Rader's pastor finds his way through uncharted territory

08/17/2005 12:00 AM

03/27/2012 2:32 PM

The Rev. Michael Clark had never even set foot inside a jail before February.

He knew little about that world, though he'd considered criminology as a career when he started college.

But when Wichita police arrested one of his parishioners — Dennis Rader—nearly five months ago, Clark began a learning journey that continues today.

A journey on which good has collided with evil — and yet faith has been strengthened, not questioned.

As Rader faces sentencing today for 10 murders, Clark will be in the courtroom, as he has been for Rader since the case began.

The unthinkable news

On Feb. 25, around lunchtime, Clark was about to leave Christ Lutheran Church at 53rd Street North and Hillside when a man dressed in a black trench coat came to the front door. Clark remembers thinking, "I don't have time to talk to a salesman."

But it wasn't a salesman. The man at the door was a police lieutenant. Two more investigators joined him.

They asked to speak to the minister.

Clark let them inside.

Lt. Thomas Bridges sat in the chair Clark often sits in when he has visitors, a gold chair with an afghan draped across a corner. The other two investigators stood in the hallway.

Bridges presented Clark with a search warrant. He read it to the pastor, paragraph by paragraph. He was polite. He was professional.

Bridges told Clark the search warrant pertained to the BTK investigation. The lieutenant then made the next leap: Rader was BTK.

Months later, as Clark recalls that day, he says he must have asked three or four times for clarification. He couldn't believe police thought Rader, who had just taken over as the church council president, could be the serial killer he had heard about off and on since moving to the area in 2001.

Maybe there was another Dennis Rader?

Nothing at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, had prepared him for dealing with something like this.

A turn in life

Now 61, Clark joined the ministry only about 20 years ago.

He grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the son of a steamfitter.

After graduating from high school, Clark headed to Iowa State University in Ames. He lasted a quarter.

He then tried the University of Omaha. He flunked out with a grade point average of 1.2.

"I didn't know how to study," Clark said Wednesday during a two-hour interview at his office.

He got married in 1965, at age 21.

In the couple's early years, Clark worked as a file clerk for a railroad, as a pharmaceutical representative.

When Drake University, where his wife had gone to school, hired him as a custodian, he thought he could finish his studies there.

But Drake didn't want him and his 1.2 GPA.

He begged Grand View College in Des Moines to let him in. He improved his grades enough there to eventually finish his studies at Drake and earn a degree in elementary education.

He taught for three years before realizing he couldn't support a family on a teacher's salary.

"I spent nine years getting a degree, and I couldn't make it," he said, laughing.

Clark went into real estate, a job he did for seven years.

Meanwhile, he became involved in the church family he and his wife had found at a Lutheran parish in Des Moines.

One Sunday morning, he and his wife separately heard someone from the American Lutheran Church talking about the need for people to go into the seminary. Clark heard the man talk at the first service; his wife, Janice, at the second. After church, Clark and his daughter, Michele, continued to the YMCA for a father-daughter project. At bedtime that night, after he and his wife had tucked their children into bed, Clark asked Janice, "You know what I've been thinking about today?"

He says that moment is "like a photo I can still remember."

She answered: "You've been thinking about going to seminary."

He almost fell off the bed.

'A quiet man of God'

Clark started seminary in fall 1981 and graduated in 1985.

His first job as a minister was in south-central Nebraska, working in a community of about 400 people. Then he moved on to Pittsburg, Kan., where he served seven years, and to Beloit, where he served about seven years.

When Christ Lutheran's minister retired, the church put out a call for a new leader. Clark was one of several candidates the congregation interviewed.

Clark said the church's hospitality is what impressed him enough to want to take the job.

Paul Carlstedt, a member of Christ Lutheran for 30 years — the same amount of time Rader was a member — said "everything fit."

"He's not a hellfire and brimstone pastor," Carlstedt said. "He's a quiet man of God that preaches the gospel."

Carlstedt said Clark is a caring man who looks out for his congregation, which numbers about 400 with an average Sunday attendance of 135 to 140.

When police arrested Rader, the church became part of the story.

"I think he's handled it beyond anybody's expectations," Carlstedt said. "This is a role that a pastor is not given any classes for. I think Pastor Clark has risen to the occasion and not only has taken care of the congregation but also has been a good minister to Dennis."

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer.

Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won't divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it's not his job to forgive Rader. That's God's job.

"I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness," he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

"It never, ever made me question my faith," he said. "Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

"We say God is the truth," the minister continues. "I can tell you right now I've come to understand that concept in a whole different way....

"I've gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way."

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