ...and people wonder why church membership is down.It's down because people are finally beginning
      to see the same hypocrisy in it that you have. if people want to go church and believe in all that stuff that's fine,
      but it does not mean everyone has to. I have been to several different churches over my lifetime, and frankly, I
      find most of them boring, and the people extremely uptight and righteous, and I'm glad I don't go anymore.

      May 27, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  12. 3n1

    Thank you God for touching this man's life...for restoring his marriage and life. God bless him as he helps others.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:14 am |
    • doodlebug81

      And god left him with these problems in his infinite wisdom. He probably didn't choose the correct deity. I prefer the flying spaghetti monster.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:27 am |
    • colleen

      Amen 3n1

      May 27, 2012 at 1:40 am |
  13. Michael

    "The Army captain had learned that people in pain are often wide-open to inviting God into their lives." – Yes, fooling them when they are at their breaking point instead of addressing the actual pain psychologically is what religion does.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:12 am |
    • 3n1

      Did you know that there is an angel named Michael??

      And thank you God that we can come to Him at our weakest times in our lives....as well as anytime in our lives...good or bad.
      I hope that you seek God with all of your heart now...and not when something big happens in your life. Ask most people...who do they call out to when there is pain, etc. Somehow, deep down inside, people know who their Creator is.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:18 am |
    • Mirosal

      Trying to ask "god" for the answers is like going to the Oracle at Delphi for the answers. It was BS then, it's BS now.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • 3n1

      I'm sure you won't think it's "BS" when you are burning in Hell.

      Heaven or Hell? Turn or burn. It's your choice.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:23 am |
    • Mirosal

      Yep, typical christian response ... threaten me with eternal suffering if I don't conform to YOUR mythical god's point of view. That isn't a "loving" god by any means. It's called coersion. and it isn't the best way to win friends and allies. Is that all you have, threats and quotes from a 2000 year old book filled with 3000 year old stories? Abraham was willing to kill his son (and no evidence that he ever even existed). Jesus doesn't have any real evidence that he ever existed either. And, before you start, your bible is by NO means evidence of any kind. Mohammed was a ped-o-ph-ile. THESE are our religious "role models"??? You can have them.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Jake

      Is that you Mr. Cruise?

      May 27, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Easy E

      "I'm sure you won't think it's "BS" when you are burning in Hell.
      Heaven or Hell? Turn or burn. It's your choice."

      That doesn't sound like a choice made in free will, it sounds to me like a threat made to coerce. If indeed the creator of the universe is this petty, then said creator is NOT worth knowing let alone worshipping.

      As an agnostic, I leave the possibility open that a benevolent God exists, but no one in their right mind would worship a creator that demands it on threat of eternal cruelty. Ironically, that sounds more like the worship of an evil devil to me.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:16 am |
    • sqeptiq

      3n1, what are you going to do when you find out there's no heaven or hell? Nothing, cause you'll be nothing. Except dead.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  14. Pahtna

    Howdy,

    l'd like to register for the free merchandise if there's still space. I read CNN everyday and am a great customer. Please send me the jacket, size XL. Thanks!!

    Best wishes,
    Willy

    May 27, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  15. Pahtna

    Howdy,

    Id like to register for the free merchandise if there's still space. I read CNN everyday and am a great customer. Please send me the jacket, size XL. Thanks!!

    Best wishes,
    Willy

    May 27, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  16. Paul Soul

    "Thou shalt not kill", said the Bible. How can you baptize soldiers when they are going to kill? How can you even preach in the Army? Do you think God will find Mercy in the soldiers soul? They will be burning in hell. I am sure this priest is preaching in the name of Satan, he is the one listing I guess.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • 3n1

      Have you studied God's Word? What?? Are Christians not allowed to serve our country?? Or protect our freedoms??

      May 27, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • YouThink

      And you know? Think. You know? We know nothing, particularly when we think we know.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:20 am |
    • sqeptiq

      What did Jesus do when the soldiers came to arrest him? Why, he stayed the swords of his disciples and replaced the ear that Peter had cut from the soldier.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
  17. nleeklee

    A heartwarming story, tinged with reality, but redemption. Praise the Lord for them going about the marital difficulty according to the Bible; not divorcing, but separating, and his repenting and her accepting him back. Glory to God, and thank you for this article!

    May 27, 2012 at 1:08 am |
  18. watash

    Every body has to do what he has to do.

    May 27, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  19. J

    "Taking God to the battlefield" .... lol what else is new with the religious.

    May 27, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • TAK

      Right. Sounds like what the jihadists do.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • Everett Wallace

      Get a Big Screen tv and stay tuned, you WILL see GOD on the battlefield on the FRONTLINE!

      May 27, 2012 at 2:04 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Can you picture Jesus in a uniform on a battlefield? Then you need to go back and reread you testament.

      May 27, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
  20. returnofthetribes

    Man's biggest failure is looking to man for what only God can do.

    Don't be fooled. God is real. Don't wait until the end of your life to find that out.

    May 27, 2012 at 12:45 am |
    • Breakfastbreaker

      Amen brotha!!

      May 27, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • Michael

      Man's biggest failure is looking to man for what only God can do.

      Yeah that small pox vaccine was a huge failure.

      Science has saved more lives than your God, end of story.

      May 27, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • Mirosal

      Out of the thousands of "gods" worshipped by man over the course of humanity, what makes you think YOURS is any more real than, say, ... Zeus? You'll readily admit Zeus isn't real, yet there is the exact same amount of evidence to prove your "god" exists" as there is to say Zeus exists. Amount of evidence - ZERO!! So, why is yours real?

      May 27, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Easy E

      Rhetorical question: why would God ask a tribe of people to commit genocide? Surely the Almighty is capable of advising his creation to resolve problems in some other, more civilized and adult fashion, especially when said God made it a commandment not to kill. If the commandment to not kill has no qualifications, then why are there all of these incitements to war and requirements to stone or otherwise kill "sinners"?

      May 27, 2012 at 2:25 am |
    • sqeptiq

      And your evidence for this is...?

      May 27, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
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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.