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Ministering to death row: An unlikely friendship based on a shared calling

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps and the tale of an unlikely friendship based on a shared calling. Thirty-five-year-old Reverend Lauren Bennett leads a St. Louis church serving the LGBTQ+ community. She's also one of the few to minister inside Missouri's execution chamber. Father Gerry Kleba is an 82-year-old retired Catholic priest. When he was preparing to visit a man named Johnny on death row, he asked Bennett for advice.

GERRY KLEBA: I met you because I was going to go and be a spiritual adviser on death row. And when we sat down in your office, I said, well, I want to know everything you wish you had known the first time you went to death row, because I'm afraid. And I was going to need you a lot.

LAUREN BENNETT: I knew immediately that you would be a good fit because you're such a good listener. And I knew that Johnny struggled a lot with understanding reality. And I thought, if anyone can get through to someone like that, it would be someone like you.

KLEBA: He talked to himself a lot and didn't talk to me a lot. But I told him, I'm going to be your servant for 12 visits here, including the last one in the death chamber. When it happened. He was in the bed. He raised up his head. And his big blue eyes and my big blue eyes caught each other and smiled at each other. And then he put his head down again, and he never raised his head up again. For all the times I've been around hospitals and sick and dying, this is just totally different.

BENNETT: We say it all the time. I'm sure you preach about it, too, about how we're all made in the image of God, and no one's life can be summarized in their worst deed. It's one thing to think that you believe that, but to stare it in the face is something entirely different.

KLEBA: And that's why you and I can speak so well to each other, because we've been there. Really, we have no business even knowing each other - our age difference, our religious difference. But there was some magic between us, you know? I'm miraculously here because I was told that I was going to die. And then when they relegated me to a hospice program, they found out I was misdiagnosed. But that prepared me to go visit Johnny better, because I knew more about preparing to die than most people did. And so God put breath into my nostrils today to be here telling a story about profound, lived love in unlikely places. And I think it helped me to understand, really, that God doesn't have any throwaway kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Father Gerry Kleba and Reverend Lauren Bennett for StoryCorps, talking about their work on death row in Missouri. Their conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Zanna McKay