Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison
Reviewed by William and Pat Mueller
By Joshua Dubler. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 375 pages. $30/hardcover; $20/paperback; $9.99/eBook.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
Joshua Dubler spent one year in Pennsylvania’s aging Graterford Prison as a religious scholar in preparation for his dissertation. What is so remarkable about his resulting book is that one often feels swept into the prison with him, where we suddenly find ourselves confronting situations both comical and serious, and listening intently to the give-and-take between his “interlocutors”: a mix of prison guards, prisoner chapel workers, chaplains, outside volunteers, and the faithful who come to the chapel daily “to work, pray, study, and play.” After reading his book, there will be no question in a prospective prison volunteer’s mind about what to expect in a “correctional institution.”
One will also come to appreciate all of the varieties of religious expression and experience Dubler found there, as the book recounts one week’s time in the life of the chapel. The author will expose your religious prejudices one way or another. I was forced to reassess viewpoints that my liberal leanings would have dismissed out of hand. Had I read his book before becoming a prison volunteer, I would have been more welcoming and attentive to those whose religious experiences were very different from my own.
In Graterford’s chapel we find all of the religious and nonreligious views one would expect in American society. Readers will come to love his chief interlocutors, Barak and Sayyid (Islam), Al (evangelical), and Teddy (“follower of the Quaker path”). We will also come to know the Protestant and Catholic chaplains, a Nigerian Imam, and other religious leaders and traditions accommodated within the prison walls—including a Native American ceremonial circle.
Dubler describes his writing as “driven by characters in conversation . . . a mosaic of the ritual and banter through which the men at Graterford pass their time, care for themselves, foster relationships, and commune with their maker.” His goal as “a religious scholar thrown into the mix—a more or less secular Jew—is to make sense of it all.” Revealed in the process is how an individual comes to understand others through personal encounter, interspersed with aspects of the history of American incarceration practices. A refreshing quality of the book is that the writer often openly expresses his feelings about where he is and what is happening around him at any given moment. This contributes to making the experience real for the reader and is valuable preparation for the prison volunteer.
For the peace and social activist there is also much to learn. Dubler hopes (and succeeds, I think) “to trouble prevalent assumptions about prisoners and religion both—assumptions that are caught up in a host of systemic American injustices.” We will not be happy with what is revealed in the prisoner’s stories about what brought them to life sentences. They become our friends and we feel their anguish because of what seems to be an obsession with excessive punishment in the American criminal justice system. I learned about varieties of Islam I had not known about before and their varying prevalence in the prison system over the years. I was moved at the depth of religious insight in a manuscript one of the prisoners asked Joshua to critique. I consider Dubler’s Down in the Chapel a vital read for those considering or currently involved in prison ministry or prison committee work. It will inform the beginner’s and enrich the veteran’s experience of volunteering in the difficult and troubling world of incarceration in America.